The Dangers of Being a Tiny Island

AP Photo / Louisa Buller
To those of us who cringe over the price of organic versus conventional butter, the idea of buying an island seems as indulgent as buying a separate house for your poodle. Or even having a poodle. But for the ultra rich, property has always been the thing, and small islands have appealed to a particular subset of rich men drawn to superfluous investments and narcissistic nation building. Why just start a company when you can start your own country? We’ll see how rising sea levels treat that investment.

In The Guardian, natural history writer Patrick Barkham tells how the Scottish Hebridean island of Eigg got passed around between owners until residents had enough and bought the place themselves. Eigg has one road, 100 occupants, and had multiple overlords. Some call island-lovers islophiles. After the locals ousted theirs, the islanders experimented with the rewards of community ownership.

In contrast, community ownership enables Eigg to run its own housing association and provide cheap rents – currently about half the market level of “affordable housing” in this region of Scotland. Low-rent societies where residents are liberated from the grind of earning a lot to pay for a house are likely to be more radical, creative places: people have the freedom, and time, to pursue less money-oriented goals.

McIntosh echoes an earlier writer of the Highlands, Hugh MacDiarmid, by raising the question of what a small island might bring to a bigger one. His great hope 20 years ago was that Eigg would be “a pattern and an example unto one another”, to quote George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. The centre needs the periphery as a source of inspiration and renewal, just as the periphery relies on the centre. Eigg may be able to give the larger island at its side some practical lessons in affordable housing, renewable energy and land reform. A small-island manifesto for the “mainland” might begin with the realisation that we need to treat other people more carefully. Be open to outsiders and to the world. Live as generalists, not as sclerosed super-specialists. Spend more time outside. Reduce our consumption. Make our own energy or, at worst, buy it by the sack, and then we will use less. Consider animals and plants as well as people. Live more intimately with our place, for it is a complex living organism, too.

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