Discovering Isle of Eigg Through My Senses

Zein Al-Maha Oweis is a PhD researcher in Media and Cultural Policy at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on disability representation in Jordanian media both legacy and digital. Zein is visually impaired and a guide dog user. You will always find her accompanied by her trusty guide dog Mitch, a fox coloured Golden Retriever. When not working on her PhD thesis at the ARC, Zein is either adventuring around Scotland and other places around the UK, exploring different coffee and tea spots around Glasgow or trying to get back onto the dancefloor.

Zein’s blog post documents her time on the Isle of Eigg as part of a PhD Civic Engagement Residency offered in collaboration between Bothy Project and Thinking Culture, School of Culture & Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow. This opportunity was part of Bothy Project’s Fieldwork Residency strand.

“When you start using senses you’ve neglected, your reward is to see the world with completely fresh eyes”

– Barbara Sher

One of the things we humans take for granted is the use of our five senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste. We become oblivious to these, but you start to fully indulge and use them when you have lost one of these precious senses. As a visually impaired researcher, I have come to hone my four senses and use them to see the world around me. By doing so, I am able to enjoy everything my environment has to offer.

When I got the news that I was accepted into the PhD Civic Engagement Residency, a collaboration between -Bothy Project and the Thinking Culture programme at the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, I was ecstatic. As part of the Fieldwork Residencies, researchers, academics and even early-career experts get the opportunity to share their research with diverse audiences. As a researcher focusing on disability representation in Jordanian media, I was tasked to visit the Eigg Primary School and share my journey with sight loss and being a guide dog user with the primary children. While I’m used to talking about my sight loss journey, it was the first time I had to speak to children about it. Nevertheless, I have never been one for stepping away from a challenge. 

Nelly, Zein and Guide Dog Mitch are sitting in front of the Sweeney's Bothy all smiling. Scenic views of the mountains in Cleadale are seen behind them.
Nelly, Zein and Guide Dog Mitch are sitting in front of the Sweeney’s Bothy all smiling. Scenic views of the mountains in Cleadale are seen behind them.

When I got the email that I was accepted into one of the fieldwork residencies, I was thrilled! My adventurous side was giddy with joy over spending a week on the beautiful Isle of Eigg. As part of the experience, myself, my guide dog Mitch, and my very close friend Nelly would be staying at the cozy Sweeney’s Bothy in Cleadale on Eigg from March 8th till March 15th. So many questions began to run through my mind. What sounds will I be hearing? What textures will I be feeling? What smells will my noise be encompassed by? Who will I be meeting from the lovely community? I knew this experience would invoke sensory overload, as it does in new environments and places, but I was overjoyed to be adventuring to a new place in Scotland. 

Leg 1: Glasgow to Malliag

In order to get to the Isle of Eigg, you need to take a five hour and thirty-minute Scotrail train to Mallaig from Glasgow Queen Street Station before alighting onto a one-hour CalMac ferry to the Isle of Eigg. When on the train to Mallaig, you are met with beautiful scenic views such as Benn Nevis and the Glenfinnan Viaduct – famous for sighting The Jacobean Train, also known as the Hogwarts Express Train. While on our journey to Mallaig, the one thing that caught my attention was the sound of the engine and whistle. It reminded me of the clicking noises of horses when trotting. Needless to say, that sound has a permeant place in my brain. However, at times the train would sound its horn which resembles the one on a steam train, or for me reminds me of the sound of Thomas the Tank Engine. When we finally arrived at Mallaig, we were greeted by hues of pink, orange and red as the sun began to set. My nose quickly adjusted to the smells of ferry docks, fish, and boat fuel. 

View from the window looking out at Mallaig from The West Highlands Hotel. The sun is setting and the sky is full of orange, red and yellow hues.
View from the window looking out at Mallaig from The West Highlands Hotel. The sun is setting and the sky is full of orange, red and yellow hues.

