Open Letter of Beseechment to
Keith Schellenberg, "Laird" of Eigg
from Tom Forsyth, Bob Harris & Alastair McIntosh
Trustees of the Isle of Eigg Trust
In the summer of 1992 the Laird of Eigg, Keith Schellenberg, shocked Scotland by becoming, as one newspaper put it, "the first person to buy his own island." Schellenberg had been ordered to sell by the Court of Session in divorce settlement with his ex-wife, now Mrs Williams. This order was what gave the Isle of Eigg Trust leverage in seeking to procure community ownership - we knew that he had to sell. However, he complied with the court order by selling, but buying back the island through Cleveland & Highland Holdings - his own property company!
The presumption of the media was that this would be the end of the Eigg Trust. It was a very lonely time for us. The West Highland Free Press of 3 July 1992 ran the banner headline, "Paradise lost: Eigg back in the hands of Emperor Schellenberg: Bitter blow to trust community stewardship dream." However, in this letter we signalled that the Trust would remain "a trust in waiting." We had nothing behind us except the power of words and we articulated them in terms of a liberation theology.
This slightly shortened version of the letter is as was published in Reforesting Scotland, No. 7, Autumn 1992, pp. 30-31. (Please note that the original Isle of Eigg Trust has now been subsumed by the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust with a different body of trustees - click here for further details on this and the success of the Eigg campaign.)
1 July 1992
A year ago we invited you to the press launch of the Isle of Eigg Trust and gave you a platform from which to say what you liked.
was an amicable occasion. We were courteous to you. You were critical of our
intentions, but decent enough to buy us all lunch afterwards. We were disappointed
when you were later quoted in the press as saying you would not sell into
community ownership, having joked that you could afford to buy us lunch in
anticipation of the large sum of money you might be receiving.
we needed from you (there would have been no problem with Margeret Williams) an
agreed price and fundraising timespan. However, in view of your remarks we have
had to play our pitch not knowing where the goalposts were or how long until
full time. You blew the whistle just 6 weeks ago. We have tried playing on
injury time, but failed to score.
endeavour was on behalf of the human and ecological communities, though we are
the first to acknowledge that you have been exemplary with respect to the
latter. Our involvement was not to counter you personally, but to challenge the
whole system of feudal Scottish land ownership, exemplified on Eigg, where life
under one of your predecessors has been described by current residents as being
“like living under enemy occupation”.
least with yourself back in the Lodge, people know the spread in what was
otherwise a game of chance where they had not been dealt a hand.
endeavour, as you know because we sent you copies of all-important documentation
in good faith, was endorsed by 73% of the resident population in secret ballot.
We also granted them power of veto over our actions. The Trust’s aims received
full political support from Highland Regional Council, through the hard work
of the Regional Councillor.
socio-economic viability of community ownership was established in a
feasibility study undertaken with funding through the Highlands and Islands
advice of many public, voluntary and corporate bodies was sought, as was that
of poets, artists, writers, historians and traditional musicians. Even Sir
Yehudi Menuhen said, “Is it not possible to fmd a way that the Eigg people can
own their own homes?”
all this. Notwithstanding all the newspaper headlines, radio interviews, TV
slots, the subscriptions and prayers of ordinary folk and everything else —
all this notwithstanding, you chose first to make things difficult for community
ownership, and then, amazingly, to buy back the island through your holding
ask you; we ask with emotions which are mixed but which are not soured so much
as to be devoid of charity and a willingness to seek that which is noble in you:
are you aware of what you have done? You are quoted in Harpers & Queen as
saying: “Somehow it seemed more important to beat the Germans at Silverstone
than to deal with a little Scottish island... I’m not worried if I don’t
win. I just don’t want to lose”.
wealth, you may have re-won the legal title to a little Scottish island. But you
can never own an island’s soul or that of the people who belong there. Soul,
nothing less, is what stands to be lost in all this.
the title you have bought may be valid under post-1707 and 1745 legal
constructs, please recognise that it has no moral authority whatsoever. Many of
the people of Scotland would consider it to be bad title.
title, because the land of the Highlands and Islands was not always a commodity
to be bought and sold with reference only to Mammon. It was owned by the people,
centred around clan chiefs of whom Lairdship is but a pale emulation.
see it from our historical perspective. At around the same time as colonialism
in the Third World was taking form, an alien cultural understanding was imposed
on us. This included the market means of controlling land, control too often
contrary to community interests.
was at complete odds with the spiritual traditions of the area, exemplified in
the book of Leviticus, that “Land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land
belongs to me” (Leviticus 25).
