Isle of Eigg, Scotland
A place of many natural delights
Why travel to a place whose population boasts more sheep than human inhabitants—about 100, give or take a few—and requires a journey by plane, train and ferry?
First, the journey itself is an adventure. From the historic town of Glasgow, the train ride to Maillig is considered to be one of the most beautiful on earth. You have the added bonus of jumping into the famous Harry Potter train scene while traveling over the Glenfinnan viaduct.
Second, it has a Norse connection, including its name, which due to its shape, may have been derived from the Norse word for egg or the Norse word egg or eggjar meaning “a sharp edge on a mountain.” Between the 8th and 15th centuries, the Norse controlled the islands that hug Scotland’s northern and western flank, from the Orkneys to the Shetlands and the Hebrides. Eigg is one of the Small Isles in the Scottish Inner Hebrides.
Third, this tiny island (only 5.5 x 3 miles) packs a punch in terms of its natural and artificial treasures. Like much of Norway, it is rugged, untouched, and remarkable. And also like Norway, its small population has a fiercely independent spirit.
Until decades ago, a laird, or lord controlled Eigg. He purchased his title that gave total control of the island. However, in the early 1990s, the citizens rose up against the man in power. A modern-day rebellion ensued, and with some poetic justice, the laird’s vintage Rolls Royce was mysteriously destroyed by fire.
In 1997, the 64 residents of Eigg decided to rule the island themselves by means of a community buyout, raising money from a public fundraising campaign that resulted in 10,000 contributors and a very generous anonymous sponsor. A stone monument commemorates the day of independence.
Today, community ownership, with an eye to the present and the future, is retained through the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. Its mission is to “provide and create opportunity for economic development, housing, and infrastructure, whilst conserving [our] natural and cultural heritage to ensure that development takes place in a sustainable way.”
Norse sites and finds
The Vikings formed the Kingdom of the Isles in Scotland in 833 and left some of their remains in Eigg. A hilt from a Norse sword, impressive with its intricate craftsmanship, was found. Many other items, including parts of a longship, were uncovered as well. Unfortunately, these ancient finds are no longer on the island but are housed at the new Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Viking burial mounds, however, can be seen at Kildonan and other locations.
Landscape of lore
An Sgùrr, Eigg’s highest and loftiest peak, is a ridge—or a dramatic stump—left over from pitchstone volcanic remains. Interestingly, the volcanic eruption took place next door on the Isle of Skye 58 million years ago. The result is a unique land formation that offers interesting shapes, including a ship’s prow, a dolphin’s back and a hiking boot.
At Singing Sands, the view of the nearby island of Rum’s undulating spine first draws your eye. But at your feet lies a pristine beach, which will not only delight your touch, but also your ears, since stepping onto the sand creates unusual squeaky sounds if walked on when dry.
Several waterfalls worthy of a fairy tale are found on the island; many professional photographers have chosen to capture and share their exceptional beauties.
There are also many caves to visit. Along the southern coast is Massacre or Francis Cave. It is of historical significance because of two feuding clans. Around 1577, the MacLeods of Skye annihilated 400 members of the MacDonald clan who were hiding in the cave. They came to their gruesome end when the MacLeods set fire to heather and other flammable plants at the cave’s mouth, suffocating those inside. If you visit, you will need a flashlight when you enter this ominous, dark place.
Cathedral Cave was named for its soaring height like that of a Gothic cathedral and the fact that it was once used for worship. In 1843, many left the official state church and created the unsanctioned Free Church, holding services here. It should be noted that the cave can only be entered at low tide.
The unique gift of nature on the Island is also the way the community generates its energy, with a combination of hydroelectric, wind, and solar, allowing the inhabitants self-sufficiency.
Eigg is a haven for those interested in archaeology, with finds dating back to the New Stone Age down to Christian times. One of the older places of interest is a Neolithic oval house at At Rubh’ An Tangaird near the southern coast.
Iron Age circular huts, typical of Celtic architecture, are scattered throughout the island. The Oracle Cave at Struidh was inhabited and includes a midden, an old dump for domestic waste associated with human occupation. At Corragan Mor, a fort from the later period Iron Age, still exists.
Christian remains are found at a sixth century monastery and chapel named after St. Donnan, who Christianized the island. Thanks to Norsemen, he was martyred with some 40 monks.
What’s on in Eigg
Throughout the year, the island hosts special events, including the Stone Skimming Competition. This quirky contest held each spring is a big tourist draw with people from dozens of nearby islands also participating.
Eigg’s annual music festival called the Howlin’ Fling is held in July, with traditional and modern music, disc jockeys and even a sing-along. Hogmanay / Ceilidh takes place on December 31 each year. It is celebrated in many former Norse parts of Scotland, combining Celtic and Norse traditions. The famous Shetland Hogmanay includes Viking tribes marching through the night with fireballs. The procession ends at the harbor where a Viking ship is lit on fire with flaming arrows. It is not celebrated as dramatically in Eigg. Here, reveling is the order of the day with traditional music, a hot roast roll and a dram or wee bit of whiskey.
One of Eigg’s newer initiatives is the Whale Trail, funded by a lottery and the government. It includes all of the Hebrides Islands where both dolphins and porpoises migrate. While on Eigg, you have a good chance of seeing these wonderful creatures, as one quarter of the earth’s population of dolphin and whale species pass through this part of the world.
Local good cheer
No trip to Eigg would be complete without a cup of good cheer. I Am the Eiggman is one of the beers made at Eigg’s own Laig Bay Brewing Company (www.laigbaybrewing.com). Its website explains: “We believe that microbrewing is about making beer for the area where you live. We think the essence of the craft beer revolution, is the idea that you should be able to drink some beer that is made close to where you’re drinking it. We want to stay as small as possible …”
At one with nature
For such a sparsely populated island, one has many choices for accommodations: charming bed-and-breakfasts, a former stone stable, cottages, a log cabin, manor homes, a farmhouse, a barn, shepherds’ huts, yurts, or an eco-cabin, and even the Eigg Shed. Wherever you stay, you will be immersed in the landscape. With scenes reminiscent of Norway’s expanses, you will certainly feel at home in Eigg if you enjoy rugged beauty and the opportunity to commune with nature.
A quote from a 60 Minutes program about Eigg, by co-producer Draggan Mihailovich, encapsulates why this tiny, exceptional island is worth a visit and what you can expect: “A lot of people will say, ‘Who’s your favorite author? Who’s your favorite player? What’s your favorite band?’ You would often hear on Eigg, ‘What’s your favorite view?’”
Visit the official website of the Isle of Eigg at www.isleofeigg.org.
This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.