It’s not everyone’s idea of escape. A force 7 gale lashes the boat as we cross the stormy Sound of Eigg. But we are leaving all visible signs of the general election on the mainland and I welcome that thought even as I close my eyes and get my head down, praying I won’t need to make use of the poly bag thoughtfully provided by the crew.
“Bumpy? That was just splashy.” Ronnie, the skipper of MV Sheerwater, has a dry sense of humour and a firm grasp of the craft that carries people to and from the islands of Muck and Eigg in many weathers. On less splashy trips he would be pointing out seals, birds and dolphins too, maybe, on the one and a half hour journey from Arisaig.
Wind and waves permitting, they will also transport the votes of these Small Isles back to Arisaig after 10pm on 7 May. They do it come election and referendum. Seeing the ballot boxes being lifted on and off the boat is as fine a symbol of democracy in action as I can think of.
So we may be escaping the tedious politics of this endless general election campaign but there are healthy signs of real democracy all around us. Muck’s welcoming community hall above the harbour at Port Mor, built with help of lottery money and local determination, provides an essential meeting place for the population of around 40 – and the kind of hands-on practical decision-making that mainland communities rarely experience. It’s a remarkable achievement for what is essentially a family-owned farm surrounded by sea.
The MacEwan family own the land but the whole community is involved in deciding new developments like the salmon farm which has brought jobs and people as well as valuable investment in new homes. The winds that rock the Sheerwater and frequently disrupt CalMac ferry services also generate energy and that has transformed life on the island.
Managing the island’s renewable energy supply is the responsibility of the Isle of Muck Community Enterprise. “It is hard to describe to someone who lives elsewhere the huge impact a reliable and less expensive power supply will have on the island,” said Ewan MacEwan, chair of the community company when the windpower scheme was switched on in July 2000 bringing electricity for eight hours each day. Two years ago a combined scheme of wind turbines and solar panels allowed islanders to switch to a 24 hour power supply – with only the occasional need to resort to diesel generators for backup, reducing both household bills and carbon emissions.
There’s a message of hope for a wider world here (oh, if only the politicians could see it). You just need to step ashore on neighbouring Eigg – as we did on the journey out and back – where residents get more than 90% of their electricity from hydro, solar and wind schemes. That’s achieved with a democratic sharing of resources which may offer a glimpse of a more equitable future if any political leader has the courage to steer towards it. As the noticeboard by Eigg quay declares:
ENOUGH FOR EVERYONE
We can only use what we make. To ensure nobody goes short, each house has a maximum use limit at any one time of 5kW, each business 10kW.
5kW is enough for an electric kettle and washing machine, or fifty 100w light bulbs! Spreading our use throughout the day is easy, and OWL meters tell us how much we’re using moment by moment.
And, by the way, Eigg claimed a 100% turnout during the referendum. [Western Isles voted No 53% to 47%.]
I have no idea what crucial decision-making meetings are like in any of the Small Isles (Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna). Local democracy may well be just as bumpy and splashy as some boat trips. But the six-seven hour journey from Edinburgh to Muck is a reminder that both Holyrood and Westminster are a long way from the immediate, important facts of life. Here, weather and season impose a reality more clearly felt and defined than Full Fiscal Autonomy.
And I have no idea what people on Muck make of the election campaign – whether they will stick with LibDem Charles Kennedy or switch to SNP hopeful Ian Blackford – that topic did not arise in Gallanach Lodge as we sat watching the clouds roll across Rum, the mesmerising views changing with each new front coming in from the south west.
But as we sail back to the sound and fury of the latest opinion polls it occurs to me that politicians of all colours have failed to inspire voters with a proper definition of what devolution could bring – a real transfer of power from our centralising government to genuine grassroots roll-your-sleeves-up activity. Enterprising communities like Muck and Eigg show what people achieve when they have a common purpose. How about community owned renewable energy schemes in the remote urban islands of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee….?