Approaching Eigg on the Caledonian- MacBrayne ferry I was struck by a thought – where do the 85 inhabitants live? From one angle, it looks like a single plateau surrounded by cliffs all around – surely the only access could be by helicopter or catapult…
It all comes into perspective as we approach the small pier and I take my first tentative steps onto the island.
I walk up the pier to the late 20th century building that provides the cafe/ pub/ public toilets/ showers/ grocery store/ post office/ craft shop and all round social hub for the island.
There’s a group of folk chatting outside – a dog, blonde and shaggy comes up, falls over and demands that I scratch his exposed tummy.
I smile up at the faces of the people milling around – looking for a potential owner to share my appreciation of the prone pooch.
They were obviously accustomed the dogs behaviour and chatted on oblivious to our little exchange.
I looked around – there was no sign of the free campsite that I’d been told about – I walked into the cafe in an aim to find out more.
The guy behind the counter furnished me with a bacon roll and told me that there was no official campsite – but I could wild camp nearby and use all the facilities at the shopcafetoiletshowercraftbuilding.
This is a free campsite – make no mistake. The wild camping isn’t wild. There are plenty of flat-grassed places to pitch without fear of rolling off a cliff.
I put my tent up – stuck Hubert and Darth II inside and made off to explore the island.
The main, single track road winds it’s way from the south east to the north west of the island – over the small hill that acts as a natural northish/ southish divide.
As I walked I fantasised about how folk would get to live in this small and select community. There must be some kind of committee, I decided, a group that assess the island worthiness of potential suitors…
I met John and Jenny, a couple who were on holiday on Eigg having been here a number of years ago. We laughed about the beautiful weather – the sounds of the birds, the cries of the lambs, the gentle breeze, the cuckoo…
I told them about my quest. John explained that a few years back he’d walked from John O’groats to Lands End to raise money for a local bridge project.
‘Ah, downhill….’ I smiled
We talked about mental health – how professionals can often have an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ view. Us being the professionals – them being the punters with their range of maladies and difficulties and never the twain shall meet.
Jenny acknowledged feeling similarly in her job as education co-ordinator at her local college of further education. Here she matched folk with learning disabilities and/ or mental health problems to suitable courses. She spoke fondly about the satisfaction her role gave her – the interaction with the students, helping them to move on….
Her feelings of us and them came to an end when she experienced work place stress – not as a result of the students but because of management – as is so often the case.
They told me they’d been staying in a local B & B – they’d been talking with the owner who’d told them about the sad suicide of the island’s GP.
I didn’t know her – I knew nothing about her – but there was something shocking about such a sudden punctuation to someone’s life.
Bizarrely, my first feeling was guilt. I had some notion that, if only I’d got here sooner I might have spoken to her.
I feel foolish now – and not a little egocentric.
What drives a person to take their own life?
What impact would this have on such a small community?
I was meeting Maggie, one of the islanders the next day – do I bring it up?
Surely this is the kind of thing that I should be talking about – but I felt kind of nervous and not a little hollow.
This was so contrary to Eigg as I understood it – as I hoped it would be.
I slept on it. John and Jenny had offered to get me lunch so I met them in the cafe.
We chatted happily for a while – how lovely was it that these people I’d never met were happy to share a flake of their lives, to give me their time….
All the time though, I was thinking about my meeting with Maggie.
She’d sent me a message telling me her house was the second on the right as I entered Cuagach, the village where most of the folk on the island lived, and that it had a big larch tree outside.
I’m not too ashamed to say I had to search the interweb to find out what a larch looked like.
I was obviously lacking confidence in my mathematical ability as well – the second house on the right – well, that would mean I’d have to count to the dizzying heights of two.
It is a lovely walk across the island – past the primary school where the children and the teacher cascade out on their bikes with big grins on their faces, with big hellos as they go off to seize the rest of the day.
I met a couple from the midlands, Chris and Michelle. He, tall and relatively quiet, she, chatty and bubbly.
We talk about their end of the country – how they feel it has deteriorated – how Nottingham, their local city has gone down hill with gun crime and people being afraid to leave their houses.
To them Eigg was a great escape – far, far from this scary world.
I have no idea what Nottingham is like – so I asked if their knowledge of the place was based on media projection.
They seemed unsure at first, but ultimately felt that they were right to hold their beliefs.
I told them what I was about which got Chris talking.
He’s been haunted by depression and suicidal thoughts for so much of his life.