Leg 2: Malliag to Isle of Eigg

The next day brought the warmth of sunshine kissing our faces as we boarded the CalMac ferry to the Isle of Eigg. Sun – oh how I have missed its warmth. Living in Glasgow, the sun does not usually grace us with her presence unless she decides to appear on certain days. The first thing you realize on the CalMac ferry is the signage around noting that only Guide Dogs are allowed in the café areas. Luckily, Mitch stuck to my side while we navigated around to find some seats on the top deck. We even got the chance to try their accessible elevator – old fashioned, but very spacious for wheelchair users and curious dogs such as Mitch who kept on looking around as we were transported to the higher levels of the ferry. As the journey begins, your ears are greeted by the announcements in English and Scottish Gaelic. My favorite part of the journey is getting to step outside onto one of the decks and watching the waves crash into the ferry’s body while moving gently across, witnessing the mainland behind the horizon. I love the sound of the waves, even though they were mellow which meant a smooth trip to the island. 

Guide dog Mitch sitting on the outside deck of the CalMac ferry on the way to Isle of Eigg.

White waves crashing onto the sides of the CalMac ferry on the journey to Isle of Eigg.

Waves are not the only thing you will hear when on the ferry. Noises filled my ears as bits of chatter hit them, as you are surrounded by families accompanying you on the same voyage. I even got to meet two of the children from the primary school who were infatuated with Mitch and funnily enough were also traveling with their family dog, Miggie. 

Welcome to Isle of Eigg

As soon as the ferry docks, you are engulfed with the sounds of moving cars and people talking and laughing. You know you are in the right place as the first thing you see when walking off the ferry is the sign ‘Welcome to the Isle of Eigg’ in big white letters plastered on a green background. That to me is accessible from the start and puts me at ease. Being thrust into a new environment always has me a wee bit nervous, however, seeing that sign made me relax and feel grounded. 

Welcome to Isle of Eigg white letters on a green background. Sign is next to a sign that reads Big Green Footsteps all in capital letters.
Welcome to Isle of Eigg white letters on a green background. Sign is next to a sign that reads Big Green Footsteps all in capital letters.

As soon as we started walking towards the sign, we were greeted by the cheery and kind Charlie, the only taxi driver on the isle who at the end of our trip became a close friend. If you get the chance to chat with him, ask him about his tales from when he was an army medic. After grabbing some groceries and necessities from the shop, we hopped into Charlie’s van and headed off to Sweeney’s Bothy. 

While driving along the only road on the island, your eyes are treated to beautiful scenes filled with nature and the sea line along the horizon with the Isle of Rum peaking in between in the distance. While we were staying in the north, the sky is greeted by mountain tips. Charlie’s van halts at the driveway of our neighbor’s lovely home as the road continuing up to the Bothy has to be done by foot. Our neighbors Lucy and Eddie, own the land in which the Bothy is situated on. Lovely folk who also had a young, spirited dog called Fiji who became best friends with Mitch and almost gave him a run for his money, energy-wise. We are later greeted by Kat, one of the lovely women who lives on the island who helped us settle in and showed us the ropes.

As soon as I stepped into the Sweeney’s Bothy, the first thing that caught my eyes were the large windows in front of the table which became my new desk. Whenever I visit a place or spend some time at a place, I usually inhabit one chair, which I will sit in for the entirety of the visit. A habit I am yet to let go of. The first thing that hits your nose is the smell of grass, chopped wood and clean oxygen. Isle of Eigg is known for its zero-air pollution, which made the oxygen we were breathing in pure. What made this place special to me was the quietness. It was so quiet that as soon as I closed my eyes, I could hear the wind blowing and dancing with the trees and tickling the grass between our feet. 

Guide dog Mitch, fox colored Golden Retriever sitting outside on the grass with the view of Isle of Rum in the distance.

Table inside the Sweeney’s Bothy in front of the windows that look towards Isle of Rum in the distance. On the table lies two coffee travel mugs, a box of Jordanian dates and a box of Jordanian Mamoul.

