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Eigg and Ulva: part of Scotland’s most innovative archipelago

Written by Travel Adventures

It’s tempting to see the crossing on the wee MV Sheerwater ferry from Arisaig to Eigg as a journey back in time – towards white beaches of squeaking quartz sand, fields of foxglove and fuchsia, and the sharp zoomorphic ridge of An Sgùrr, hewn from a volcanic eruption almost 60 million years ago. The name of this little Western Isle south of Skye derives from the Old Norse for ‘the edge’.

Kildonan House, Eigg

Charles Delcourt

But speaking to Eigg resident Johnny Lynch, aka musician The Pictish Trail, any notions of parochialism seem absurd. To him the isle famed for its eco credentials is a place of forward thinking. ‘There’s a misconception that the Scottish islands are somehow stuck in the 1970s,’ he says. ‘But actually, being an island allows you to be more independent and progressive. People here have the power to change things and to live differently.’

Lynch moved here in 2010 from Fife, where he had run the cult indie folk label Fence Records. He was following his partner Sarah Boden, who had left her job as an editor at The Observer Music Monthly to run a croft where she’d grown up in the 1980s. After what he calls ‘a whirlwind romance, with a woman and an island’, the couple were soon living in a caravan, from which Lynch launched the fabulously genre-resistant Lost Map Records. While working on his own cosmic croft pop, he has welcomed everyone from electronic musician Jon Hopkins to Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle for mind-peace bothy residencies or to his Howlin’ Fling Music Festival, which has been known to sell out in five minutes.

Cattle at Massacre Cave

Daniela Zalcman

‘The opportunities of living here have far outweighed the limitations,’ says Lynch. He and Boden have now upgraded to a house along with their two children. ‘I think it’s made me a better musician, too.’ It’s not like the couple are atypical on Eigg, which is home to poets, craft brewers and remote workers for feminist policy groups. It hosted its own Eiggstinction Rebellion in 2018 and Lynch says that he sees Eigeachs engage more with global issues such as Black Lives Matter than his friends in Fife. ‘It might sound ironic when you have to get a ferry to the Co-op, but I feel more connected here than anywhere else,’ he says.

Eigg wasn’t always quite like this. For centuries, it struggled with depopulation under a series of lairds, most famously the colourful former Olympic bob-sledder and Yorkshire cricketer Keith Schellenberg, who acquired it in 1975 with grand intentions to bring back tourism and rejuvenate what was then a run-down place of just 39 residents.

Spring meadow in the Hebrides

Haarkon.co.uk

But in an echo of DH Lawrence’s short story ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’ – a cautionary tale about a young idealist who tries to build his own insular utopia but ends up isolated on a tiny rock – the initial riot of ceilidhs, powerboat races and ‘champers and hampers’ beach games began to sour. The residents nicknamed Schellenberg Mr Toad, and would roll their eyes as helicopters arrived at his imposing home to disgorge foreign playboys accom- panied by catsuited models. By the 1980s, he was running out of money and enthusiasm for his pet project. In 1994, when his beloved 1927 Rolls-Royce Phantom burned in a mysterious fire at the pier shed, he blamed the ‘hippies and dropouts, the rotten, dangerous and barmy revolutionaries, more interested in smoking pot than growing crops’.

It was in 1997 – after Schellenberg had sold Eigg to a fire- worshipping German professor and artist known as Maruma – that the increasingly frustrated residents decided to act. Forming a community trust, they raised money from across the UK and bought it for themselves. Operating under a strident form of democracy, innovation has followed, from installing super-fast fibre-optic broadband to establishing a pioneering electricity grid that’s separate from the mainland and runs almost entirely on renewable energy. ‘It’s not always easy, and the email chain can be exhausting, whether it’s debating if council meetings should be done on Zoom or who has a bag of cement,’ says Lynch. ‘But there’s so much pride in the island, and the independence ceilidh every June is one of my favourite times of the year – this big, inclusive, beautiful thing, which is way more diverse than any Hackney warehouse party.’

Cooking mussels, Hebrides

Helen Cathcart

Eigg is far from the only Scottish island to have experimented with alternative ways of living. On Gigha, a lovely little place of seabirds and shipwrecks between the mainland and Islay, a community takeover in 2002 has resulted in new wind turbines and fresh businesses such as Michelin-listed seafood restaurant The Boathouse, along with a population spike from less than a hundred before the buy-out to more than 160 today.

