(I’m happy to announce that as of today my blog is working again! )
As mentioned a while ago, I contacted Camille Dressler, Eigg’s local historian, to ask a few questions about the island’s history. Camille runs two projects on the island; a small museum which focuses on the island’s geology and involves local schools in history projects, and a Croft in the Cleadale Valley which she’s restored exactly as it would have been 100 years ago…
Rose: Firstly Camille, many thanks for agreeing to answer some questions about Eigg’s history. Can you tell me how you came to live on Eigg and also, was it your first move from France?
Camille: I was living in France studying English, and my boyfriend’s mother found us this place on Eigg for a winter let so we came to spend the winter here to study, write and paint!
R: Can you tell me what you do now on Eigg?
C: As well as running the museum and croft I’m studying energy arts, such as qi gong and dao yin yoga, also writing and making arty crafty things…
R: So, going back to Eigg’s early history, is there any evidence of pre-historic settlers on Eigg, such as archaeological remains or evidence of how the earliest settlers might have lived?
C: There is evidence that the first people of Scotland – people of the Mesolithic, i.e. 8000 years ago – were on Eigg as well as Rum where they collected flint-like bloodstone. They seemed to have been camping by the shore and spending much time making bloodstone tools, as a lot of their discarded tiny flint shards have been found when gardens have been dug close to the shore….
R: And what would you say are the most significant changes they would have experienced over the centuries – such as different houses or ways of finding food?
C: Probably the introduction of cultivation was the most significant change for these hunter gatherers, then the way they bury their dead in stone costs in the middle of the land, indicating that it was important to have the blessing of the ancestors for its continuing fertility…
R: Can you tell me about life for Eigg’s inhabitants in the Middle Ages – how were communities organised and what kind of hierarchical systems existed then?
C: They’d have been part of the clan system, a tacksman holding the land from the clan chief to whom he was more or less distantly related, and a lot of ordinary clansmen tilling the land in exchange of military service…. land being used to grow oats and raise cattle mostly, it’s a system that was basically unchanged until the end of the clan system in the 18th century…
R: Scotland went through many changes from the 15th to 18th centuries. Can you tell me about the most significant changes for these communities over that time? For example the Clearances?
C: Well, after Culloden, there was massive emigration to the New World, Crofting put an end to that by attaching people to the land by forcing them into wage labour to supplement what they could grow. And then, when the kelp boom subsided that had employed people for 30 to 40 years, folks were then being sent overseas to make room for sheep, which were more profitable for the landlord.
R: Are there any individual stories you know of from the time of the Clearances, for example how might individual lives have been affected?
C: The impact could be devastating. One woman was so upset after having to leave Grulin and seeing most of her neighbours have to leave the island that she threw herself from the cliffs near her new home into the sea and drowned.
R: How far did the population numbers of the island change due to the devastation of the clearances? And when did the island begin to recover again?
C: It went from almost 500 in the late 18th century to 60 in the 1960’s. It’s been increasing since then and is now at around 95 people
R: When I was on Eigg it was highly recommended I visit Croft No. 6, I discovered it in the late evening and it made quite an impression; it was rather haunting – as if the inhabitants had just left, or were about to return. It beautifully captures the life of an Eigg dweller in the last century. Can you tell me about the inspiration for the project?
We just wanted to ensure people could compare the way of life then with the way they live now. The way we set up the museum was largely inspired by the Spinster house museum I visited in a visit to Finland, where the islanders there decided to keep the spinster house just as it was after the last spinster -and spinner of flax- died. We wanted people to feel that experience of coming into an islander’s home, and discover the objects therein for themselves, rather than setting it up as a museum where everything is labelled and out of bounds.
R: That’s exactly how I experienced it; quite fascinating and refreshingly unlabeled so visitors can explore in their own way! Lastly, what projects are you working on now, and can you tell us where we can find more information about them?
C: We are about to start on phase 2 of the croft museum, involving renovation of the cart shed and the henhouse, one of which will be thatched. I’m also involved in research into how we can become part of the international beach art project which seeks to raise awareness of the extent of plastic pollution in the marine environment…
R: Many thanks Camille for introducing us to Eigg’s history. There’s a lot that canbe explored so if you’d like to read more, Camille has written a book called Eigg: The Story of an Island which you can read about or buy Here
Also, for more information on the Clearances and their impact, some more information Here