Small islands have always been objects of desire for a certain kind of man ambitious to rule his own tiny nation. One Hebridean isle asserted its independence, but can its way of life survive?
“It’s the difference between black-and-white TV and colour,” said Brian Greene. “That’s what it was like after the revolution.” Greene was giving me a lift in his dilapidated Peugeot along Eigg’s only road, waving at every passerby. It was the kind of explosive Highland summer day when butterflies jinked out of the steaming greenery and every foxglove, fuchsia and yellow flag iris seemed to have simultaneously burst into flower.
Small islands are like celebrities: they loom far larger than their actual size, they are pored over by visitor-fans and they become public possessions, laden with reputations and attributes they may or may not embody. The Hebridean island of Eigg is second to St Kilda as the most famous of the smaller British isles. While St Kilda is renowned for its extinction as a place of human settlement, Eigg is celebrated for its rebirth. After overthrowing its eccentric, authoritarian owner two decades ago, this 31 sq km (12 sq mile) patch of moor and mountain was reborn as what is sometimes mockingly called the People’s Republic of Eigg. This triumph of David versus Goliath has forged an apparently inspirational, sustainable community of 100 people. On first glance, it appears at once industriously creative and attractively lackadaisical: colourful houses, gardens filled with strawberry patches, hammocks made from old fishing nets and swings from old pink buoys.
Eigg has suffered more than most over the perennial small-island question of ownership. Larger British isles, such as the islands of Shetland and Orkney, or the Isle of Man, have (at least in modern times) avoided the vexation of capricious landlords. Perhaps their remoteness, or the strength of their local culture, militate against individual possession, but it may simply be sheer size. In contrast, the Small Isles – Eigg, Muck, Rùm and Canna – are perfectly formed and of an ideal acreage to be possessed by one person. For the last two centuries, these beautiful, fecund Hebridean islands have been objects of desire for wealthy men – and it has always been men – who love islands, with disastrous consequences for both sides.
The islophile DH Lawrence wrote a satirical short story, The Man Who Loved Islands. It is a cautionary tale: a young idealist called Mr Cathcart buys a small island in order to create his own utopia, downsizes to a tiny one when he realises the native islanders are mocking him, and finally moves to an uninhabited rock. Fredrik Sjöberg, an author I visited on the tiny Swedish island of Runmarö, believes small islands possess “a peculiar attraction for men with a need for control and security” because “nothing is so enclosed and concrete as an island”. The literary academic Peter Conrad offers a more Freudian interpretation, suggesting that an island is a “uterine shelter” surrounded, like the foetus, by fluid, and attracting men in search of a mother or a primal source of safety. Novelists cocoon their creativity – and fragile egos – on islands, too. “I like islands,” wrote Will Self, “because they’re discrete and legible, just like stories.”
Read more at The Guardian.