John Hudson's visits to Eigg over 58 years
Emeritus Professor of Geology, John Hudson first came to Eigg as a young geology student and made many return visits throughout his long career, bringing students and then groups of amateur geologists to explore the remarkable geology of the island.
As I first visited the island in 1955 I must have longer memories of Eigg than almost any of your visitors, or indeed of islanders who are still active: a consequence, I suppose, of longevity and persistence. My visits have all been quite brief, no more than three weeks at a time, for geological research initially, then for several family holidays, and latterly in leading geology field trips from Glebe Barn. I have never been, or sought to be, part of the island community, though naturally I have made good and long-lasting friendships, particularly with those I have stayed with. So anything I write will be partial and impressionistic. I will not attempt a strict chronological account, nor attempt to compete with Camille Dressler’s account of the events leading up to the buy-out. I don’t want to look things up. Nevertheless, I hope my memories may have some interest for those too young to remember times long past.
My 1955 visit was brief, to scan the geology as part of an undergraduate project. The following year I started my PhD work, accompanied by my friend David Wright, who was awaiting his call-up for National Service. We arrived a day early. Dolly and Duncan Ferguson took us in at Hill Cottage for a night, then we stayed for two weeks with Dugald and Katie MacKinnon at Cleadale. We had instantly made friends with the Ferguson family, so we several times walked across the island in the evenings to chat with them. Other memories include a ceilidh at the village hall, where we were introduced to the custom of hiding a whisky bottle under the bushes, a tactic apparently started when ceilidhs were held at the school so alcohol was prohibited. The ceilidh finished at dawn, after which Dugald drove us back in his van (then the only vehicle on the island), then drove straight back to the pier and his duties as ferryman.
Over the next few years I stayed with the Fergusons at Hill Cottage. This was the end of the Runciman era, when their factor, Mr Rutherford, ran the estate in its traditional form. I remember when the sheep were being gathered at Kildonnan and Dolly’s kitchen was full of Gaelic conversation, tea and griddle scones. Lighting was by Tilley lamp or candles for the bedrooms.
Duncan was a very knowledgeable naturalist as well as a shepherd. Visiting naturalists and academics were directed towards him, and there were few other visitors. I remember thinking that Duncan (junior) and Annabel must have had a skewed impression of what the outside world was like. Duncan senior kept a close watch on the eagles. He corresponded with the well-known naturalist Seton Gordon from Skye, and was proud f an article in The Scotsman recording his observations. Fergus Gowans supplied copies of The Times so Duncan was well informed. We would sit down of an evening deliberately to have a conversation; no radio, still less television. This pattern continued for years as the Fergusons moved around the island following changes in ownership. Dolly was the sweetest of people. It was distressing to see the state to which she was reduced, after Duncan’s death, during the bad times.
In 1972 I led a group of geological colleagues around the Inner Hebrides. There was still little accommodation on Eigg, but Peggy and Doonny Kirk agreed to squeeze most of us into Laig Farm, including its loft space; some boarded elsewhere or in tents. From then on Laig became our main base as Peggy ran it as a guesthouse after Donny died. Marie helped from an early age, as did Sue, later a Kirk herself. We had memorable family holidays there, sometimes overlapping with geological activities. Meanwhile the problems of ownership of the island were increasing, with two largely absent or incompetent lairds followed by Schellenberg’s initially promising new broom. I was at Laig with research students while the forestry on the hillside above was being established by a crew, who brought fabulous quantities of beer to help them along. A quantity of felled timber was incautiously stowed on the pier before a high tide swept it away and caused a shipping alert in the Sound.. Things went from bad to worse. The reaction of the islanders when Schellenberg appeared on the television was, to say the least, instructive. Eigg became famous, or notorious, as the revolt gathered, led in large part by those whom Schellenberg had invited to the island. Through it all though, Eigg remained as beautiful as ever, and some of us continued to visit our friends as the population declined.
In the early 1990s I was involved in revising the geological memoir on the small isles, a project led by Henry Emeleus. By now, Kildonnan House was the main guesthouse on the island, run by Marie Carr (nee Kirk) while Colin farmed the sheep. The hospitality and the food were superb, though the plumbing less good than it is now. On every subsequent visit I have made a point of stopping at Marie’s for a cup of tea and the latest gossip.
Then the buyout. In 1999 I retired from teaching at Leicester University, and as my own contribution to the celebrations invited several ex students, colleagues and geological friends to my favourite island. Simon and Karen Helliwell had just built and se up Glebe Barn as a field centre and hostel, ideal for our purpose. But first we had to get there. We arrived at Arisaig on a beautiful evening, but the forecast gale arrived by morning, and we were stuck on the mainland for 3 days. But most of us made it across. The weather relented, and a great time was had by all. My wife Norah acted as “house mother”. We had the idea of running geology field courses based at Glebe Barn. These ran successfully for the next few tears, including an especially memorable one for the Edinburgh Geological Society in 2003. Ann Allwright and I wrote a little guidebook to go with the courses and to be sold in the craft shop. I had to suspend the courses when Norah became ill, but after she died they eventually resumed in collaboration with Angus Miller.
Meanwhile, much was happening in the wider island scene, including the construction of the new pier, the renovation of many of the houses, and more recently the success of Green Eigg with its hydro, wind and solar power. My latest visit was this year, March 2013, in dry but bitterly cold easterly weather. I have never before seen so much activity on the pier as when the ferry pulled in and vans etc. rolled off it.
How things have changed. Inevitably, something has been lost, a sense of remoteness certainly, and a kind of magic perhaps. Gaelic is taught rather than being the natural tongue of the island. But to this outsider at least the island seems to be thriving, and it is heartening to see how established families are staying and new people arriving. Better a living, changing community than a dying relic. And the rocks remain.