I was looking for some inspiration in Matador’s site when I came across this wonderfully written article about the trip of a girl to a small deserted and “unpopular” isle in Scotland. Enjoy!
For a month long visit to Scotland, I decided to hunker down in just one spot—on the remote and rarely visited Isle of Eigg. At twelve square miles and with a community of just 83 residents, Eigg is a blip in the sea—a smudge of land in the Northwestern Inner Hebrides. I figured a tiny nowhere isle would guarantee an earthy un-touristy experience, allowing me to absorb the real Scotland. But news of my intended destination begot gasps of bafflement and disappointment from the Scots I’d met along the way.
“I wouldn’t go there if I were you,” a tie-wearing Glaswegian clerk advised me.
‘”Really?” I asked, taken aback at the stranger’s showy disapproval.
He laughed aloud, calling over his colleague. “Rodney,” the clerk yelled. “She’s going to Eigg!”
“Eh? Did you say Eigg? But that’s just a wee isle. There’s nothing for you there,” red-haired Rodney seethed, a big frown distorting his face into a grimace. “That place is not worth your time.”
But I had already made my plans—weeks ago, when I had pored dreamily over my map, lured to the far-flung droplets of land folded in the creases, adrift in the pale blue paper sea. I likened finding Eigg in that paper sea to be a spontaneous instinctual decision, a moment of discovery— my quintessential idea of unscripted travel. So I boarded the West Highland Railway bound for Scotland’s scattered western isles, chugging northward five hours across the loch-lavish purple Highlands.
As my near vacant train lurched into the Mallaig station, the edge-of-the-world port town serving as the mainland’s ferry depot, I followed the signs to the ferry docks.
A pack of Canadian tourists purchased tickets to the popular, large and heavily visited Isle of Skye. When they cleared, I inched forward and put my pounds on the counter for a one-way ticket to Eigg.
The bored ticket counter lady scrunched up her wide porous nose and shook her head.
“Did you say Eigg?” she questioned.
“Yes, just one-way,” I repeated.
“You don’t mean Skye, do you?” she said, confused. “It’s not Skye you want then?”
“No, it’s Eigg for me.”
“Suit yourself,” she muttered.
I sat down on an aluminum bench, waiting for Eigg’s ferry to arrive. After the gasps and the looks I had received, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. I was positive that Eigg would be the perfect place to spend a month, but my confidence began to take hits, walking the sinking line of regret.
As my mind churned, Skye’s slip queued with loads of chatty travelers while Eigg’s remained empty—a reminder of the verge that I teetered, traveling to nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for spontaneous, unscripted travel—but only to cool places. If Eigg was so cool, why wasn’t there at least a handful of travelers? Then, swaying in the choppy sea, a hard working ferry worked its burden, struggling to maintain a position at the docks. The stout ferry slammed into Eigg’s slip and idled, blowing puffs of black smoke into the sloping hills of Mallaig. I stood up and boarded.
As Eigg’s ferry trailed Skye’s larger modern ferry, the sea tossed us around. For hours, we rode the tall waves like a rubber duck bobbing in the expansive northern waters.
After four hours, the ferry veered towards a speck of land. Eigg. I climbed down the grated passenger ramp, eager to get a look at the faraway land that inspired those mainland guffaws. Mounds of lazy green hills rolled down to Eigg’s shoreline, tumbling into pebbled beaches. A lone farmhouse stood guard on the right, while a scattering of sheep claimed the left. Eigg looked like all the other near-abandoned isles we had passed along the way with the exception of one distinctive feature. Jutting from the center of the isle a sliver of a mountain stood alone, looking as though someone had spliced off its accompanying range on either side and left only the middle, tallest pitchstone peak.
“What’s that called?” I asked Angus, the ferry’s skipper whose deep-ridged puzzle-like wrinkles fit tightly together when he smiled.
“That’s the An Sgurr,” he replied. “It means rocky peak in Scottish Gaelic.”
“It’s kind of cool looking,” I declared.
“Aye, this is Eigg.” He winked, giving an assuring nod.
We both clamored down to watch the ferry maneuver its girth snugly into port. Angus propped his ragged beefy sailor hands on his hips and gazed out toward the isle. The force of last night’s gale still rocked the ferry up and down, but Angus was windproof, right at home on the sloppy sea.
I waved goodbye to Angus as the ferry’s horn tooted twice, returning to the mainland without a single return passenger.
