Environment: Community control key to tackling climate crisis . . . Eigg proves it

The media has finally hit the alarm button over the climate crisis.

About time.

Every night TV screens are filled with images of floods, fires and collapsing coastlines – now linked directly to the steadily rising curves of temperature and carbon in the atmosphere. Interviewers scoff openly at puny measures that might have seemed vaguely acceptable a few months ago, like the advice from Number Ten adviser Allegra Stratton not to rinse plates before loading dishwashers.

Now her “top tip” is a textbook example of fiddling while Athens burns – and suggests there’s a policy vacuum behind Boris Johnson’s promise of imminent, transformational system change. In Scotland, big government cash is finally finding its way into marine energy, hydrogen, district heating networks and heat pumps.

Again – about time.

Because it’s clear individual action alone can’t fix the climate crisis. The average Scottish family simply cannot afford big capital investments like buying an electric car, switching from gas heating or building a new eco home.

Except on the island of Eigg.

As the Hebridean island approaches 25 years under community control, Eigg has become a shining example of the green transformation that can happen when communities take control.

Before the buyout in 1997 the absence of mains electricity meant island homes were powered by dirty diesel generators. A decade of planning and fundraising later, Eiggtricity was born, combining wind, water and solar with underground cables to provide 24-hour renewable power to every island home.

Now each house on the grid is allocated 5KW of energy and triggers a trip switch if it consumes more. That hardly ever happens with smart meters on every kitchen table and a highly developed sense of energy use. But there’s an upside – across the island electric cars, cycles, customised golf buggies and even electric wheelbarrows are doing all the heavy lifting.

Biodiversity has been boosted by a quietly epic effort by father and daughter Wes and Tasha Fyffe who’ve been restoring native woodland on bracken covered slopes. Aided by new arrival and skilled application writer Becca Long, the pair won a grant from Forestry and Land Scotland to replace the old, unmaintained spruce forest (planted by former owner Keith Schellenberg) with saplings grown from locally collected seeds of hawthorn, alder, rowan, hazel and elm, plus oak from acorns gathered near Arisaig. The small team cleared land in the “old” forest to grow 20,000 seedlings in poly tunnels and plant them out during the pandemic years, humping the tiny trees uphill by quad – but mostly by hand. Now they have Scotland’s only island tree nursery.

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Most of the felled trees were taken to a mainland sawmill (prompting plans for a shared, portable Small Isles sawmill), but some have been kept for island firewood and local building projects – lowering the cost and carbon footprint of imported material. Eigg set up a Building Collective of locals after the buyout to refurbish the many dilapidated croft houses. Later, a new generation of self-builders was created when the Trust offered plots of land for free (repaid if the resulting home is ever sold). So, building projects are fairly constant (using local timber where possible) and there’s a loose cap of two homes a year so locals stay involved in construction and the award-winning Eiggtricity system isn’t overloaded. The latest big building project – with off island contractors – is the expansion of the pier building which opened the year after the buyout and houses the tearoom, craft shop, grocery shop, island trust office and bike hire. It will reopen as a new island hub with excellent broadband courtesy of Hebnet (Hebridean Network), a Community Interest Company set up by Eigg builder and yachtsman Simon Helliwell and Ian Bolas from neighbouring Rum. They’ve taken island internet from dial-up to broadband and the duo has taught other remote west coast communities how to do the same, enabling islanders to work remotely on mainland projects without constant travel. Another eco boon.

Stu McCarthy of The Isle of Eigg Brewery is about to start building Scotland’s first community-owned brewery, having raised almost £200,000 in a crowdfunded share offer. A carbon-zero brewery was the investors’ top priority, so, the new brewery will use PV solar panels for power, a Tesla Powerwall for storage and an electric delivery vehicle for delivery.

Meanwhile, below the basalt ridge of An Squrr sits the deserted township of Grulin, cleared by an incoming sheep farmer in 1858, who quit the island four years later. The old black houses have collapsed and fallen into the ferns. Efforts to rebuild them by original Eigg Trustee Tom Forsyth in the 90s were blocked by the authorities. Without animals to keep down the bracken, Grulin looked set to become a museum piece.

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But now the land is being worked again by young farmer Sarah Boden, who left as a child and returned in 2010 to build a home and start a family with Pictish Trail musician Johnny Lynch. He runs the record label Lost Map Records from Eigg – one of a clutch of island bands and professional musicians. Sarah runs 350 sheep and 20 cows and belongs to a new ecological hill farming movement.

So, yes.

Individuals can make a difference to the climate crisis – if their community has the control, land, cheap eco-housing, green energy and optimism to give new ideas a fair wind.

That’s possible on Eigg for two reasons.

First – the fact islanders own the land. Second – their self-sufficient outlook.

Eiggachs have always been determined to harness their own resources, natural and human, and have never waited for off island expertise.

Over 25 community-controlled years they’ve produced a circular local economy with a burgeoning of storytelling, music making, application writing, project management, lacemaking, fencing, website construction, wind turbine maintenance, quarrying, boiler servicing and a steady supply of new, affordable, island-built, energy-efficient homes.

This sustainable, joined-up action was co-ordinated by no-one from high command.

In fact, eco-ingenuity arose spontaneously on Eigg, the minute remote control was removed.

There’s a planet-saving lesson in there about the need for land reform, decentralisation and community empowerment to power Scotland’s “Just Transition”.

We can only hope the Scottish Government is listening.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992