Early in the life of SCOTO we invited award winning Scottish travel writer, blogger and broadcaster, Robin McKelvie to share his thoughts on SCOTO and community tourism in Scotland. In his second blog Robin discovers Eigg where you can experience a true community welcome.
History hangs heavy in the Hebrides. This is a part of the world that has been treated harshly; a land where communities have been ravaged, torn asunder and never recovered. But there are bright lights too, oases where the local communities and community enterprises – working with private businesses – have woven together to create a brighter future. These communities and their tourist partners are now working together across Scotland through the SCOTO initiative, as I learned when I sailed back to Eigg.
It was an inauspicious start that reminded me why communities need to stick together in the Hebrides. I hiked out to Grulin to two villages where once the hearths and hearts of over 100 souls thrived on the fertile soil beneath the mighty pitchstone lava peak of An Sgurr. In the 1850s they were ripped from the land during the baleful Highland Clearances. Today all that remains are the diminished walls of their sturdy blackhouses and the traces of their community-based farming.
A Beacon for Community Sustainability
Walking back through the swirling mists above the ‘Massacre Cave’ – which marks another deeply traumatic time for the island – my thoughts turn to what Eigg has become over the last quarter of a century. The island has become a beacon for what can be achieved in the Hebrides. The community became the first in Scotland to buy out their own land in 1997, with the island now largely run via the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. It’s no mere talking shop as they get things done. Amongst myriad improvements, in 2008 Eigg became the first island in the world to generate all its own energy from green sources – wind, solar and hydro.
Back in the island heart of Galmisdale my mood brightens further meeting Lucy Conway, a director of SCOTO. We have lunch in the impressive new An Laimhrig community hub designed by WT Architecture – whose mantra is fittingly ‘Architecture. Place. People’. Already there is a swish new café with floor to ceiling windows gazing out to Ardnamurchan; a toilet block with contactless green electric showers and a bigger, brighter shop. New community spaces will soon open and Eigg Adventures (who this year started hiring out green energy powered e-bikes – a world first for an island) are moving into a new home.
Working Together to Make the Visitor Experience Better
Conway fills me in on Eigg and how it chimes with the principles of SCOTO - “ I think Eigg illustrates how community owned and managed tourism facilities can work alongside those led by family businesses, sole traders, and larger businesses. On Eigg, family businesses operate the tearoom, shop and adventure hire within a building built and managed by a trading subsidiary of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust.”
Conway paints a vivid, encouraging picture of how community enterprises can work successfully with the private sector: “The camping pods are run by Eigg Trading. The income they generate goes to support all the work of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust and its subsidiaries Eigg Trading, Eigg Electric and Eigg Construction. Visitors to the camping pods also eat at the tearoom, buy their food from the shop, and hire bikes and kayaks from Eigg Adventures. Community and private business, work together to make our visitors’ experience of Eigg better, while also investing in the future of Eigg itself.”
A Microcosm of Community Tourism in Scotland
Eigg is a shining example of just what can be achieved and it is an island that to me emerges like a microcosm of what SCOTO is striving for. Conway is passionate about SCOTO, explaining, “Across communities in Scotland we are looking at a much deeper, positive and more involved alternative to something like a simple tourist tax. SCOTO can demonstrate how much community owned and managed visitor facilities and services offer to Scotland’s tourism sector. Also, while visitors are making conscious choices about how they travel around Scotland, to eat local and support local craft businesses, that there are many opportunities for them to invest their holiday spend in the communities they visit. Just like ‘buy local’ supports local businesses, seeking out and investing in community led tourism facilities is an investment in the whole community and its vision for the future.”
Temporary Locals and Mutual Respect
Conway talks of encouraging visitors to Eigg not just to be tourists, but more ‘temporary locals’. This idea has its roots in Scandinavia and works well for both visitors and locals – it is an idea central to SCOTO. Those coming to Eigg for example are welcomed into the community and are privileged to see how it all works. In turn the temporary locals understand they are in a real working community and not a glitzy tourist resort with expectations to match. In short the temporary locals concept is anchored in mutual respect.
I spend three days back on Eigg on this trip. On each of my previous half dozen visits I’ve left impressed by what has been achieved on Eigg, but with some worries over its future. This time I leave just impressed. With such a vibrant, hardworking and welcoming community – and initiatives like SCOTO – Eigg’s future is not just bright - it’s green. And Eigg is a model for island communities emerging from the dark shadows of a history - and its legacies - that can still hang over the present in Scotland.