‘What helps?’ I asked.
Well, coming to Eigg – but also his partner…
Well, no, not really – mainly getting out and about and the support of a good woman.
‘What does she do?’ I asked, expecting something altogether carey and sharey.
‘She tells me to pull my finger out and get off my arse!’
‘And this helps?’ I laughed.
This was their chosen therapy.
And, they told me, it works for them.
Horses for courses. I went off with a smile on my face and a ‘Well, that’s different,’ thought in my head.
Invariably I walked straight past Maggie’s house and straight up to another that had a big tree, that may or my not have been a larch, outside.
I asked a girl, who was 9 I found out later, and her friend if they knew where Maggie stayed.
‘She’s my granny,’ she announced proudly, ‘she lives there,’ she pointed at the second house on the right in the village with the large larch tree outside.
‘I want my granddad to keep pigs,’ she declared.
‘Really,’ I smiled, a bit patronisingly on reflection,’what kind?’
‘Pigs for eating!’ she was amazed that I could think there was any other kind.
All notions of Percy the piggy wiggy exploded in my head….
Maggie met me with a ready smile and a hug – my head was full of questions – I’d never been anywhere that was so far from my mental default – London.
We chatted, we had tea, we laughed. She was all I hoped she would be.
She dispelled my mythical committee theory of new island residents by telling me about one guy who’d turned up in a canoe from the mainland and another who’d appeared from the local island of Rum, stuck their tent up somewhere near mine a few years ago -and were now both bonafide islanders.
This is a magical place. Maggie gently answered all my questions from ‘Where does your fuel come from?’ , ‘Who owns your roads?’ and ‘How does your economy work,’ to, ‘What impact did the death of the doctor have on the community?’
Diesel comes on a landing craft – the Highland council owns the roads, so yes, they do have to pay road tax – the economy centres around farming, tourism, the generation of electricity and the Eigg Heritage Trust.
And no, just because the island generates its own electricity, it isn’t free – they have to pay the cost of maintenance – so they pay slightly more than the average cost per unit that we find on the mainland.
I allowed myself a moment to feel a little naive, wide-eyed and a bit foolish.
The GP had lived on the island for over ten years. Being the doctor for all the families on Eigg, she’d lived, with her husband, slightly on the periphery of this close knit yet open society.
Maggie is all too clear that some of the folk of Eigg fit happily into what could be considered the edge of wider society. They’re there because some bits of the UK perhaps lack the tolerance, the think out of the boxiness, that would ensure their mental well being.
Of course the suicide had a big impact. I experienced folk talking about it on the mainland. I spoke to one fisherman who overturned an all too common view of taking ones own life.
He described her actions as courageous.
Maggie asked the obvious question – how can you support someone who doesn’t ask for help?
I thought about the us and them dilemma that Jenny and I had talked about – the accidental, perhaps the mistaken separation of the professional from the punter.
I guess there’s always the danger of becoming too involved with your clients, your students and your patients – you take that work home with you, it fills your days and nights…
So professional distance is good?
It’s a bit of a tightrope that I fell off a number of times.
I met up with Maggie the following day – smiles and hugs again – I was introduced to a whole bunch of folk from the island – Donna the musician – she’s a piper who believes that formal teaching in the UK doesn’t celebrate difference – Karl, the guy who appeared on the island from Rum and was now building his 10 sided house – the Glaswegian who was holidaying in the bothy that I nearly got to sleep in who opened my eyes the different ownership models of island life. He reminded me that individual ownership of an island isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it is, obviously, down to the individual. He told me about Canna – a small island north of Eigg with just 10 residents – I had to wonder if such a small population was sustainable.
Back inside, Maggie produced a big bag of packed lunch goodies – a donation from her and the folk in the shop – she passed on £5 from the woman in the craft shop…
There was a buzz – I felt surrounded in smiling, friendly folk – Maggie told me about Gigha, community owned island like Eigg just off the Kintyre peninsula.
Do I go there? Do I go to Canna to see the tiny community there?
I left Eigg wanting more. I know I caught them at a difficult time – but the folk there are my kind of people – this is my kind of place.
I came away thinking they were lucky to have a defined edge to their community – but that’s not right either.
People in cities, towns and villages could live together like that. What does it take to talk to folk – to establish common goals and ideals. I’m sure some do – but what’s to stop you?
With a little thought, a little passion, a chunk of co-operation and a slice of good will this way of life’s there for the taking.
Walk a mile