The Isle of Eigg

Just off Scotland, a tiny island with one main road is a testament to human independence

Every now and then, just for the fun of it, we decide to go off to some obscure place that you've never heard of and are not likely to visit. This time we're taking you to Eigg, or the People's Republic of Eigg, as it's jokingly referred to in Scotland. A country where half the privately held land is owned by fewer than 500 people. A lot of it is tied up in huge estates owned by lairds who often run them as fiefdoms. Twenty years ago, after two centuries of servility, the people of Eigg drove away their laird and seized control of their own destiny, establishing the first community-owned estate in Scotland's history. We wanted to see what they've made of it.

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Just three miles wide, six miles long and ten miles off the Scottish coast, Eigg is part of the Inner Hebrides, surrounded by the Isles of Rum, Muck and Skye at the edge of the North Atlantic. It is an ungroomed masterpiece of nature, too wild to tame, a craggy isle of incredible beauty populated mostly by sheep and the dogs that keep track of them. The people do their best to stay clear while taking everything in.

Steve Kroft: So what's your average day like?

Charlie Galli: Some people would say very lazy. I like to think I just make the hard work look easy. All depends on your outlook.

Charlie Galli is the taxi driver on Eigg and the only source of public transportation up and down the island's furrowed main artery. It's a niche he claimed for himself when he arrived from the mainland with his wife and this aging Volvo four years ago, plenty of time to get the feel of the place.

Steve Kroft: You know everybody on the island?

Charlie Galli: I know them and their shoe sizes and like I say, there's no secrets on an island, so ...

Steve Kroft: So what are they talkin' about this week?

Charlie Galli: Mainly you.

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Charlie Galli and correspondent Steve Kroft

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It's not like they don't get visitors, 12,000 tourists came here last year, most of them to spend only a few hours. There are very few places to stay. We were going to be here for days asking questions about Eigg's quirky history, and everyone directed us to Maggie Fyffe, the island secretary, who landed here 41 years ago after touring Afghanistan in a camper.

Maggie Fyffe: I never imagined that I would spend the rest of my life here.

Steve Kroft: Does that mean you like it?

Maggie Fyffe: I think so, yeah.

It was 1976, just after the entire island had been purchased by a wealthy English toff named Keith Schellenberg, who became the seventh Laird of Eigg.

Under Scotland's feudal landlord system he had absolute power over virtually every aspect of his estate.

Steve Kroft: What kind of impact did he have on people's lives?

Maggie Fyffe: He had that control over everything -- and people, jobs, houses. And he wouldn't give anybody a lease on anything.

By all accounts, Schellenberg used the island as his personal playground, lavishly entertaining guests and driving about in a 1927 Rolls Royce while most of his tenants lived in poverty without electricity.

Steve Kroft: Was there a rebellion?

Maggie Fyffe: Eventually, yep.

It started with a slow burn that burst into flames one night in 1994 when Schellenberg's beloved Rolls Royce met a fiery end, burnt to a crisp like a slice of bacon under circumstances still unexplained.

Maggie Fyffe: A mysterious fire, spontaneous combustion, who knows?

Steve Kroft: So did you ever figure out what happened to the Rolls Royce?

Maggie Fyffe: No.

Headline writers all over Britain couldn't believe their luck. There was "Scrambled Eigg," "Burnt Rolls," and "Eigg comes to the boil." It went on for a year until Schellenberg gave up, expressing his disdain for the islanders in a BBC interview.

Keith Schellenberg: I think that my ultimate failure with Eigg is that I can't be bothered to try and get on with them anymore.

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His final act was to sell the island to a wacky German who called himself Maruma and claimed to be an artist of note and a professor. He turned out to be neither. Up to his beret in debt, Maruma stopped paying people's wages, and within two years creditors put Eigg up for auction. Maggie Fyffe and others thought, why not buy the island for ourselves?

Maggie Fyffe: By the time we got to Maruma and two years of somebody that was living in Stuttgart and had only visited for four days, it had convinced everybody that we wouldn't have to do very much to do better than what he'd done, which was nothin'!

No one in Scotland had ever tried a community buyout before, certainly not 64 residents on a depressed undeveloped island with no cash or credit. But lots of people were familiar with their story and fancied the idea of wee folk taking on the big guys. In 1997 a public fundraising campaign brought in $2.5 million to close the deal. The funds came from 10,000 individual contributors and one huge check from an unknown woman.

"You'll look at the scenery or you'll see a pod of dolphins come through and you just remind yourself how lucky you are."

Maggie Fyffe: The bulk of the money came from a mystery benefactor.

Steve Kroft: A mystery benefactor. Sounds like Dickens ...

Maggie Fyffe: It's a pretty crazy story, really.

Steve Kroft: You don't know who she is?

Maggie Fyffe: The only string attached was that she remained anonymous.

Steve Kroft: She ever been to the island?

Maggie Fyffe: Not as far as I know.

Steve Kroft: Do you know why she did it?

Maggie Fyffe: I think she's given money to a lot of what she regards as good causes, and we're lucky enough to be one of 'em.

That was 20 years ago. The Eiggers and their friends marked two decades of self-rule with a big blowout they call a Ceilidh, with traditional music, dancing and drink. We decided to cancel the next day's shoot to allow time for recovery, but 24 hours wasn't enough.

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A Ceilidh on the Isle of Eigg

CBS News

Steve Kroft: What time did you leave the Ceilidh?

Johnny Jobson: It was about 8 am, I think, when we finally left, yeah.

Steve Kroft: How long did it take you to recover?

Johnny Jobson: Eh…it'll probably be tomorrow.

Johnny Jobson first experienced Eigg in his 20's working on a fishing boat as a scallop diver. Since then, a lot has changed. One, there is electricity now which allowed him to move his wife and family here last year and edit a sports journal online from their tiny cottage. It's required some sacrifices, but they love the beauty of the place and its eccentricities.