A boat builder, Eigg

Charles Delcourt

Peaceful, tree-covered Ulva, off Mull’s west coast, hopes to follow a similar course after its five residents bought the road-free outcrop (tractors and quad bikes only) with help from the Scottish Land Fund in 2018, developing plans for off-grid tourism and to increase the population to more than 50. It’s not even the only independent isle near Mull: tiny Erraid, off its south-western corner, is used for retreats by the Findhorn Foundation, an eco-commune whose main base near Inverness is ‘where everyday life is guided by the inner voice of spirit’.

Mountain valley

Marc Haldemann

The allure of the island has never seemed stronger. In a world that feels particularly messy at the moment, they offer at least the fantasy of simplicity, possibility and self-determination. As Will Self once described them, they’re ‘discrete and legible, just like stories’.

This escape fantasy is nothing new, nor is the idea of the island as a testing ground for progressive ideas. This year marks two decades since Castaway 2000, a televised experiment for the new millennium, where 36 men, women and children were sent to live for a year on Taransay, less than six square miles of storm-lashed gneiss, granite and white sand in the Outer Hebrides. The concept was that this diverse group – including butchers, vegans and ultra- conservative Seventh-Day Adventists – would form a new utopia.

View from the mainland, Eigg

Charles Delcourt

Philiy Page arrived on Taransay as a dreadlocked photography student, having already lived at Laurieston Hall community in the Scottish Borders. ‘Some of the things we were exploring – vegetarianism, slow food, sustainable energy, pure democracy – were seen as slightly weird cheesecloth ideas back then,’ notes Page, who today runs The Yurt Retreat in a rural corner of Somerset with her husband, as well as the Creative Women International community. ‘Now, those ideas have entered the mainstream.’

But Castaway 2000 proved that small-island life isn’t for everyone. Some felt ostracised and left early, including the religious Carey family and the gay actor and counsellor Ron Copsey. More recently, I Am An Island, a memoir by Tamsin Calidas, recalls the loneliness of leaving Notting Hill and a media career to run a croft on an unnamed Hebridean shore, only to suffer a series of injuries and illnesses after the breakdown of her marriage.

Herd of sheep, Eigg

Charles Delcourt

For others, though, this life is paradise. ‘When I saw the Castaway 2000 advert in the newspaper, I naively thought I’d be going somewhere tropical,’ says Ben Fogle, who became the show’s breakout star. ‘But this boggy, midge-ridden place ended up being the most beautiful spot in the world to me – not just because I could walk all the way round its perfectly knowable little universe, but because of what we managed to create there. I always think the show should have been called The Community, because it was really about a group of clashing personalities and ideas learning to thrive together. The lessons I learned then have never felt more relevant, and essential, than right now.’

Where to stay on the Scottish isles

Living room with views of the Isle of Rum at Sweeney’s Bothy

Allan Pollok-Morris

Sweeney’s Bothy, Eigg


Sweeney’s Bothy on Eigg is an angular Scandi-blond hut set in a meadow between the steep crags and white-sand beach at Cleadale. It’s popular with stillness-seeking artists and musicians, and power at the self-described ‘o-o-grid’ property is generated by two solar cells that are separate from the island’s power network.

Address: Sweeney’s Bothy, Eigg, Scotland
Website: eiggtime.com
Price: Two night minumum, from £190

Building St Franny’s Bothan, Eigg

Charles Delcourt

St Franny’s Bothan, Eigg


St Franny’s Bothan, also on Eigg, is on the croft of Johnny Lynch and Sarah Boden in the south of the island. It’s more geared up for a family, sleeping four in an architect-designed red-wood shack with a wood-burner and cosy living room stocked with board games and books on local flora and fauna. Morning eggs come fresh from the farm’s hens.

Address: St Franny’s Bothan, Eigg, Scotland
Website: stfrannys.com
Price: From £77 per night

Cragaig Bothy, Ulva


On Ulva, the structures are more ancient and primitive. The pick of the bunch is the Cragaig Bothy, reached only via kayak or a two-hour hike from the ferry pier. A classic stone building looking out to the primordial island of Little Colonsay and the stern cliffs of the Ardmeanach Peninsula, it’s free of phone signal and heated only by a wooden stove. This is a place of battered rocking chairs and bunk beds, but there’s a candlelit magic to it, surrounded by otters, splashing seals and romantic nothingness.

Address: Cragaig Bothy, Ulva, Scotland
Website: ulva.scot
Price: From £39 per night

Scroll down for more photographs of Scotland’s independent islands…

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