The Isle of Eigg’s Silent Revolution

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The islanders are in the middle of a second, green revolution. The signs were everywhere. An electric milk van picked up the luggage from the ferry to shuttle it to the old laird’s house, now being converted into the Earth Connections Sustainability Centre. Four wind turbines help deliver renewable energy to the entire island on the high ground behind.

The Loch Nevis disgorged her passengers onto the pier at Eigg to a riotous burst of bag pipes and hail. A lone piper at the top of the slipway played resolutely on through the downpour, seemingly oblivious to the inclement weather as the rest of us scurried for cover. I watched the squall blow over in a small shelter on the pier with an odd assortment of bedraggled islanders and festival-goers. Someone pulled out a squeeze box and the party started.

The island of Eigg already felt very different to my last visit here almost twenty years ago. Some of the most striking changes were physical. A long stone and concrete pier now snakes into the middle of the bay, allowing the big ferry a firm stopping off point on its daily tour of the small isles. The small tea room a few metres from the old jetty also looked bigger – it has since been expanded into a shop, meeting point and impromptu Ceilidh house.

But the greatest transformation by far has been in the island’s spirit. In 1991 I remember a lonely walk over the island to the beach of the Singing Sands on the north side of the island. If it wasn’t for the growl of diesel generators I would have thought the dilapidated old shop and scattered crofts long deserted. I left haunted by the island’s beauty and sense of abandonment.

This time round the island of Eigg had a mood of celebration. The tea room, where islanders once had to ask permission from the landowner to hold a meeting, rung with laughter as locals gathered to share a few pre-festival drinks. The island’s ninety or so residents were clearly still enjoying their hard won independence from feudal domination back in 1997.

The islanders are now in the middle of a second, green revolution. The signs were everywhere. An electric milk van picked up the luggage from the ferry to shuttle it to the old laird’s house, hidden from view in the hazel woods running up the hill. The ‘big White House,’ as it is known  on the island, is being converted into the Earth Connections Sustainability Centre. On the high ground behind, four wind turbines help deliver renewable energy to the entire island.

I wanted to find out if the experience of Eigg could inspire communities across Scotland to cut their dependence on carbon fuels. Could this remote spot on the westerly fringe of the British Isles help lead us all out of the labyrinth, towards a genuinely sustainable future?

John Booth looked like he had all the answers as he purposefully led the way through the fields in front of his farm house. A prime mover in the island’s conversion to home grown energy, John kept up an excited commentary on the relative merits of solar, wind and hydro power as I struggled to keep up with his electric pace. It crossed my mind that the island could have been powered on his energy and commitment alone.

John explained that most of the island’s electricity comes from a 100kW hydro scheme, supported by the four small wind generators together with a bank of solar PV electric cells. Constant power is distributed, via a bank of powerful batteries, to every household on the island in underground cables. “Our model is the first to have integrated three renewable technologies into a grid system in the world,” he proudly told me.

John led me along a muddy track over a gentle brae, beyond which four 30ft wind turbines whirred contentedly away in a steady easterly breeze. I had half expected them to jar against the island’s clear, open lines. But they sat comfortably in the landscape, the slanted peak of An Sgurr casting a long shadow far above them in the evening light.

It is the islands use of a mix of renewable technologies that has overcome the principle problem of variability with green power. “The hydro scheme provides back up for the wind turbines on calm days, just as solar power makes up for the drop in rainfall over the summer months,” John told me. Back up diesel generators are only used when absolutely necessary.

Community participation and ownership has also been critical to the project’s success. Residents contributed over £200,000 to the £1.7 million project through the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust and have dedicated an enormous amount of volunteer time and effort into its development. “This unique experiment in delivering renewable energy to a small, scattered community works because we own and run it ourselves,” John told me.

No wonder that community groups in similar remote areas have been beating a path to Eigg from all over the world. John is now advising communities as far away as Norway, Portugal, Indonesia, and British Columbia on how they can put in similar systems.

