The Hebridean island of Eigg is home to one of the most isolated communities in the UK. What is it like to live an occasional, meandering ferry-ride away from the UK mainland? Alongside Danny North’s new photography series, As I Found Her, some of the islanders reflect on a life in the bucolic margins of British life.
One of the Isle of Eigg’s old Gaelic names is "the Island of the Powerful Women". Anyone familiar with the Hebrides will know it is one of the most beautiful of the many islands that dot the Scottish coastline – a lush enclave of grass, bracken, heather and sandy beaches, tucked behind the southernmost tip of Skye.
Eigg has a quartz beach which, if the wind blows in the right direction, sings melodies. An Sgùrr, the mountain in its midst, sits on the largest pitchstone ridge in Europe. The bothies that dot the island are populated by artists on residencies.
The population of Eigg stands at just under 100 people. Tourism is controlled: there are very few homes on the island that are not lived in throughout the year. A sense of self-sufficiency and independence is built into the fabric of its community. Last year, the islanders – known as the Eigeach – celebrated the 20th anniversary of the £1.5m community buyout of the island from its absentee owner.
Eigg is also, quite literally, off the grid. The governing Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust – a partnership between the residents, the Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust – oversees Eigg Electric, which produces virtually 100% of the island's electricity via a combination of wind, solar and hydro schemes (without the need for pylons, as underground cables have been laid across Eigg).
Life on Eigg, it’s fair to say, is rather different from city-living. Residents' electricity usage is monitored, and will trip if a limit is exceeded. There is no phone signal, little in terms of Wi-Fi connections, and one café. There is a daily ferry when the weather is fair, which will drift its way back to the mainland more than 10 miles away.
Danny North, who is 43, grew up in Dewsbury, near Leeds, but has made his living as a commercial photographer in London. After 10 years of photographing bands and gigs, he had secured himself a life split between London and Cornwall, where his daughter lives.
On 24th June 2016 – the day the UK voted to leave the European Union – North made the long drive from London to Eigg.
The trip, and the resulting photography series As I Found Her, was in part inspired by North’s "own desire to belong somewhere, and to discover community".
"The project on Eigg was part of my ongoing attempt to find somewhere in the world I could belong," North says. "I’ve always felt that I existed in the margins of wherever I resided – never quite right, never quite belonging to a place or its people."
"By the time I finished the project on Eigg, I realised that I had found that place. In the space of weeks, it had become somewhere I would long to call home."
Over the next year, North visited the island on four separate occasions. In June 2017, he exhibited the project in the island’s community centre to coincide with the anniversary of the buyout.
While the series may focus on individual stories, it also retains the power "to tell a much broader narrative about what it might mean to live on an island – any island – away from the mainland, and to be at the mercy of nature and perhaps even the community itself," North says.
The series has since gained traction. North took a portrait of 'Little Maggie', as the islanders call her, the 9-year-old daughter of sheep farmers George and Saira, as she sat on a moulding armchair and ate broad beans from their pods in her parents' polytunnel. Little Maggie’s picture was nominated for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, and was on show at London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Beyond Little Maggie, North met many other powerful women on the island. He photographed Maggie Fyffe, who has lived on the island for 43 years and was instrumental in the community buyout of 1998. She arrived in 1975 with the intention of staying a short time and then returning to her home on the east coast of Scotland. But soon after arriving on Eigg, she decided to stay there and raise her children.
"I was attracted to the freedom that kids have here," Maggie tells me. "They know everyone, they are used to speaking to adults. There’s no 'don’t speak to strangers and don’t go out the door'. The kids here are a bit feral, but that’s the way it should be. It’s one of the great things about being part of a small community."
Maggie has grown to love the island. Mainlanders often assume she spends a lot of her time cut-off and isolated. "But I know more folk here than I did back in my old town on the east coast of Scotland," she says.
"It’s not a utopia," Maggie says. "It can be difficult to earn a living. And it gets frustrating if you want something and it takes a week to get delivered. People do fall out. But you have to see the same people the next day, so it doesn’t last. And because there’s not a strict nine to five structure here, people have the time for each other. Folk get on pretty well, and that’s largely because they have the same interests – and that’s primarily Eigg, and what it means. Eigg is what glues everyone together."
What’s the secret to island life, I ask. You’re cut off from the mainland. You can’t just nip out for a movie or a walk around the shops, for a solo coffee or a quiet drink in the pub. "You have to be self-sufficient – not just in the way you live, but in your own mind too," she says. "You have to be happy with yourself."
Then there’s Celia Bull, 53, who spent much of her youth travelling the world on her 15-metre sailing yacht Selkie – first found in Croatia – before settling in Eigg with her son Dylan seven years ago. Celia grew up in one of London's satellite towns, in Buckinghamshire. But the big city does not hold much appeal for her. "Island life doesn’t always sate me," she admits. "But I can move around on my boat. I make sure I’m not trapped on the island. Any craving I have is usually satisfied by a trip to the mainland. Pretty quickly I think: 'Goodbye. Have your crowded city to yourself.'"
Celia remembers a "coming of age" climbing trip to Eigg in her mid 20s. Once she decided to return to the UK, it seemed like the natural home to raise Dylan, now 15.
"It’s a trusting community, where everyone has equal say," Celia says. "You know your neighbours will look out for you. You don’t have to lock your door, and you know no one is going to try and take advantage of you."
Celia recognises there are social advantages to urban life, but she finds it to be an atomising lifestyle. On Eigg, she can involve herself in the goings-on of the island as much as she wants, but she can also escape – almost totally.
"If you’re in a city, you choose your friends. You choose the people you interact with and walk on by people or situations you’re not interested in," she says. "In an island community, you can’t do that. Everybody is part of the community. But whether it’s someone you might choose or not, you get to know people. And I think that’s probably a good thing to do.
"The other side is you don’t always want to be involved in what’s going on in the community. Sometimes you want to be left alone, or you crave something outside of the community. But the beauty of having a boat is, if I really want isolation, I can anchor my boat somewhere I know no one is going to find me."
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