My rented cottage would be in Glamisdale, one of two settlements on Eigg. With a tearoom and a General Store, Glamisdale also houses the isle’s mail stop and local crafts shop. I trekked to my cottage on the only road. The shady walkway spilled open as the woods deferred to valleys, affording views across the water to the nearby Isles of Muck and Rum. Loads of puffed baby lambs dotted the green valleys as droopy-eyed momma sheep strolled leisurely, leading their insecure heel-knocking twins across slopes in search of the tastiest grasses. The verdant valleys dipped and curved, looking prehistoric—preserved without a hint-of-human. The earthy smell of the wet land pulled me down out of the haze of travel and in that still moment, I could swear that saber-toothed tigers and bare-chested, kilt-clad members of the MacLeod and MacDonald clans stormed across the fields, warring and pillaging right in front of me.
When I reached my cottage—four leaning walls, no electricity, tucked between a sheep pasture and a cattle guard—I threw down my backpack and set out to explore the land of purported disenchantment.
Following farm roads through grassy fields below the Sgurr, I came across an ancient village long deserted since the 16th century Highland Clearances. I read that hundreds of Highland clans were forcibly evicted, displaced from Eigg to accommodate the UK’s new ambitious agricultural agenda. But that was centuries ago. Where were the clans now? After wandering for hours, I hadn’t come across a single islander since I’d gotten off the ferry.
The next day I wandered along farm drains and dirt roads, settling into the lonesome scenery. I still hoped to forge a cultural connection with any one of the reported 83 inhabitants, but there was no one. The comments from the mainlanders began to swirl through my mind.
I found myself wandering down empty roads, winding up in different valleys of identical looking sheep. I sat on weathered fence posts, cooing at baby sheep with their pink filled ears, rimmed with curly newborn wool. They reminded me of Hostess’s pink snoballs.
During the nights, I wandered down to the Tea Room, hoping to have a pint with the locals but the building was dark, deserted. The wind skimmed across the bay, a steel fence latch rattled, and a newborn calf gnawed on a plastic bag—the only sounds of activity on the Isle of Eigg at dusk. I yanked the plastic bag from the calf’s rubbery lips, and trudged back to my cottage, dejected, and starved for human companionship.
The next morning I strolled to the General Store to buy groceries and with luck, engage the stern faced storeowner, a tall, tough and to-the-point woman in a little conversation. I rummaged around the tiny rotting produce section. The pickings were slim.
“Is it eating apples you want?” the storeowner yelled across the counter, craning her neck around a tidy display of chocolate bars. “Cause what you have there are cooking apples.”
I was craving fresh fruit. The Spanish John, a mainland supply ship, was overdue with its supply of fresh produce to the isle.
“You can’t eat these?” I asked, confused that such a distinction exists.
“No,” she firmly declared.
I put the apples down, juices involuntarily springing through my teeth, the imagined tartness tingled my tongue. Her disapproving look, however, proved she knew I wasn’t going to bake an apple pie tonight or any night for that matter, and it was clear that I would be depriving an islander of these valuable commodities who could and would probably bake the fat red apples that very night. Anywhere else, I would have bought and eaten them on my way out. But I was on Eigg, and I wasn’t about to be the American who took the last of the fruit, “And she wasn’t even going to bake them!” they would whisper.
As I purchased my groceries, a fit blonde woman strode in wearing shorts and hiking boots, a scruffy mess of a terrier trailing behind her. On the side of her white truck, colorful un-even letters advertised her trade:
Donna the Piper
Lessons in piping, whistle, dance
Learn the Highland Fling & the Highland Laddie!
“I hope the black eye heals ‘fore the wedding,” Donna the Piper said as she took a seat on the counter.
“Aye, it’s already fadin’ some, but she’ll still make for a beautiful bride!” laughed the storeowner.
I strolled back through the doorway, my drama-radar having gone off—I just had to know more about a bride with a black eye. It was then that I recalled an announcement I had seen posted on the General Store’s community board.
Kathleen and Stuart will be wed 2 June
Ceremony at Eigg Church
Reception at Community Hall
All Eigg Folk are Welcome!
“You know, it would be all right for you to come to the reception tonight,” the storeowner smiled. “The whole of the Isle will be there. Wouldn’t be right you sittin’ in that cottage while the first weddin’ on Eigg takes place in 20 years time.”
“Really?” I stuttered, elated and surprised at the over-the-counter invitation.
