When we applied for a WWOOFing position on the Isle of Eigg (pronounced “egg”) in Scotland, the host replied that it was too wet and there wasn’t work for two people. After poking around the internet a bit more and looking at photos of the place, we found out that they had a camping area at their croft. It looked so amazing that we wrote back and told them we were coming anyway, as campers instead of wwoofers!
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…and Buses…and Ferries
Before we could enjoy the beautiful Isle of Eigg, we had to get there, which didn’t turn out to be easy. Our journey required us to take a plane, a bus, a train, and a ferry. In the end, it took us the better part of two days to get there from Ireland. I’ll let our travel itinerary speak for itself:
The journey to get to the island ended up being almost as beautiful as the island itself. Our bus route followed a highway that clung to the banks of the breathtaking Loch Lomond, just as the sun was setting. The mountains and deep water were drenched in violet and gold, and it was easy to see why the place is so famous.
After an overnight stop in Fort William, we got up bright and early to hop on a tiny train (just 2 cars!) to Mallaig, where we were to catch our ferry. The train followed the West Highland Line, which is famed as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Numerous films have used it as a setting, including several of the Harry Potter movies. The train ride totally lived up to all the hype, and we spent most of it with our necks craning to catch every possible view of the rugged Scottish Highlands.
We arrived in Mallaig right on schedule, and walked the few blocks over to the pier where we were to catch the ferry. We were so excited to get on the ferry that we probably looked nearly as silly to the islanders as someone freaking out about a tractor in Iowa.
Although the sea was smooth and the sky was clear, I staggered around the ferry like a drunk person—clearly I do not possess “sea legs!” The ferry ride lasted for 2 ½ hours, and Sarah and I had to lay flat on some of the seats for much of that time to relieve the feelings of seasickness that kept creeping up. I can’t imagine what the ride must be like when conditions aren’t so good!
By this point, the remoteness of the island was really starting to set in. A few other passengers on the ferry were travelers like us, but most of them were from Eigg or one of the other Small Isles that the ferry served, and all of those people seemed to know each other. It was just early proof of what we would soon see: the small, tight-knit community of these islands.
Mingling with the Locals
Sue and Neill were the owners of the Cleadale Bothy, which was to be our home on Eigg (more on that later). They showed us around their croft, and invited us to a bonfire that they were attending that night. Even though we were exhausted from our long journey, we agreed to go—and it turned out we were in for a great night!
We piled into the backseat with Sue and Neill’s son Struan and Rosie the dog. After a quick interruption while Sue and Neill fixed a pothole in the one-lane road, we were on our way. We chatted a bit with Struan about his boarding school on the mainland, and asked if there were bonfires every weekend on the island. Neill chuckled and told us that it was only once a year…it was Bonfire Night! All over the UK people burn bonfires with effigies of Guy Fawkes to commemorate his unsuccessful attempt to blow up Parliament.
Despite the dark origins of the holiday, it was a fun and festive occasion. We gathered around a HUGE bonfire, oohed and aaahed over a DIY fireworks display, and watched clouds roil around the full moon.
When the fire had burned down, we transferred inside to the “tea room,” which turned out to be the coffee shop/restaurant/bar/meeting hall/hang out spot for the island. Mingling has never been one of my gifts, and we found ourselves thrown headlong into an advanced-level mingling situation. With the island’s small population of around 100 souls, everyone present knew each other like a big family. Couple that with the fact that we were adjusting to their accents and missed about 40% of what they said, and we soon ended up as the wallflowers of the party. We made a strategic move to install ourselves near the drink fridge, so that people would be forced to talk to us when they came by. We managed a few short conversations, but I think we were so tired and looked so bewildered that people quickly lost interest in us.
Even though I had to experience a relapse of my middle-school social anxiety, it ended up being a fun evening and one of the more memorable experiences of our trip. It was a great opportunity for observation, and to get a sense of the people who lived on the island. I was surprised to see how many young people there were. Most small communities I’m familiar with have something of a problem with brain drain, when young educated people leave for larger communities with more opportunities. I had expected to find a similar situation on Eigg, but as an outsider looking in I couldn’t find any obvious evidence of this. There were plenty of young people around, including young families with little children, and the group there struck me as vibrant and full of vitality. They are living very much in the 21st century, with progressive politics, the first fully self-sufficient renewable energy grid in Europe, and—on some of them—a downright cool fashion sense.
