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? By Patrick Barkham
“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.