“Aye, all Eigg folk are welcome!” she repeated.
I couldn’t believe it. Was I considered Eigg Folk? After days with the sheep and the endless rolling hills, I would finally get to meet the reclusive islanders. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, I sprinted back to my cottage and rummaged for some kind of wedding gift to bring. Batteries, a compact flashlight, sewing kit, packages of flower seeds I had bought in Edinburgh. I tore up a purple silk blouse and wrapped the gift in the folds of the shiny fabric, tying it with twine found near my fireplace.
That night, the rain poured from the black sky as I walked to the Community Hall, excited and nervous at the idea of crashing a foreign wedding, alone. The reception hall, a wood cabin strung with green garlands and white flowers was crowded, the windows foggy and moist from the inside out.
I stepped inside, hung up my yellow rain jacket, switched out of my muddy boots and walked through the doorway.
The men sported full Highland dress kilts with tailored tuxedo jackets and thick creamy braided wool socks folded over their aging knees. Tartan flashes clung to the edge of the fold, proudly displaying the pattern of their clan. The men and their families sat at designated clan tables—each table wearing a different tartan: a green plaid table, a red plaid table, a blue plaid table.
I overheard the green and blue table—the Graham clan—laughing over the bride’s black eye. Apparently, at the bride’s Hen Party, a Scottish lady’s last hurrah before her wedding night, a local farmer from Cleadale, dancing as a short notice stripper, had sexily swung his belt around atop a table, the belt buckle hitting the bride in the face.
As I scurried to the bar in the back of the hall, a universal refuge for loners on any isle in any nation, I met a man with fuzzy, unfocused eyes and rosy cheeks. I tried my best to ignore him as he swaggered over.
“I’ll have a pint of cider, please,” I ordered.
The rain-sopped drunk reached out, putting his warm swollen hand on my shoulder. “Do you like wine?” he slurred.
“Um, yes,” I replied
“Well, then tell that bartender you won’t be needing a drink—just a glass.”
The drunk pulled out a bottle of wine from inside his damp tweed jacket and filled my glass, spilling over the rim. Aidan was Irish, and a poet. His inebriated body leaned into mine, reciting incomprehensible lines of poetry. His russet-tinged Beaujolais lips grazed my ear, painting images and words from another faraway island, the one he left 16 years ago. I couldn’t make out most of what he said, but Aidan’s voice was soothing and inviting. His muffled poetry swirled in the air making music with the accordion, the fiddle and the pennywhistle.
While we chatted, a drenched man had slipped into the reception and onto the dance floor. Wearing his everyday flannel and yellow rubber Wellington boots encased in mud, the latecomer whirled the bride around, dancing, pulling her close to his waterlogged shirt, leaving dollops of mud wherever they had twirled. Everybody clapped, danced, wet and muddy. Aidan and I jumped in too.
Celebrating with the islanders under one steamy roof had satiated my cultural cravings. I came to find that the general store posting was right: All Eigg Folk were welcome. And in their generous, open acceptance of a foreigner or just muddy wet drunks, I understood what being Eigg Folkmeans.
As I sat, clapping, chatting at the red plaid table, it struck me that I had almost given up on Eigg. The reactions of others had narrowly tempted me to doubt my choice in destination. But glancing around the room, I was glad I hadn’t strayed from my instincts; the unexpected rewards of spontaneous travel to unscripted destinations, ripe with unrehearsed people.
I was sad to leave Eigg the next morning, not entirely ready to be a mainlander again.As the ferry prepared to shove off, Donna the Piper came barreling down the coastal road, her terrier riding shotgun. She clamored out of her beat up truck with a large black case, opened it and steadied a wobbly set of bagpipes on her shoulder. Placing her mouth on the blowpipe, Donna breathed life and celebration into the bags:
Out by the purple islands
Brave are the hearts that beat
Beneath Scottish skies
Wild are the winds to meet you
Staunch are the friends that greet you
Sailing away to Donna’s rendition of “Scotland the Brave”, I threw a handful of thick silver rimmed gold coins from the ferry’s rails to her opened case on the concrete; her terrier spun in circles, chasing the flying pounds. I watched Eigg disappear into a sea of wind-whipped green, vanishing into an indiscernible speck rendering the tiny isle forgettable, dismissible even, except to the few who instinctually journey to the purported nowhere.
Oh I can’t wait to visit Scotland again…♥