23 Apr Eigg: the second – Being a ‘local’?
The other thing that stays with me about Eigg has to do with the notion of ‘belonging’. What is it to be ‘a local’?
This popped into my head as I sat sheltering from a squally shower midway through walking the length of Eigg. The rain came on heavily as I was passing the old shop that now functions as a Swap Shop halfway along the island’s only road. There’s a tiny porch where I hunkered down for 20 minutes while the shower passed. Swallows nest here according to the sign on the door asking people to take care that they don’t trap a bird inside when they leave; the residue of last year’s excrement on the sheet covering the wooden seat was a give-away too. I was pleased to know the species; one bit of bird dropping looks much the same as another to me. In any case, the thought that swallows would return here in the summer to nest triggered thoughts of belonging that, these days, are never too far from mind.
Eigg is owned by the community – a long and interesting story that a visit to the island drops suddenly into one’s consciousness. What is that community? Who qualifies to be a part of it? The population of 100 people, just like that of possibly all of the Scottish islands, has changed so much over the years that it’s difficult to know the answer to this question. Take the couple who own and run the guesthouse where I stayed. He is probably the closest thing to being a ‘local’ having lived here all his life but his parents came here from another island. She is English but has lived on Eigg for almost 40 years and is deeply invested in the community; her children were born and raised here.
The Calmac ferry brings in the post, provisions, bits of kit for a tractor or a roof repair, people coming home or visitors. All unloaded and brought along the pier to the L-shaped cluster of buildings that houses the café, grocery store and post office; the hub of Eigg; the heartbeat of the place. People meet there, catching up over a coffee or a beer while they wait for the boat to come in. If you sit there quietly you hear all sorts of voices of the people who live here: from Glasgow, England, even South Africa, maybe New Zealand. And a few that sound ‘local’ – the musical lilt of the islands, the softening of consonants especially the ‘s’ sounds. I didn’t hear Gaelic spoken, which was a surprise. You’d not go far on Skye without hearing it though Skye, too, is an island of immigrants, people blown in from faraway places putting down fragile roots and feeling, maybe, they belong there now.
I wasn’t on Eigg long enough to get a feel for the strands of friendship or kinship that underpin the society here, to know if they are solid or easily fractured. The fact of community ownership creates mutual interest but may also bring pressures, to agree, to compromise, even to manage egos. Are there undercurrents? Is there a hierarchy of legitimacy based on how deep your roots are in Eigg’s soil?
Eigg got me thinking about whether it all matters very much? How long does it take to become a ‘local’ to have a sense that this is where your home is, that this is where you belong? I don’t mean to be maudlin but maybe the thing is less about where you were born and more about where you’d choose to die.
The swallows will be back, building new nests in the roof of the old shop. Belonging for a while, nesting then moving on, constantly migrating. I suppose home is on the wing, somewhere out there.