Eigg(Scottish Gaelic: Eige) is one of the Small Isles, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. It lies to the south of the Skye and to the north of the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
Eigg is dominated by “an Sgurr”, a dramatic pitchstone ridge, the largest of its kind in Europe. Laig bay, a large white Atlantic beach, faces the Cuillins of Rum, one of the most memorable views on the west coast of Scotland. Further North is the Singing Sands, a stunning musical quartz beach surrounded by outstanding geological formations.
As well as being known as the jewel in the Hebridean crown for its outstanding beauty, Eigg has many other cultural and historical attractions: Picts and Vikings have left their marks, and its rich history is steeped in clan warfare and the crofting way of life. Eigg’s pioneering community buy-out ushered in land reform in Scotland, giving islanders control of their future for the first time. Among other achievements, Eigg has the first completely wind, water and sun-powered electricity grid in the world. Whether you come for the community or the scenery, to visit Eigg is to begin a life long love affair with our island.
Eigg is 9 kilometres (5.6 mi) long from north to south, and 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) east to west. With an area of 12 square miles (31 km2), it is the second largest of the Small Isles after Rùm.
The mainland ferry terminals of Mallaig (Caledonian MacBrayne) and Arisaig (Arisaig Marine) are about an hour from Fort William on the A 830, the famous ‘Road to the Isles’.
The total journey time from Glasgow is about 3 to 3 1/2 hours, and from Edinburgh about 4 to 4 1/2.
There are only a very few miles of road on Eigg and the Highland Council have decided that the only vehicles allowed will be those of islanders (with permits) and service vehicles. Exception will be made for vehicles with registered disabled passengers. There is ample parking in both villages mentioned above, and when you reach Eigg you will appreciate it much more without your car!
You can catch a ferry to Eigg from Mallaig on the Caledonian MacBrayne boat, the Loch Nevis, or from Arisaig on the Sheerwater. The Loch Nevis operates all year round while the Sheerwater sails only in the summer months. Eigg Boat trips are also available.
The main settlement on Eigg is Cleadale, a fertile coastal plain in the north west. It is known for its quartz beach, called the “singing sands” (Tràigh a’ Bhìgeil) on account of the squeaking noise it makes if walked on when dry.
The centre of the island is a moorland plateau, rising to 1,289 feet (393 metres) at An Sgurr, a dramatic stump of pitchstone, sheer on three sides. Walkers who complete the easy scramble to the top in good weather are rewarded with spectacular views all round, of Mull, Coll, Muck, the Outer Hebrides, Rùm, Skye, and the mountains of Lochaber on the mainland.
[/tab][tab title=”Nature”]At approximately 8km long and 5km wide(5 by 3 miles), Eigg has an astonishing variety of habitats for its size.
These support an abundance of wildlife. The otter hunts and plays around the sandy bays. Orchid-rich grasslands and rich meadows shelter the elusive corncrake. Squelching loch-studded moors alternate with volcanic crags where eagles and ravens ride the up-draught and cliffs where the Manx Shearwater comes to nest each year. Mature woodlands echo with the sound of songbirds.
Grey and Common seal colonies also inhabit the island’s coastal waters whilst dolphins and Minke whales are frequent visitors.[/tab][/tabgroup]
Bronze Age and Iron Age inhabitants have left their mark on Eigg. The monastery at Kildonan was founded by a missionary possibly from either Dal Riata or an Irish Kingdom, St. Donnan. He and his monks were massacred in 617 by the local Pictish queen. In medieval times the island was held by Clan Donald.
Writing in 1549, Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles wrote of “Egge” that it was: “gude mayne land with ane paroch kirk in it, with mony solenne geis; very gude for store, namelie for scheip, with ane heavin for heiland Galayis”.
During the sixteenth century there was a lengthy feud between the MacLeod and MacDonald clans, which may have led to the massacre of the island’s entire population in the late 16th century. According to Clanranald tradition, in 1577 a party of MacLeods staying on the island became too amorous and caused trouble with the local girls. They were subsequently rounded up, bound and cast adrift in The Minch but were rescued by some clansmen.
A party of MacLeods subsequently landed on Eigg with revenge in mind. Their approach had been spotted by the islanders who had hidden in a secret cave called the Cave of Frances (Scottish Gaelic: Uamh Fhraing) located on the south coast.
The entrance to this cave was tiny and covered by moss, undergrowth and a small waterfall. After a thorough but fruitless search lasting for three to five days, the MacLeods set sail again but a MacDonald carelessly climbed onto a promontory to watch their departure and was spotted.
The MacLeods returned and were able to follow his footprints back to the cave.
They then rerouted the source of the water, piled thatch and roof timbers at the cave entrance and set fire to it at the same time damping the flames so that the cave was filled with smoke thereby asphyxiating everyone inside either by smoke inhalation or heat and oxygen deprivation.
Three hundred and ninety five people died in the cave, the whole population of the island bar one old lady who had not sought refuge there. There are however some difficulties with this tale and in later times a minister of Eigg stated that “the less I enquired into its history… the more I was likely to feel I knew something about it”.Nonetheless, human remains in the cave were reported by Boswell in 1773, by Sir Walter Scott in 1814 and Hugh Miller in 1845. By 1854 they had been removed and buried elsewhere.
Massacre Cave (grid reference NM434874) sits in the back of a fault-like crevice under a steep rock face. It is no more than 0.65 metres (2.1 ft) height and one needs to crawl to gain access and then keep crawling for a further 7 metres (23 ft) before it opens out. The length is approximately 79 metres (259 ft), the width 8 metres (26 ft) and height 6 metres (20 ft).[/one_half_last]
18th and 19th centuries
Near to Massacre Cave there is another tidal cave with a large and visible entrance; it is high-roofed and is said to have been used for Roman Catholic services after the 1745 rebellion.
The Cruise of the Betsey (1858)
The Scottish geologist and writer Hugh Miller visited the island in the 1840s and wrote a long and detailed account of his explorations in his book The Cruise of the Betsey published in 1858. Miller was a self-taught geologist; so the book contains detailed observations of the geology of the island, including the Scuir and the singing sands. He describes the islanders of Eigg as “an active, middle-sized race, with well-developed heads, acute intellects, and singularly warm feelings”. He describes seeing the bones of adults and children in family groups with the charred remains of their straw mattresses and small household objects still in Massacre Cave. Walter Scott was so appalled and moved on hearing that the skulls and bones of the dead were still stacked there, that he started a fund for a Christian burial which resulted in their removal.
By the 19th century, the island had a population of 500, producing potatoes, oats, cattle and kelp. When sheep farming became more profitable than any alternative, land was cleared by compulsory emigration – in 1853 the whole of the village of Gruilin, fourteen families, was forced to leave.