Eigg without Rùm
This article first appeared in Issue 219
The island of Eigg is the second largest and most populous of the Small Isles located off the west coast of Scotland south of Skye. From the mainland and arriving by sea Eigg is impossible to mistake with its towering rock prow of volcanic origin: An Sgurr. It is somewhere I have been visiting for the last 15 years and over that time, even though most of my annual visits have only been day trips by boat when staying on Knoydart, I have gradually come to have explored much of the island. With the landscape offering a host of photographic opportunities, both geological and of human occupation since the stone age, culminating with the community buyout of the island in recent times.
Visitors will usually arrive on either the CalMac ferry Lochnevis from Mallaig or the Sheerwater from Arisag at either the pier or slipway at Galmisdale. Here can be found the island's social hub: the Pier Centre (An Laimhrig) with shop and cafe (and where postcard maps for way-marked trails can be purchased from the craftshop). Galmisdale to the southeast is one of two main centres of population on the island, the other being Cleadale to the northwest, with the road between crossing the notch in the island's profile which may give Eigg its name. A taxi or minibus can be arranged for the journey across the island (bikes can also be hired), but if time and weather permit the hour or so walk is recommended. If walking the detour from the road at the solar farm via the forestry path is recommended. However, forgoing the shortcut across the island I'm going to present a tour roughly circumnavigating the island in a clockwise direction.
Starting from the pier take the track up hill through bluebell and ramson woods. A detour can be made down to Massacre and Cathedral Caves looking out to Muck to the southwest, but believe Massacre Cave is currently out of bounds due to rockfalls and watch the tide if visiting Cathedral Cave. Continuing out of the woods leads to the iconic view of the pitchstone An Sgurr above Galmisdale House. Passing wind-bent hawthorns, the path up An Sgurr leaves the track behind the house and it is a straightforward walk to the top, despite the apparent impregnability on the initial approach. The path climbs around flanking An Sgurr and it then traverses back along the ridge to the summit and trigpoint, where it is wise to keep away from the edge!
If instead of climbing An Sgurr the track behind Galmisdale House is followed west around the coast past wind turbines (forming part of the island's green grid) the old settlement of Upper Grulin is reached. Here are blackhouse remains and enclosures in the bracken plus a renovated whitewashed bothy. Continuing a mile or so on to the end of the track further ruins are reached at Lower Grulin. Above Grulin the ridge of An Sgurr extends west to An Corrach and to the north an area of remote lochs and hills. In future I hope to explore this wild and rough area further out to Beinn Tighe.
Bay of Laig
Continuing around the coast brings you to the Bay of Laig, a major feature of the geography of the island. However, traversing from the back of An Sgurr directly down is not recommended being over waist deep heather over uneven ground. A path from the forestry in the centre of the island drops down through a groove above a small lochan to Laig farm and then along the beach where cows can often be seen cooling themselves. At the north end of the bay crazy geological formations, for which Eigg is rightly famous, start and become crazier the further on you go along the shoreline. With concretions and volcanic dykes cutting through the surrounding sandstone.
The second population centre of the island. A classic crofting landscape can be seen with strips of land running down from the rough hillside to more fertile land towards the sea. With an older pre-crofting field system still visible to the north at what was the Five Pennies township. At Cleadale a pop-up tea shop sometimes operates (follow the track up from the north end of the beach and turn right at the postbox). Also worth a visit is the crofting museum: from the postbox, follow the road north taking the right fork at the war memorial and lookout for the old tractor outside.
Singing Sands (Camas Sgiotaig)
Further around the coast past the region of mad geology is the Singing Sands (although best reached from the Bay of Laig across the fields above, rather than traversing the coast itself). Named for the squeaking sands when walked upon when dry, due in part to the uniform size of the sand grains. An often photographed waterfall can be found at the back of a mini slot canyon (which ideally needs overcast conditions). The wellington boot shrine on the stile leading onto the beach had disappeared on recent visits.
From inland of the Singing Sands a path climbs past Howlin to the col below the nose of Beinn Bhuidhe which is easier to climb than it looks from afar, via a zigzag path. Once climbed, from the island's second trigpoint you can walk south along the edge above Cleadale, with ways down via a gully above Lageorna or by continuing onwards down the slopes of An Cruachan towards the centre of the island to eventually meet the road. In wet weather waterfalls cascade off the escarpment.
Alternatively from the col you can drop back down to the coast at the north end of the island, where the old Clyde puffer Jennie wrecked in 1954 can be found wedged into a sea cave below Sgorr Sgaileach, but be careful not to be cut off by the tide. (The vessel sent to salvage her cargo also foundered nearby!) Following the coast further around higher up, there are no paths just sheep tracks.
On this remote side, at the abandoned settlement at Strudih a waterfall cascades down the cliffs above down to backhouse ruins. Further on a hidden bracken encircled lochan reflects the sky. Eventually a path begins and leads up through a nik in the cliffs out into the fields above Kildonnan. Be warned, from Cleadale to Kildonnan around the north of the island is a good 4 hour walk over rough ground.
The main interest at Kildonnan is the graveyard and roofless medieval chapel on the site of an early monastery established by St Donnan in the 7th century, with archaeological evidence of an even earlier neolithic burial ground. Below the chapel is a small bay backed by basalt cliffs above which An Sgurr can be seen in the distance. A road leads up to the centre of the island or you can continue following the coast, a path traverses below the cliffs, then across fields above and then down to the island's campsite.
Crossing the camping field you reach Clanranald Pier, build at the end of the 18th century primarily for the export of kelp, now currently home to a number of interesting old boats: on my last visit Talisman an old Royal Navy launch and the concrete boat Petros (once owned by local adventurer Tex Geddes). It is then a short distance back around the harbour to the cafe at the Pier Centre where having completed your circumnavigation a well deserved beer, ice cream or mug of tea can be enjoyed.
Now at journey's end, this has obviously been a brief tour, giving only an outline of what the island has to offer, but hope it gives an idea of the terrain and opportunities for the outdoor/landscape photographer. I've also seen bodies of work by others focussed on the people and island life rather than just the landscape.
Having first seen Eigg in the distance from Ardnamurchan while on a walking holiday to Scotland in 1992, it wasn't until 2005 that I first visited and on that first visit never imagined that I'd be returning annually thereafter. These repeated visits have given me the luxury of not feeling pressured to get the picture, already having images I was happy with, once I'd visited a few times and knowing I hoped to return again. Where revisiting locations is a way of working that I find photographically productive. I consider Eigg (and the other Small Isles) to be an ongoing project and am looking forward to my next visit, whenever that may be.
- 1:25000 OS Explorer Map 397
- 1:25000 Harvey Superwalker Map XT25
- Isle of Eigg Craftshop, Postcard Maps and Guide.
- Camille Dressler, Eigg: The Story of an Island, Birlinn 2007. Covers the human history of the island.
- Kathryn Goodenough & Tom Bradwell, Rum and the Small Isles: A Landscape Fashioned by Geology, Scottish National Heritage 2004. Covers the geological formation of the region.
- John Hunter, The Small Isles, Historic Environment Scotland 2016. Covers the archeology of the island in great detail.
- Denis Rixson, The Small Isles: Canna, Rum, Eigg & Muck, Birlinn 2001. Covers the wider history of the region.
Thanks to Andy Tibbetts for local knowledge and to Ben Osborne for letting me wander.