I’ve been interested in the Isle of Eigg for many years, since reading Alastair Mackintosh’s brilliant book Soil and Soul in which he traces the community buyout of the island over twenty years ago. My work has always been about land (although it’s taken me a while to realise that). From making paintings at the Glasgow School of Art about gentrification, to building a prototype home with a group of homeless people in Newcastle, I realise now that land is the common denominator. Ownership of land brings control and self, as well as collective, determination. Yet land is also place – it is a facet of identity.
I went to Eigg on a BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art residency. I wanted to use my time there to inform a project that I’m working on in Newcastle called Dwellbeing which is a social arts project in the neighbourhood of Shieldfield. Shieldfield is an estate which lies on the edge of the city centre and one that has seen a huge amount of new student development in recent years. As a result the estate is an island in the middle of speculative development, (mainly foreign) capital and generic block architecture. Over the past five years residents have tried to fight these changes, but have largely failed. The results of this are a burnt out community, which has been further hollowed out by cuts due to austerity measures. And so the capital that circulates around the neighbourhood hasn’t penetrated into the estate. Furthermore, development pressures may continue, and even heighten, in coming years as cuts bite deeper and local authorities continue to marketise their assets like land and housing. As the closest social housing estate to the city centre and the universities, Shieldfield’s land is very valuable. In response to this situation Dwellbeing is working with a group of residents to examine the issues in the neighbourhood as well actioning community-led and creative responses to this to challenge further speculative development.
There is a sense in Shieldfield that people have no right to the land upon which they live even though this was common land until it was enclosed in the mid eighteenth century. Residents feel that future development and displacement of existing inhabitants is inevitable and feel that the future is out of their control. And so I went to Eigg to understand what could be learnt from Eigg’s experience of community land ownership, as well as other community-led ventures, such as energy and food production, for Shieldfield. Inevitably the two places have hugely different histories, demographics, cultural frameworks and importantly, relationships to land. However, I wasn’t so interested in wholly transferring ideas or approaches from Eigg to Shieldfield, instead I was more interested in understanding how, through collective action, it is possible to build up a cultural bond and right to land, even in an often transient and multi-ethnic urban location.
My time on Eigg was largely spent cycling over the hills, chatting to people over cups of tea, walking, writing, filming and taking photographs. I was interested in learning about the history of the community buy-out, but I also wanted to find out what came after and some of the challenges that have occurred in the last twenty years. Stepping off the boat onto the pier on a Saturday afternoon Eigg was bustling with folk drinking, chatting, people shouting greetings and catching up. I met a lot of people in my first half hour on the island that I ended up chatting to further over the course of my week there. In my conversations I found that access to, and control over land was the primary factor that gave birth to other collective endeavours on Eigg, whether these were cultures of sharing (my first encounter at the Pier with Lucy, my host for the week, was with someone who had just come back from fishing and so mackerel was exchanged for beer), swapping (through the island’s brilliant, overflowing, Swap Shop), learning (through Eigg’s archive), self-building (using timber felled from the site), the production of green energy or reforesting (using seeds saved from around the island).
There were some particular ideas and approaches on Eigg that triggered new ways of thinking about Dwellbeing and about the potentials for Shieldfield’s future. Firstly I was interested in how Eigg had nurtured a deep understanding of the history of land ownership and cultural erasure. I learnt how through the community buy-out campaign, residents drew on the past – remembering that the land was once held in common and thus the control of the laird was not ‘right’, ‘true’ or ‘natural’, nor was its continuation inevitable for the future. This process of reawakening history and making it active in the present was all part of nurturing a collective right to the land, which was finally symbolised by the raising of the great Sgùrr stone pillar when the community buy-out was realised. And so an active knowledge of history became a way to project forward into the future. This is something that needs to be harnessed and used in the Dwellbeing project. In fact, John, a Shieldfield resident, once stated in a community meeting: “This isn’t a project, it’s a pro-ject. We’re pro-jecting forward into the future”.
Yet the history of Eigg is not just in written or oral memory, it is also physically present, particularly at Five Pennies and Grulin – abandoned settlements/crofts which I visited. Grulin lies in the shadow of the great An Sgùrr – Eigg’s volcanic ridge that lies at the south-west of the island. In 1853 families were forcibly removed to make way for sheep farming – many of these families making the treacherous boat journey to Nova Scotia in Canada. This removal is still very present in the landscape – the stone walls of Grulin’s homes are very visible. The agony of displacement is somehow preserved here. When I visited Grulin I couldn’t help think about how current forms are clearance still are, yet in very different contexts. In cities, what I would call ‘urban clearances’ happen all over the world – the rapid turnover of land, from social housing estates to luxury developments. Yet they are not physically present like in Eigg – history gets buried under concrete, rubble and new foundations. Whilst there may be less physical violence in this process (in the UK anyway), the agony is still there – there is a certain social violence that breaks up communities up and breaks the ties that connect people through generations to place. In the same way that sheep were more profitable than people during the clearances, some people become more profitable than others in cities around the world today. And so there is shared experience in very different times and contexts.
Eigg’s present reality is built on a sort of radical localism – on striving for autonomy through energy production, food growing, self-building and much more. Throughout my residency I began to wonder: what if Shieldfield was an island? In the bothy I drew a map, mapping Shieldfield onto Eigg. It was just a bit of fun, but it helped me to think beyond the limitations of an urban environment. On the map Shieldfield’s lost culverts and rivers are opened up and harnessed for hydro-electricity, solar panels sit on the roofs of tower blocks, underused green spaces are used for local food production, there is a swap shop and a self-built community/learning centre which offers a space for gathering together and the chance for (re)education about land and living lightly on the earth. A neighbourhood plan, written by the community, determines land use in Shieldfield, whilst a community bakery (which is already planned in Shieldfield) offers good, locally made food, and training and job opportunities. I also wrote a piece which connected the stories of two places – Eigg and Shieldfield together – regardless of time or context, and filmed the places on Eigg that I walked through for a film to accompany this. Whether urban or rural, learning can occur across difference, and this can open up new ways of seeing a place and the future of a place.
An Island Estate: Mapping Shieldfield on Eigg
In Eigg: The Story of an Island Camille Dressler, who I spoke to whilst I was on the island, writes about the concept of duthchas, meaning ‘kindness to the land’ – an old Highland sense of connection to, and respect for, the land. Whilst on Eigg I kept wondering what this meant for an urban location? Can duthchas be harnessed in Shieldfield to connect people back to the land and to form the basis for a movement that can challenge displacement pressures, protecting the land for coming generations? Seeing and hearing how a right to space became the basis for collective determination, through various individual and community ventures and ways of being (like reciprocity, sharing and swapping), as well as harnessing the natural resources on the island, made me think differently about the future for Shieldfield. Perhaps this is not inevitable.
Thank you to everyone I met and chatted with during my time on Eigg. Particular thanks to Lucy and Eddie for their hospitality. Thanks also to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art for supporting me to undertake this residency.