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Scotland: The People's Republic of Eigg

From Scotland, George Sassoon writes:
"I was so horrified by this that I translated it and am circulating to interested parties in Scotland. "Die Zeit" is a very serious German newspaper, not a trashy tabloid.

A "stramash" is a Scottish term for a confused situation or a general fight.
A "Croft" is a small mixed farm in the Highlands.
This is socialism gone crazy in miniature". Here is the article, abridged, from "Die Zeit" 6/12/3:

"On an island off the Scottish coast, drop-outs and nature lovers hoped to find Paradise. But what had been their idyll turned into guerilla warfare. Eigg is one of the Hebrides islands off the Scottish coast. In the south is the Sgurr, 400-meters of ancient rugged stone, towering into the sky. Birds twitter in its green foothills. Yellow irises wave in the gentle breeze. Every day a few dozen tourists come over from the mainland and wander around for four or five hours, till the ferry leaves again. The island is the sort of place where it should be possible to find a safe refuge. Some sixty people live here. But for many of them, life in this paradisiacal seclusion is becoming more and more like hell. "It's like being in a civil war", says Elizabeth Lyon.

Mrs. Lyon was a founder member of a 1991 initiative to "stop the decline of Celtic civilization" and to save the Gaelic language. She was a fiery proponent of a movement by Scottish intellectuals to find harmony in a certain order of basic democratic ideas, and to live at one with nature. She believed that the dream could be fulfilled if the participants shared all property in common. But what happened after this was more reminiscent of Animal Farm, George Orwell's allegory of the ugly side of human nature. "The old landlord", she says today, "had a certain sense of noblesse oblige. But the people now in charge here are lacking in any ethics at all."

The old landlord was Keith Schellenberg. An extravagant gentleman, who took part in Olympic Games as a bob-sleigh steersman and careered around his island in a 1927 Rolls-Royce. In the 1980's, wishing to regenerate the island, which like many others in the Hebrides was becoming depopulated, he invited new people to come and settle. Mostly these were English, drop-outs and weirdos from all possible professions. Schellenberg gave them work on the farm, in the forestry, and as boat operators, providing accommodation in simple stone houses. Soon their new life seemed to them to be too modest, particularly in comparison with that of Schellenberg in his gentleman's mansion. They plotted together to get rid of him. The local weekly paper West Highland Free Press helped them by publishing poisonous editorials about him. One night the rebels met up for a drunken party at Laig Farm with the Kirk family, who are original inhabitants. The discussion became heated. Finally, two of them went off and set fire to the Rolls Royce.

Schellenberg had had enough. He sold Eigg to a certain Marlin Eckhard Maruma, an artist and con-man from Stuttgart. He promised to "liberate the islanders from feudalism", to introduce some tourism, also wind energy. He would make 15 million pounds available for this. After Maruma had made two flying visits to the island it became known that he was bankrupt. Once again Eigg was up for sale. The incomers, by now feeling like long-established residents, launched a world-wide appeal for donations which raised 1.5 million pounds, and bought the island at auction. Exactly six years ago, on 12th June 1997, 300 guests came to a great celebration, including Secretary of State Brian Wilson, and Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal party. Emotional speeches were made about the takeover of an island, which had been for centuries in the hands of large landowners, by a democratic community of people who loved their homeland and nature. For Secretary of State Wilson, what had happened on Eigg was a model for a much greater project: land reform for the whole of Scotland. This land reform passed into law at the beginning of this year. Communities in the Highlands and Islands can now take possession of large estates, the owners being compensated with taxpayers' money and funds from the National Lottery. In the Scottish government, almost all the political parties, the churches, and various societies stood behind the reform. Eigg was still being held up as a shining example. Maggie Fyffe, spiritual mother of the take-over, continues to give interviews on radio, TV and to newspapers. Asked if Eigg was now a happy community, Maggie Fyffe answered "Yes. We have achieved a great deal". She is sitting in a Hollywood-style rocking chair in front of her house, which is surrounded by empty wine bottles and almost unbelievable quantities of empty beer cans. She rolls herself a cigarette and giggles. To make the model community succeed, development boards and other donor agencies are throwing money at the island from an inexhaustible horn of plenty. The Isle of Eigg Trust, set up in 1997, is the legal owner of the island. It pays a Project Officer whose job is to collect subsidies. So far he has landed 700,000 pounds. In addition, finance for numerous individual projects is provided. The EU is now paying for a monstrous pier which will cost almost 8 million pounds.

The old manor house is falling down. Grass grows on the village hall roof. If one looks to see where all the invested money has gone, there is not much to be found apart from the pier, several rather ugly new houses, kilometers of new fencing, and tons of empty beer cans. The old mansion house, an architectural jewel, is collapsing like the chateaux of the Junker class, the old squirearchy, in the former East Germany. The village hall is in a dreadful condition. Grass is growing in the gutters. Boards are hanging off loose. Obviously, community spirit is not writ large here. And as regards the economics, in this field too the island is no shining example. Apart from a few hundred lambs and a dozen or two cattle, almost nothing is produced. Without the continuous financial support, the model island of Eigg would not survive for long.

When reading the lists of the beneficiaries of this public munificence, the same names crop up time and time again: Fyffe, Dressler, Kirk, and Helliwell. These are the names of the people who have the say in the Foundation, and so also in the community.

For example, Simon Helliwell has erected a guest-house for 106,000 which was built by a firm owned by himself, and which is also a sub-contractor to the Foundation on various other building jobs round the island. He is the owner of the best-looking house on the island and also a stately two-masted yacht. "The fruits of hard work" says Helliwell, thumping himself on the chest, obviously a great entrepreneur. As regards those people who complain about him and the autocratic behavior of the Foundation, he says that for them you can do nothing right. But the majority are on one side, that's the decisive factor, that's how democracy works. Then he bursts out: "it's a nightmare, this whole circus, how we are all against each other. I often think that the old landlords were right. To hell with these oafish peasants!"

The "oafish peasants" are the last remaining original inhabitants, Gaelic speaking. They say that they have had car doors kicked in, TV antennas torn down, and equipment stolen, all with the object of driving them off the island. Mary-Ann Macintyre is 56 years old. Her brother died 2 1/2 years ago. He left 5,000 pounds of debts, a totally dilapidated house, 26 acres of rented land, a croft, and no Will. The courts appointed her as executor, and she wants to continue as tenant. But the Foundation is refusing to recognize the lease. Without their signature Mary-Ann Macintyre will receive no grants for renovation of the house. With her companion Robert she lives without electricity, only candle light. The wooden floor is rotted through. Wasps and snails creep through the decayed windows.

Generally, North Scottish crofters have a very strong legal position. They pay minimal rents and can buy their fields for a nominal sum. This legal position is not changed by the fact that Eigg is now owned by a Foundation and not by a landlord; but in practice, anyone who protests has a whole collective against them. Furthermore, the nearest lawyer lives a ferry crossing and an hour's drive away. So, after the end of the old feudalism on Eigg, a new feudalism has sprung up.

Ronald Hilton - 08.02.03