Living in a city, we tend to take advantage of the nature or the beautiful senses we use because we are busy focusing on our jobs, our studies and social media that we forget to stop, close our eyes and breathe in everything around us. Up here at the Bothy, I was so happy because I was able to focus on the moment and not anything else. It was a break in my usual routine that was very needed. While staying at the Bothy, one of my favorite things was to watch the sun set through the window while working on my PhD thesis and waking up to the sun rising through the windows around the Bothy itself. However, I could do without being woken up every morning at the crack of down by the rooster next door! 

Beach Waves and Hiking 1,311 Feet Above Sea Level

While spending time on the island I got the opportunity to recharge my mind, centre it, but also rid it of any negative energy such as worry or stress, which I left back on the mainland. Having no WIFI and only 4G connection, I was able to finish my writing with ease without any distractions. It shows you how much time we waste on social media, scrolling for countless of hours. I was blessed for the peace and quiet I had to finish my work. This also gave me the opportunity to spend my days outdoors walking across Laig Bay’s white sandy shores listening to the waves crash vigorously while Mitch runs around with his tennis ball enjoying himself while splashing around. I know he is having a blast as his free run collar bells ring frantically indicating that he is either running or shaking in order to rid himself of the wetness clinging to his fox colored long haired coat. We even got to pick some lovely shells and touch the white sand. It is such a joyous feeling when you pick up sand and have it seep through your fingers as you listen to its sound as it falls to the shore, like whispers, quiet and gentle.

Laig Bay off white sandy beach shores with black rocks laying on top. In the distance can see some mountains and some crashing waves.

Guide dog Mitch is sitting on the white sandy shore of Laig Bay Beach with his green and yellow tennis ball in his mouth. The waves can be seen behind him with his lead placed nicely next to him.

While not walking across the sandy beaches of Eigg, Mitch, Nelly and I would adventure around the beautiful, scenic nature that encompasses most of the island. One of my favorite walks which lead to a hike was the one we took on Mother’s Day which led us hiking up 1.311 feet above sea level. The reason I love this hike is because we had gorgeous weather where once again, I enjoyed the sunshine’s rays hitting my cheeks, a rarity in Scotland. On top of that, I got to use my touch senses and went close and personal with the nature around me whenever the terrain was steep or my cane could not support my ascent. At such moments, I would get on my hands and knees and I would touch the heather, rocks, moss and moist soil.

Feeling the heather was a first for me as I have always seen heather when visiting the highlands on tours with friends and family. The best way to describe the experience is like touching cotton, it was soft and at times cushioned us like a bean bag when we needed to take some breaks every now and then. When it came to the rocks, I felt a sense of calmness as I had to hug some of them at times to stable my balance and not look down as at times, we were up high above sea level. Each rock has a different texture. Some were smooth while others had cracks and sharp edges. Each one had their own personality. When stepping on the moss I made sure to do it gently as not to destroy it as we were walking and stepping onto nature, which on its own is a gift, as not many countries have such lush nature. What took time to get used to was pressing my hands into the moist soil. Some people would find this gross, but for someone with heightened senses, it was as if I was pressing all of my negative vibes into the earth ridding myself of it and in response, I was receiving positivity and solace. Due to the soil being moist, at times my handprint was left in the places when I pressed my hands and fingers. This reminded me of when Simba placed his paw on top of his father’s paw in the Lion King. While hiking I learned how resilient and strong one’s body is, but also, I learned how much fun it could be to go up high altitudes. It also showed me how much patience you need for hiking. 

Guide dog Mitch and Zein sitting on the green moss and brown rocks while some of the blue sky peaks behind them. Zein is holding her white cane next to her and is wearing a black rain jacket, red beenie and a Jordanian white and red hatta.

View of Isle of Eigg and Isle of Rum from 1,311 feet above sea level. Some rocks can be seen from either side of the picture and a wooden pole is situated in between the rocks.