Home Sweet Bothy
With no more social engagements, the rest of our long, dark, northern nights were spent in the cozy bothy—a sort of one-room stone cabin that leaned up into the hillside. There was no heat and no hot water, but we had a wood burning stove and a kettle. We became unashamed members of the 100-hour-no-shower club, which didn’t matter so much when there were only dogs and cows around to judge us for our greasy hair.
Out our front door was a knockout view of the jagged Isle of Rum jutting up out of the Atlantic, and at our back were cliffs and waterfalls. It was a pretty incredible setting to wake up to in the morning, and at night we had some of the clearest views of the stars that I’ve ever seen.
To see what we did with our days on Eigg, take a looksee at the photos. We went a little paparazzi on the island, so there are a lot! Coming up soon: a post from Sarah about her favorite thing we did in Glasgow!
Getting ready to ride the rails! We travelled on the West Highland Line, famed as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.
We had some beautiful views of the Highlands from our train.
Here is the one and only Google image you’ll see on our blog (Darren Little, via flikr.com). Just had to show you the most beautiful part of the trip–passing through the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Harry Potter fans might recognize it–the Hogwarts Express scenes were filmed here!
After the train ride, it was time to get on the ferry.
I learned what “sea legs” are, and that I have “land legs.”
Naps were required during the 2.5-hour ferry ride, to ward off sea-sickness.
Watching for the Isle of Eigg!
Calling in at the rugged Isle of Rum.
Our first clear view of Eigg. She’s a beaut!
That big rock sticking up is “An Sgurr,” which means “The Notch” in Gaelic.
We were staying in Cleadale Township, which was a cluster of a few crofts (smallholding farms) on the northwest side of the island.
Home Sweet Home!
We had a side view of An Sgurr.
We set off to explore a bit as soon as we arrived.
The biggest bonfire I’ve ever seen.
There were sparklers and fireworks all around.
We tried, with limited success, to mingle with the locals.
The Isle of Rum, as seen from Laigg Beach on the Isle of Eigg.
Wading in the North Atlantic in November! The air was warm, but the water was freezing.
Several dogs from the island tagged along with us as we explored the island. Timmy the terrier was particularly persistent.
Sarah and our new friend Timmy.
Timmy showed us some beautiful tide pools along the beach.
There are some interesting ruins sprinkled about the island. Some of them are very visible, like this one, and others are overgrown with moss. I was standing in a grazing field one day and realized that I was in someone’s living room–the bumps in the grass were the outline of a house foundation!
There was lots of support for Scottish independence on the island. It was easy to see why, as London seems like another planet when you’re up in this territory.
We saw some people gathered for some kind of service on Sunday morning. There is a small church on the island, but they were gathered outside with some bagpipes.
We were staying in a bothy, which you can see here. It was like a one-room stone cabin. The beach and the peaks of Rum were at our front, and An Cruachan, the cliffs, were at our back.
This little furball lived on the croft where we were staying.
There was no heat, but we were pretty snug inside with our wood burning stove.
We usually woke up to find various assortments of animals at our door. Flora the sheep was a regular.
We were staying on the more populated side of the island. With only around 100 inhabitants, “populated” is a relative term!
We climbed up to the cliffs behind our bothy to see what we could see. There was a beautiful view back to the mainland.
It was pretty special and different to be surrounded by endless ocean instead of endless land.
Sue told us there was a trail marked out to the top of the cliffs. She told us to “follow the blue dots.” We didn’t know what she was talking about, but we finally found some…on our way back. It was more fun to pick out our own path anyway!
After wandering into a bog, we learned where the expression “bogged down” comes from.
There were cows as big as houses on the island!
Sarah, queen of the rock. And Timmy.
Our last view of the Isle of Eigg, from the train. The left side is An Sgurr, and the right side is An Cruachan, where we climbed up.