This article was published as part of our 16-page Manniefest special edition. Click HERE for more information and more articles setting out a vision for the Highlands and Islands after independence.

COULD independence transform the Highlands and Islands? If powers returned to Holyrood are passed on to communities – absolutely.

The island of Eigg is living proof.

As the Hebridean island approaches 25 years under community control, it’s become a shining example of the green transformation that can happen when communities take control.

Before the 1997 buyout, the absence of mains electricity meant homes on the island were powered by dirty diesel generators. A decade of planning and fundraising later, Eigg Electric was born, combining wind, water and solar with underground cables to provide 24-hour renewable power to every home on the island west of Arisaig.

Now each house on the grid is allocated 5KW of energy and triggers a trip switch if it consumes more. That hardly ever happens with smart meters on every kitchen table and a highly developed sense of energy use. But there’s an upside – across the island electric cars, cycles, customised golf buggies and even electric wheelbarrows are doing all the heavy lifting. The ambitious aim is to be carbon net zero by 2030.

Biodiversity has been boosted by a quietly epic effort by father and daughter Wes and Tasha Fyffe who’ve been restoring native woodland on bracken covered slopes. Aided by skilled application writer Rebecca Long, the pair won a grant from Forestry and Land Scotland to replace the old, unmaintained spruce plantation (planted by former owner Keith Schellenberg) with saplings grown from locally collected seeds of hawthorn, alder, rowan, hazel and elm, plus oak from acorns gathered near Arisaig. The small team cleared land in the “old” plantation to grow 20,000 seedlings in polytunnels and plant them out during the pandemic years, humping the tiny trees uphill by quad – but mostly by hand. One of a handful of tree nurseries on Scotland’s islands.

Most of the felled trees were taken to a mainland sawmill (prompting plans for a shared, portable Small Isles sawmill), but some’s been kept for island firewood and local building projects – lowering the cost and carbon footprint of imported material. The islanders set up Eigg Construction – a subsidiary of the Trust of locals after the buyout to refurbish the many dilapidated croft houses. Later, a new generation of local self-builders was created when the Trust offered plots of land for free (repaid if the resulting home is ever sold).

So, building projects are fairly constant (using local timber where possible) and there’s a loose cap of two homes a year so locals stay involved in construction and the award-winning Eigg Electric isn’t overloaded.

The latest big building project – with locals working for off-island contractors – is expansion of the pier building which opened the year after the buyout and houses the tearoom, craft shop, grocery shop, island trust office and bike hire. It will reopen as a new island hub powered by a biomass boiler and PV panels from the tearoom roof – plus a new shower and toilet block, drying room and washing machines.

The rest of the green shed will be business units to support new businesses start-ups and a new coastguard room with excellent broadband courtesy of Hebnet, a Community Interest Company set up by Eigg builder and yachtsman Simon Helliwell and Ian Bolas from neighbouring Rum. They’ve taken island internet from dial-up to high-speed broadband and the duo has taught other remote west coast communities how to do the same, enabling islanders to work remotely on mainland projects without constant travel. Another eco boon.

Stu McCarthy of The Isle of Eigg Brewery is about to start producing beer, having raised almost £200,000 in a crowdfunded share offer. A carbon-zero brewery was the investors’ top priority, so, the new brewery is using PV solar panels for power, a Tesla Powerwall for storage and has plans for an electric delivery vehicle for delivery.

Meanwhile, below the basalt ridge of An Squrr sits the deserted township of Grulin, cleared by an incoming sheep farmer in 1858, who quit the island four years later. The old black houses have collapsed and fallen into the ferns. Efforts to rebuild them by original Eigg Trustee Tom Forsyth in the 90s were blocked by the authorities. Without animals to keep down the bracken, Grulin looked set to become a museum piece.

But now the land is being worked again by young farmer Sarah Boden, who left as a child and returned in 2010 to build a home and start a family with Pictish Trail musician Johnny Lynch. He runs the record label Lost Map Records from Eigg – one of a clutch of island bands and professional musicians. Sarah runs 350 sheep and 20 cows and belongs to a new ecological hill farming movement, while Frances Carr and her husband Stephen Nelson have created an oyster farm.

So, yes.

Individuals can make a difference to the climate crisis – if their community has the control, land, affordable eco-housing, green energy and optimism to give new ideas a fair wind.

That’s possible on Eigg for two reasons. First – the islanders own the land. Second – they are a self-sufficient bunch.

Eigeachs have always been determined to harness their own resources, natural and human, and have never waited for off island expertise.

Over 25 community-controlled years they’ve produced a circular local economy with a burgeoning of storytelling, music making, application writing, project management, lacemaking, fencing, website construction, wind turbine maintenance, quarrying, boiler servicing and a steady supply of new, affordable, island-built, energy-efficient homes and organic willow weaving.

This sustainable, joined-up action was coordinated by no-one from high command. In fact, eco-ingenuity arose spontaneously on Eigg, the minute remote control ended.

Is this a taster of the energy set to be released with independence?

It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of can-do islanders are also instinctive Yessers.

On Friday June 10 there is an invite only event to thank people who’ve helped Eigg over the last 25 years with an anniversary ceilidh the following night. Accommodation is hard to find now for the anniversary weekend but Eigeachs say visits at other times are very welcome. And believe me, they mean it.