On the Isle of Eigg

Independence Day: Isle of Eigg

INDEPENDENCE day dawned wet and grey on the island of Eigg yesterday, but nothing was going to spoil the party as centuries of private ownership ended.

The 68 residents of the small Hebridean island had raised 1.5 million to buy their land, a purchase that was hailed as "a beacon for land reform" throughout the Highlands. Eigg is the first island to be taken into community ownership and residents marked the day with speeches, prayer, whisky and dance.

A Government minister joined in the mood of the party and declared that private landlordism had been "the source of the Highland problem for far too long".

The last owner of Eigg was Marlin Maruma, 45, an eccentric German artist who paid nearly 2 million for the island in 1995 and put it back on the market after failing to deliver a 15 million promised investment plan. He was the latest in a series of unpopular, private owners accused of stifling development and using the 7,400-acre island, one of the Small Isles south of Skye, as a personal playground. His departure, and the end of feudalism, were celebrated in a marquee erected on the tennis court outside the laird's lodge.

The rain drummed on the canvass, but no one seemed to notice as successive speakers criticised the old regime and promised a new era of repopulation and development. Simon Fraser, chairman of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, siad: "This is a triumph for all that is good in humanity and it is one in the eye for everything that is mean-spirited and self-seeking." Thirty years ago, he said, a community purchase of a Highland estate would have been "totally unthinkable".

Brian Wilson, the Scottish Office minister for the Highlands and Islands, said: "There are people who have a vested interest in maintaining the fiction that only private landlordism works in the Highlands and islands. Every one of us here today is proof that that never was true and never can be true. Private landlordism has never been the solution to the Highland problem. It has been the source of the Highland problem for far, far too long."

He said Eigg had "lit a candle" that would ignite another 1,000 candles in the Highlands and islands in coming years as part of a great and historic movement. Mr Wilson said he had asked the development agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, to set up a special unit to support other attempts to achieve community ownership of land.

The islanders were also supported yesterday by the Assynt crofters who bought their land in Sutherland from a Swedish property company five years ago. Allan Macrae, from Assynt, said sustainable development would only become a possibility in the Highlands when people were empowered by ownership and were able to develop resources for the benefit of communities.

The day began with the two oldest residents of Eigg unveiling a commemorative plaque. A lone piper then led the crowds through the drizzle to the marquee. The 14 children from the island primary school had been given the day off and sang Gaelic songs to entertain the 150 guests who had travelled 10 miles from the mainland.

Maggie Fyffe, speaking for the islanders, said the occasion had been made possible by the hundreds of people all over Britain who had contributed money towards the public appeal for funds. She read out letters of support from housewives, children and the unemployed, who had sent a pound or two, and made a special mention of the anonymous benefactor, a woman living in the north of England, who contributed 900,000, but did not join in the celebrations.

Eigg will be run by the island trust, a partnership between the locals, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Highland Council. The trust plans to promote traditional agriculture and eco-tourism based on the stunning scenery and wildlife, including golden eagles and otters. Other proposals for "small-scale, sustainable development" involve a modest visitor centre, self-catering accommodation and the enhancement of native woodland.

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