usurpation, indeed conquest, of our culture and our place is maintained today
by political authorities. We can only describe this as a cynical abdication by
national government of the duty to safeguard the wellbeing of Highland
communities and thereby enable full democratic expression. If you cannot readily
engage in action to improve your community for fear of the Laird, you are not
this charge is upheld is evident from recent remarks in the House. Lord James
Douglas-Hamilton has said in response to a question about Gigha by Ray Michie MP
on 4th June 1992, that sale of land “Is essentially a private matter... best
served by the removal of anti-competitive rules... Ownership should be resolved
within the framework of existing law. Land ownership is not a matter on which I
have a locus to intervene. However persuasive the hon. Lady is, I do not wish to
adopt the mantle of paternalism in this matter.”
us be unequivocal. Such a defence of Lairdship, the ultimate in paternalism,
has only the veneer of a carefully schooled accent between it and the grasping
rasp of today’s robber-baron class.
remarks signify a cultural establishment quite out of connection with that
literal Exodus, the Highland Clearances, perpetrated to consolidate bad title
to the land. Do not forget that this was an Exodus of half a million of our
people over the past 200 years. Some were driven out even by fire, or dogs, or
bound and thrown into the emigrant ship holds.
the consequences persist today. Witness not only Highland communities, but also
the intergenerational poverty of folk living in Scotland’s urban areas of
Clearances, let us remember, converted Eigg in less than 100 years from a
self-sufficient community of nearly 400 souls with almost one thousand acres
in arable cultivation, to a sporting estate with the 200 newly designated
crofters housed at the north infertile end of the island and not even allowed to
keep dogs. Between 1788 and 1790 alone, 176 people were cleared from Eigg.
We call for nothing less than the ownership framework which, where people wish, could permit a return from Exodus; a return in this era of ecological crisis from places of slavery to values destructive of humanity and nature.
recognition of the gravity of these matters, the Isle of Eigg Trust hereby
serves notice that it is now a Trust in Waiting. Go, look at the famous
fossil beds on “your” island, and you will see where the bedlam in time ends
in due course.
Our role is to wait, to monitor, and to serve as advocates if appropriate. Our strength is a simple willingness to speak truth unto power, through the media of the world if necessary.
know, prophesy remains important in our culture. We hold fast to the prophetic
concern that justice should roll on like a river. And we have our own prophets
who witnessed to injustice.
look this day to fulfillment of the hundred-year-old prophesy of Main Mhor nan
Oran, Mary MacPherson, bard of Skye, who said: “When I am in my coffin my
words will be as a prophecy. And there will return the stock of the tenantry who
were driven over the sea. And the gentry will be routed, as they, the crofters,
were. Deer and sheep will be wheeled away and the glens will be tilled. There
will be a time of sowing and of reaping. And the cold, ruined stances of houses
will be built on by our kinsfolk.”
feel present with our Highland communities today, as fresh as it was millennia
ago, the hand of another venerated prophet who pronounced: “Woe to those who
plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they
carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize
them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellow-man of
his inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).
know the true monetary value of Eigg. It is £15,000. We make a standing offer
of this to you. That is what in 1828, having done his worst, Clanranald first
sold Eigg for. And successive Lairds have had their return on capital. They have
drawn it by leeching the Earth and its people, or through riding proud on
displaced social kudos.
more must they enhance their sense of “being someone” by sucking out that
lifeforce which derives from the environment. Land, remember, is the bedrock and
soil of Creation itself; the starting point from which we fmd purpose in
glorifying and enjoying the wellspring of Creation forever.
from fancied ownership. Make good this bad title, and be honoured for it.
that is too much, then may your paternalism at least have benign effect. May you
address as first priority the needs of the people and natural ecology of Eigg.
wish all power and credit to your hand in so doing. And may your heart be warmed
in the process.
These things, we
of The Isle of
Editorial note: In
a discussion following a lively hour-long debate with Alastair McIntosh on
Lesley Riddoch’s BBC Radio Scotland “Speaking Out” programme (7.7.92),
Mr Schellenberg agreed to meet in the autumn with the Trust, residents and
representatives of public bodies to seek constructive ways forward for community
development on Eigg.
note to Internet version: This
did not happen, but the rest is history.
Forsyth is founder of the Eigg Trust and a crofter at Scoraig in Wester Ross.
Bob Harris is a farmer and chairs the Lochwinnoch Community Council. Alastair McIntosh is Development Director at Edinburgh
University’s Centre for Human Ecology.
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