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Features / Photography

“Eigg is magic”: Danny North’s beautiful portrayal of an isolated, self-sufficient community

Photographs:

Danny North

On 12 June 1997, the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust took control of the Isle of Eigg: one of the Small Isles, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, seven miles off the west coast of Scotland. Under the previous landlord system, the Islanders suffered poor housing conditions, unemployment and a lack of adequate infrastructure. However, after its successful community buyout, structures were set up to make sure that the Islanders would always have an opportunity to be involved in decisions that affected their community and this year (2018) will mark the centenary of Eigg becoming completely self-sufficient and off the grid via three forms of renewable energy.

Despite its small size – coming in at just 12 square miles and with a population of around 100 people – this chain of events has instilled a ferocious sense of community within the people of Eigg, known as Eigach or Eiggers. It was this spirit and sense of belonging that photographer Danny North discovered when he travelled to this remarkable place in 2016, inspiring his series As I Found Her: A Portrait of Eigg.

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Originally from Leeds, Danny has worked in London for over a decade but finally moved to the city he now calls home three years ago. It was from London that Danny first travelled to Eigg on 24 June 2016 – the day the UK voted to leave the European Union. “My first impressions of Eigg were almost certainly influenced by the shock of the Brexit vote,” Danny recalls, “it was a rather strange day to be heading off on my own to a remote Scottish Isle for a few weeks, not knowing a soul there.”

It took Danny over 12 hours to complete the drive from London, upon which he stayed in a B&B to wait for the ferry in the morning. “The island feels like you’re at the end of the world,” he describes. “It’s no exaggeration that most people in the UK could get to LA or Tokyo quicker than Eigg.  All of that just adds to the vibe that if you go to Eigg, you make the effort to get there – it’s a pilgrimage.” When he finally reached the lonely and windswept island, he was greeted by the warm, kind and sharing Eigach people: “Some of the best I’ve ever met.” He stayed for two weeks, and over the following year, visited the island a further four times for a total of around seven weeks.

“It was like an accelerated version of living there,” Danny tells It’s Nice That, “in the first two weeks I’d been inside dozens of houses, and shared food with people at their tables. By the end of my first stay, I felt like I had gotten to know the Islanders too well and heard all of the gossip – it was the equivalent of living there for about five years.”

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Connection, understanding, finding friendship and kin is at the heart of Danny’s photographic practice. He cut his teeth documenting the music scene in Leeds, quickly becoming the go-to guy and eventually shooting two to three times a week for the NME, taking up photography full-time 11 years ago. Although spending years capturing the excitement and drama of gigs and clubs, Danny’s photos of Eigg are altogether different. His portraits are tender and sympathetic, his lens never feeling intrusive but instead like a conversation between friends. The images travel from living rooms to kitchens to the incredible landscape of this isolated place but with the Eiggers always becoming the focus of Danny’s attention.

The series feels so incredibly genuine because that’s exactly what it is. After his initial arrival, Danny took the time to get to know the people of Eigg in an effort to portray an honest reflection of his experiences there. “As the people of Eigg started to hear that I was staying for around two weeks (on my first visit), they began to open up to me. It was really the fact that I wasn’t a fly-by-night, that allowed our friendship to grow,” he explains. As a way to cherish and respect the relationships he nurtured, Danny prefers to let the photos tell his stories. “I don’t really feel that comfortable discussing publicly the individual interactions I had there. I feel like a deep trust of friendship has grown between myself and the people of Eigg, and I don’t want to reduce my time and their friendship to anecdotes.”

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Nearly one year to the day since he first visited Eigg, Danny returned in June 2017 to host an exclusive exhibition of the series for the Islanders in their town hall. Danny tells It’s Nice That how, “the locals started to appear, and eventually 80% of the island had passed through the exhibition. Whisky was shared, tears flowed and laughter filled the hall. It really was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.” With the exception of the exhibition, Danny kept the work largely unseen until it felt “right” to show it, leading to a nomination for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize for his photograph of Maggie atop an armchair in an overgrown poly tunnel.

As I Found Her: A Portrait of Eigg tells the story of one island and its people but also reflects a much broader narrative. It demonstrates what it might mean to live on any Island, at the mercy of nature and the inevitable tight-knit communities that evolve as a result. “If your car breaks down, four people will turn up to try and fix it. If your house springs a leak, the people of Eigg come together to solve that problem,” he explains.

With plans to return and continue the series, Eigg has offered Danny much more than a creative output. It’s offered him a chance to explore his desire to belong somewhere and the joy he felt upon discovering this tiny place. “Eigg is magic,” he describes, “there lies a bond between its people and the Isle that is unspeakable, it’s a connection that grows the longer you stay. I had started to feel it myself. I want to live there, I want to be part of the isle and its community.”

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