Integrating a Journey with Sight Loss into the Eigg Community

While it was wonderful getting the opportunity to discover Eigg through my different senses, the main reason as mentioned at the beginning, was to visit the Primary School on Eigg to share my journey with sight loss, but also to give an inside look at what it is like to be a guide dog user, the different tools I use to assist me in my daily life such as my trusty white cane ‘Storm’ and my OrCam (e-reader). It was a joy for me to sit down with the older primary school children in their quaint classroom filled with paintings and writings on the wall. It felt as if I travelled back in time to when I was in primary school. If only I had the opportunity to listen to someone who was like me to share their experience with me. 

Eigg Primary School sign placed in front of the primary school gate and steps.
Eigg Primary School sign placed in front of the primary school gate and steps.

While talking to these wonderful and smart children, I got the pleasure of meeting their teachers who helped them come up with some fantastic questions such as ‘which country is your favorite which you have traveled to?’, ‘How much food does Mitch eat in a day?’, and one of my favorite questions, ‘How does Mitch know when it is time to work and time to play?’. I left the primary school with a heart that was bursting with joy after getting a group hug from all the children.

Rain droplets 

One of the most magical sounds I got to listen to while staying at the Sweeney’s Bothy on Isle of Eigg was the rain droplets falling. While we had wonderful weather and some sunshine, the last three days on the island we got rain drizzling on one of our walks while two of the nights spent on Eigg we got heavy rain showers. While walking to the Singing Sands beach, rain started to drizzle. It was fun to walk while feeling the rain droplets dance along my cheeks and shoulders. However, what took my ears by surprise was listening to the rain droplets hit the ruins we stumbled upon. The rain droplets would hit the ruins so slowly that as soon as they touched the ruins, the sound echoed. At that exact moment I closed my eyes and listened while the rain tapped danced on the edges of the ruins before trickling down to the grass below. As it began to rain more and more, we walked back home. Not wanting to get lost and stray away from the main road.

As nighttime fell, we returned to the haven known as the Bothy to have dinner and play some Snakes and Ladders, a game I have been fond of since my childhood. As we retired to bed and Nelly made sure the fire was burning to keep us warm, I was lulled to sleep by the crackling of the wood burning. As deep sleep took over and I was whisked away by my dreams I was awakened suddenly by battle ground sounds of rain pouring from the sky. It fell on top of us as bullets. As I am night blind, my ears take full control while my eyes become docile. The only thing shielding us from the rain was the celling of the Bothy. We even had to place our ice fridge at the door in order to stop it from blowing inwards. Even Mitch’s ears perked up because of the noise before he jumped onto the bed to cuddle next to me as the floor was getting colder.

All Good Things Come to An End

As our time ended on the beautiful Eigg and we got ourselves back onto our ferry and train to Glasgow, I began to think of all the amazing things I learned while staying at the Bothy:

  1. Sometimes in order to find your centre again you need to step away from your routine and stop the clock. This can be either going on holiday, turning off your phone and going for a walk, or going to a small island for a week without WIFI.
  2. You will never get lost on Isle of Eigg because no matter where you go you will find someone to help you. Everyone on Eigg was so kind and some have become our friends. I cannot thank everyone enough for making Mitch, Nelly and I feel welcomed and at home.
  3. When hiking, make sure to calculate the time you have in order to complete the hike you want to complete. Take with you your waterproof shoes, a flashlight, water and food. You never know what can happen and best to always be prepared for anything.
  4. I learned how to cut wood for a fire and start a fire on my own. These are survival skills you don’t get to learn when living in a city.

I know for a fact I will be visiting Eigg again as this was an experience I will never forget. I enjoyed my time on the island even if it was very short. I got the chance to have fun without worrying that someone needed me via a message, email or even through social media. I was able to clear my mind and come back with a positive outlook, batteries recharged. Having to explore Eigg through my senses is an experience one I highly recommend to the next person staying at the Bothy. You never know what you will get to experience. 

Wooden key holder with the engraving 'Sweeney's Bothy Eigg'. They ae in the palms of Zein who is wearing red tartan gloves.
Wooden key holder with the engraving ‘Sweeney’s Bothy Eigg’. They ae in the palms of Zein who is wearing red tartan gloves.

So … close your eyes, open your ears and let Eigg take you on an adventure worth living.