Johnny Jobson: You'll look at the scenery or you'll see a pod of dolphins come through and you just remind yourself how lucky you are.

Steve Kroft: You seem to have a lot of characters on this island…

Johnny Jobson: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: Were they normal when they came here?

Johnny Jobson: Yeah, not all of us.

Dean Wiggin turned up in a kayak 14 years ago, and he's still here. He's very good at fixing things. Jobs are extremely scarce, so you have to bring one with you or use your wits to invent one.

Sarah Boden: It's one of those places that really gets into your soul, I think. It's quite enchanting.

Sarah Boden runs her uncle's sheep farm on Eigg. She grew up here, then left to work as a music journalist in London where she met her future partner Johnny Lynch, one of Scotland's most popular musicians. She coaxed him to Eigg.

Steve Kroft: Did you think he was going to come?

Sarah Boden: Not really. No because I was living in a caravan at the time and yeah, it was all quite rustic.

Johnny Lynch: Yeah, you did look a bit shocked.

Sarah Boden: And Johnny's, you know, a proper, suburban, city ...

Johnny Lynch: Wha!?

Sarah Boden: Well, you're not a natural country boy are you?

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Johnny Lynch: If you mean, I look after my nails, then, then yes, yes I do. But, yeah, I knew from when…as soon as I got here, I couldn't really see a reason for me to go back. And just look at me now.

When it comes to the essentials on Eigg, there is basically one of everything. One primary school for five students, one grocery shop where a hundred islanders all choose from the same food and one pub at the tea room down by the wharf, where the best beer is local. Stu McCarthy and Gabe McVarish, who are both married to women who grew up on Eigg, got so tired of drinking the mass-produced stuff from the mainland they started their own mini micro-brewery two years ago.

Steve Kroft: So this is it. Is this legal?

Stu McCarthy: It's legal.

Gabe McVarish: It's legal.

They make eight different brews, including 'I am the Eiggman,' which is very popular with the tourists. They're just beginning to turn a profit, but say they've saved a lot of money drinking their own beer.

Steve Kroft: Are you the biggest-selling beer on Eigg?

Stu McCarthy: Thankfully, yes. Yeah, we can say that.

None of these younger people would be here without the island's tiny, but unique power grid that runs almost entirely on renewable energy. A combination of wind, hydroelectric and solar, the first time it's ever been accomplished anywhere.

Maggie Fyffe: That is the biggest and most impressive project that we've done.

Steve Kroft: It's changed everything, right?

Maggie Fyffe: Oh, yeah. It's made life so much easier.

It was designed and funded with multiple grants mostly from the European Union and engineers from all over the world have come to study it. Like everything else on Eigg, it is run and maintained by revolving committees of islanders, the only visible sign of any sort of government. There are no offices, no court system, no police.

Steve Kroft: Is there any crime on the island?

Charlie Galli: There's no crime or anything.

Steve Kroft: Never?

Charlie Galli: Not that I can remember.

Steve Kroft: Nobody's snatched something or borrowed something ...

Charlie Galli: They borrow it and you'll get it usually within the week, you know. Returned to you kinda thing. You just don't know where it is at that point in time, you know, when you're looking for it. But it will turn up again. It can't go anywhere, it's on an island, so, yeah.

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Steve Kroft: What happens if somebody gets sick?

Charlie Galli: You basically have to be sick on a Tuesday. The doctor comes from Skye on a Tuesday and spends the day here. And that's, sometimes, weather permitting. It's really rough in the wintertime.

Eigg is dependent on boats for everything. When a ferry comes in with fuel and food, people flock to the wharf to help out. It's not a courtesy; it's a necessity on an island where everyone is more or less scraping by. To survive, they have to rely on each other, look after each other and put up with each other. The island is too small for feuds or lingering resentments.

Steve Kroft: What's the difference between people who live on the mainland and people who live on Eigg?

Charlie Galli: You know, the people on Eigg, I'd have to say, are more evolved.

Charlie Galli, the taxi driver and amateur philosopher, says most people here have done the whole life on the mainland thing and rejected it.

Charlie Galli: They're all doin' their hamster wheel thing, you know.

Steve Kroft: Hamster wheel?

Charlie Galli: You get a mortgage, you get a car, you get a job. You do this and the next thing. And they all get so involved, they forget to look about them and see what's actually goin' on in life, you know.

You should know Eigg is not always served sunny side up. As the days get shorter, the windy, rainy weather turns to sleet with gusts up to 100 miles an hour. The boats might not get through for a week, so people keep lots of beans and spam in the storeroom. Even the sheepdogs look forlorn.

Sarah Boden: If you accidentally open your mouth when a gust of wind's coming, it involuntarily fills your lungs. You're like (gasp).

To live here, you have to be resilient, self-sufficient and patient and not just with the sheep.

Charlie Galli: The cows like to go down and lie on the beach, on the sand. And they'll all trail down the road. So you cannot argue with a cow, you know. It wants to do what it wants to do. And you've just gotta give it plenty of time, you know.

There are no grand ambitions here and no discernible interest in development despite the sea, the cliffs and the vistas. The owners don't want hotels or a Donald Trump golf course or hundreds of new residents.

Maggie Fyffe: I think we're lookin' for one or two at a time. I think that's how, how it works here. Then it works a lot better. And we've got time to get used to new people.

We would have liked to stay longer, in this stress-free, non-conflict zone where everyone seems to be more or less on the same page. But we were out of clean laundry, we had a ferry to catch and hamster wheels to jump back on to. As for the people of Eigg, I don't think they were sad to see us go.

Produced by Draggan Mihailovich and Laura Dodd.

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