Foggy future for sheltered isle Scotland: The island of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides is for sale, and its hardy residents face the daunting task of trying to raise their landlord's $3.1 million asking price.

Sun Journal

September 15, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

EIGG, Scotland -- As the 70-foot ferry named Shearwater rolls on the sea like a reveler on New Year's morning, the old-timers sit on benches, plant their boots on the rain-drenched deck and search the fog-shrouded horizon for the soaring cliffs that mark their home.

A newcomer stricken with sea-sickness and fear of tumbling into the murky water asks if it is usually this rough during the 10-mile, one-hour journey from the western Scottish mainland to the island of Eigg.

The old-timers laugh and say, "This is nothing. It's worse in winter. Welcome to Eigg, lad."

Island life is not for the meek. South of Skye, wedged between Rum and Muck, is Eigg, a 7,400-acre pearl of the Inner Hebrides dotted with sandy beaches, isolated coves, wind-swept moors and 63 hardy people who cling to the land. Here, the bread is homemade, the cigarettes hand-rolled.

But Eigg's stubborn inhabitants aren't totally isolated from the problems of modern life. They are riled up these days, because their island is on the market: Its absentee landlord is preparing to unload this giant parcel of Scottish real estate.

The islanders are fighting back with a worldwide fund-raising campaign, an improbable effort to raise $1 million and tap into Britain's National Lottery reserves to meet the $3.1 million asking price.

Success for the residents is as remote as the island itself, but there is something romantic about a battle that pits fishermen and shepherds, housewives and school kids, against an absentee owner. It is the landlord against an island with two churches, a tea room, craft shop, one-room school and a one-lane road.

The battle also dredges up memories of the 19th-century Highland clearances, when Scots were driven from the land and great swaths of real estate were brought up and turned into sporting property for the rich.

On Eigg (Gaelic for "notch"), the owner and the owned haven't gotten along for years.

Keith Schellenberg, a one-time bobsled racer who owned the place for 20 years, described the islanders as "rotten, dangerous and totally barmy revolutionaries."

The islanders weren't too thrilled with Schellenberg, either. His 1926 Rolls Royce was set afire, a blaze that more than one islander calls "a spontaneous act of combustion."

The islanders also blockaded Schellenberg's belongings when he tried to make off with an 1806 map of Eigg. He left the map and bid the place good riddance.

"You've got to have a license to own a dog," says Sheena Kean, a patient, auburn-haired woman who runs the tea shop.

"What gives people the right to run an island?"

Relations are not much better with the current owner, Marlin Eckhart, a German-born artist who prefers the name Maruma. Nobody could figure out where Maruma's millions came from. Art critics had never heard of him, even though he claimed that buyers of his fire-scorched paintings included Marlon Brando, Jean-Paul Sartre, Indira Gandhi and Helmut Schmidt.

Maruma said he became enthralled with the island when he visited a cave in which 400 islanders had been burned to death by marauding MacLeods during a 16th-century Scottish clan war.

Maruma promised to invest $20 million in a hotel that would provide full-time employment. He visited twice, knocked on everyone's door and even created an oversized poster of his plans for the island.

And then, without paying another visit, he placed the island on the market earlier this year -- after selling off a herd of cattle to pay island debts.

"Owning an island is an ego thing, a toy," says Maggie Fyffe, the secretary for the Isle of Eigg Trust, the group leading the effort to buy the island. "A long time ago, you'd get rich benefactors to own places like this, and at least they felt they owed something to the people. But not anymore."

Fyffe gulps a cup of coffee, takes a drag on a cigarette and drops a glossy advertisement for the island on her kitchen table. The ad extols the charms of "one of the most famous islands in Scotland."

"From advertisements like that, it looks beautiful," she says. "But there are 63 people living here, and there are huge problems."

The manor house hasn't been lived in for years and is crumbling from wood worm. The landscape includes abandoned homes. In a gorgeous moor are some 20 rusting vehicles, waiting to be shipped to the mainland. And finding work in a place so remote remains difficult.

"Some people don't even have leases on their homes," Fyffe says. "There has been no investment in the place. What the new owner is going to inherit is a place in a terrible state of repair. And there is a general frustration among the people."

But the islanders have a genuine love for the place.

"I like the people, the landscape, the whole thing," says Davey Robertson, the island's cab driver, trash man and all-around handyman.

John Cormack, the postman and ferryman who has lived here for 17 years, says island life "is not the sort of life that suits everyone."

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