Eigg. Photograph, James Gray, some rights reserved.
From the white sands of Camusdarach beach on Scotland’s sparsely populated west coast, on a clear day at least, a distant slither of land draws your eyes out to sea. Called Eigg for the iconic notch of rock towards its southern end, the island carries a modern tale of how residents freed themselves from rule by absentee landlords.
It’s some story – one that nationalists like to tell in arguing the case for more powers being given to the people of Scotland. By freedom they mean independence from the United Kingdom’s three other countries – England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For absentee landlords, think successive British governments based in Westminster.
Telling stories is one thing, however compelling. Getting people to listen, let alone to take heed, takes uncommonly inspiring narrators. That’s a tall order right now with plenty of Scots, like their fellow Britons, tied up in knots over Brexit.
Yet crises focus people’s minds, as Eigg residents can testify.
Islanders’ attentions more usually look to vagaries of West coast Scottish weather and tides – far more pressing than politics. Indeed Maggie Fyffe describes a day of splendid sunshine and oil-calm waters as we speak on the phone, the sort when whales might honour the island’s ferry travellers with a splash by.
Fyffe arrived on Eigg with her partner Wes in 1976, invited in by the new owner Keith Schellenberg to create a craft enterprise. They were among a couple of dozen people drawn by the charismatic Yorkshire-born businessman, a former Olympic bobsleigher and vegetarian. Plans for a tourism-led revival ticked all the boxes for reversing an exodus of locals and the place’s gradual demise. The collective future looked set fair.
Things didn’t work out that way – with broken promises of work, and long-lease rentals in renovated housing among many things that soured relations over two decades. Schellenberg eventually sold to a German artist whose own grand plans, and finance, quickly failed.
The artist’s prolonged absences prompted residents to realise their island risked being sold a second time in as many years. That galvanised enough to prepare a community buyout. Many were lodged in limbo, living in unsecured tenancies with all the associated the uncertainty. By reviving a previous public appeal for funds, they raised the £1.5 million sought by the artist’s creditors to buy the land in communal trust.
That was 21 years ago.
The time since has been revolutionary for residents, who’ve more than doubled in number to 100 or so. Adults who grew up on Eigg have returned, settling down and starting businesses and families. Patchy power supplies from noisy diesel generators are long gone. Instead Eigg Electric, community owned, supplies constant power from hydro, wind and solar sources, relayed via batteries.
Each venture has had something of learning independence by doing, says Fyffe, secretary and ex-chair of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, which owns the place.
“Before the buy out, I was totally illiterate about computers. We went to the primary school to do computer lessons,” says the 69-year-old between puffs on a cigarette. From small-scale beginnings, islanders successfully completed their £1.5 million renewable energy scheme.
Like Eigg, but bigger, Scotland’s history is peppered by crises brought by forces from outside. Its residents, both locals and new arrivals, have yet to embrace the idea that a collective response could be to take more powers into their hands.
The most recent crisis was the global financial crash of 2007-2008, which pretty much destroyed two Scottish stalwarts: the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland. The latter began back when the country was last independent, in 1695. Both were bailed out by Westminster and remain controlled from London.
Two tales of crisis
For all the dented pride and personal losses to investors and bank pensioners, little came of the crisis in terms of powers being brought closer to citizens. Contrast that with what happened in Iceland and Ireland, cultural cousins of Scotland’s. Political fallout in each fired ground-breaking innovations in democracy.
In Iceland, that meant crowd-sourcing a new constitution, even though the project eventually stalled. Scots activists have a plan for the same but can’t do much about without independence.
In Ireland, the indignity of an IMF bailout and accompanying austerity also sparked plenty of anger but also concrete plans for action. Effects from one of the latter still play out in a series of randomly selected public juries. The latest ran its course with Ireland’s vote to abolish the country’s de facto ban on abortion. Scottish activists dream of juries too. One idea they have is for a second chamber in Holyrood, the Edinburgh parliament. Members would be randomly selected from all citizens, not elected, making it more representative than one with members chosen by voters.
In fact, Scotland’s independence activists don’t want for cutting-edge ideas. Their problem is more in getting enough people to adopt them.