I left John to walk back over the island to the Singing Sands. It felt strange to be tre-tracing the journey that I first took as an adolescent so many years before. So much was familiar. The single standing stone still offered the only sustained resistance to the wind on Eigg’s central high blown, treeless plateau. The old shop (now a museum) remained, although it had been gnawed away by sea salt, rodents and the passing years. The biggest change I noticed as I walked past the string of crofts at Cleadale was the silence. The diesel generators had gone.

Sue Hollands stood on the back step of her home in Cleadale sipping a cup of tea and waiting for a break in the rain. Rain interruptions are part of her daily life on the Northern side of the island of Eigg. On stormy days she watches angry showers whip in off the Atlantic. On my visit the precipitation was almost imperceptible, a fine drizzle hanging over the singing sands below her house like a veil of soft muslin.

Sue doesn’t mind the rain interrupting her work on the immaculate beds that spread out in a fan shape from her back step, each fertilised with seaweed collected from the shoreline. She just reminds herself that it all helps provide energy from the hydro scheme on the high burn on the rocky ground above her house. Her cup of tea was supplied and heated courtesy of the heavens.

It sounds idyllic but Sue’s electricity has its limitations. Eigg’s residents have to make do with a restricted supply, compared to the boundless energy most of us expect from the National Grid. In order to control demand every household is restricted to a maximum use of 5kW of electricity (the equivalent of two electric kettles) at any one time. The supply is automatically tripped to any house that goes over this limit and it costs £20 to be re-connected.

So far Sue has found it easy to run her house on this finite energy supply. She never puts more than one big appliance on at a time and keeps a constant tab on her electricity use with the OWL energy monitor – given to every household on Eigg – attached above her sink. “I’m always looking to keep our electricity use down,” said Sue. “Last week I was thrilled to find a kettle that boils water with 1.5kW, rather than 3kW.”

Sue is no stranger to energy efficiency. Before the island’s grid was installed her family was dependant on a costly diesel generator that could only muster around 2.5kW. “This has made a huge difference to us,” she told me. “Electricity is now far cheaper and far more reliable than it used to be.”

The success of Eigg’s electrification projects has spurned residents like Sue to re-evaluate all aspects of their lives. “I’m thinking of cutting back on my work at the school to dedicate more time to the croft,” she told me. “ More and more of us are growing or rearing our own, sourcing what we need from closer to home, and learning to cook and eat in season.”

Sue’s individual commitment to help tackle climate change is mirrored by community action. The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust was awarded last year NESTA lottery to help cut residents dependence on fossil fuels. Resident’s meetings buzz with projects to better insulate their homes, install solar panelling, harvest more wood fuel from the island and cut transport emissions. They are already running the heating in community buildings and a winter bus service on bio-fuel from the chip oil used on the Ferry.

How times had changed. The residents of the far-flung island that I first visited so many years ago are now setting an example to us all. They are drawing electricity from their own de-centralised, renewable sources. They are tackling climate change, cutting fuel poverty and empowering their own community to dare to dream of a truly sustainable future. In doing so they have challenged us all to ‘democratise’ energy, rather than allow corporate power to drive industrial scaled renewable developments into our most fragile landscapes.

By the time we were all on the pier waiting for the ferry off the island the clouds were marching in again. The forecast of gales was likely to stop the ferry from landing for several days, so anyone with business on the mainland had hurried down to catch the last boat. The piper was back in full song and many of the islanders had come down to wave goodbye. It was the kind of send off you would expect for fishermen bound for treacherous waters.

I stood on the ferry’s deck as we pulled away from the pier to watch the bright window of blue sky close in fast behind us. It crossed my mind that it could be many years again before I made it back to Eigg. It didn’t seem to matter. The inspiration drawn from this weathered isle and its people will stay with me forever.

 

John Muir Trust Journal, Autumn 2009

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