Common Weal director Robin McAlpine knows the story. His organisation, its name derived from Scots for common wealth, pours forth ideas for socially progressive government in Scotland, independent or not.
The latest is a book length “How to start a new country”. It lists detailed practicalities for moving from an eventual “yes” vote in referendum to formal independence. That was lacking from debate in the 2014 referendum, when 55% of Scotland voted no. Among the recommendations are for a National Commission charged with giving future voters credible details of what they’re voting for, as free as possible from party political spin.
Ideas are all very nice, of course. That’s what they’ll remain as long as people lack the head space, appetite, or imagination to see them into action.
McAlpine reckons the public wants Brexit sorted before independence ideas get any sort of hearing. Even then, swaying the soft No voters of 2014 will take hard facts, presented within concrete plans and with evidence from real-life examples. Independence talk will best be done outside party politics, and with the volume turned low, or else risk being tuned out entirely.
“We need to achieve a ‘conversation of ideas’, not a fist-fight between opposing politicians… It’s us, having conversations in pubs, at work, at home, out shopping,” he says.
Act as if we own the place
Common Weal is one of a dozen organisations pushing for more grassroots power in Scotland, gathered together since 2016 as Our Democracy. For all the apparent weariness around politics, its call to “Act as if we own the place” certainly draws a crowd. About 500 people paid to attend the all-day Democracy 21 meeting in Glasgow last June, passing up the chance of shopping, Saturday sunshine and World Cup Football group matches.
But independence will take more than the odd conference – the Scots have history when it comes to political disengagement. The roots lie somewhere in the nature of what it means to be Scottish.
Journalist, broadcaster and author Lesley Riddoch’s not so shy. She’s been arguing a case for Scottish independence for years.
Her book “Blossom”, published before the last referendum, took a good-cop-bad-cop approach to saying why Scots should run their own affairs. She showcased examples of independent-minded flair, like in Eigg, alongside galling stories of inequality behind the “Scottish Effect”. That doleful term describes how poorer Scots’ lives fall short of European averages due to compounded deprivations, made worse by drug and alcohol misuse, suicide and violence.
“Scotland cannot blossom while so many are disempowered and stuck in hopeless lives,” Riddoch wrote in the book. Among the remedies she trained her sights on were better housing provision and land reform, ideas she used the case of Eigg to illustrate.
Land questions can seem abstract to anyone not having to worry about where they live, how long they can stay and for how much rent. Those were exactly the ones that finally fired up Eigg residents, their housing often tied to jobs, something quite common in rural Scotland.
Andy Wightman equates land ownership patterns directly to equality and fairness. The land rights campaigner and Green party Member of the Scottish Parliament says Scotland has “the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world”. Not least is the fact that 432 landowners hold half the country’s land, a figure reformers like to wave at their opponents.
Wightman says Scots land law is unlike virtually any other European country’s. The place saw nothing of the revolutions or democratic reforms that empowered other European peasantries and their commons. His book, “The Poor Had No Lawyers”, lays out the sorry detail of how things came to be this way in Scotland. It’s basically a tale of concerted theft over centuries by the rich and powerful, usually ignored or abetted by distant government. Making things worse today, fiscal and monetary policies set in London inflate land and house prices across the UK. The effect is that poor people overpay in rent and struggle to buy houses or land on which to build them or start a business.
Scotland getting its own parliament in 1999 brought land questions closer to home. The new assembly enacted a law giving rural communities first right of refusal on land for sale.
Those who’ve benefited are in community land buyouts, each with personal stories of increased autonomy. The Scottish government wants a million acres of land (400,000 hectares) in community hands by 2020, its stated aim being to boost local level control and democratic accountability. The target moved a bit closer with the recent community purchase of Ulva for £4.4 million – a West coast island similar to Eigg but with far fewer year-round residents.
Yet wholesale land reform, rural and urban, has yet to come.
Back on Eigg, Fyffe confides that even after the buyout, independence remains a mind game.
“Right at the beginning, when we bought Eigg, there were a few years when people talked about ‘they’re’ as opposed to ‘we’re’. It took a few years to get used to the idea.”
Fellow Scots, those who’ll decide any future independence vote, have still a way to go.