Eilean Bàn, or "White Island", is an irregularly shaped island which stands in the middle of the seaward end of Kyle Akin, the narrows between Kyle of Lochalsh on the Scottish mainland and Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. It covers a total area of around six acres.
In some people's eyes Eilean Bàn ceased to be an island when it was linked to both the mainland and the Isle of Skye by the Skye Bridge, which opened in 1995. This used the island as a stepping stone. The better known part of the bridge, its beautiful arched span, links Eilean Bàn with Skye, while a more modest and a much less spectacular structure provides a low level crossing to the mainland.
The island had been compulsorily purchased by the government to allow the bridge to be built, and once it was completed they decided to sell those bits of Eilean Bàn not covered by bridge or connecting road to the highest bidder. The residents of Kyleakin and Kyle of Lochalsh, together with the Born Free Foundation, responded with a campaign to bring the island into community ownership instead. The campaign was a success, and in 1998 ownership of the island was transferred to the Eilean Bàn Trust.
The Eilean Bàn Trust has its headquarters at the Bright Water Visitor Centre, on the quayside in Kyleakin. It works to preserve and promote the heritage and wildlife of the island. As well as operating the visitor centre and renting out part of the lighthouse cottage as a holiday let, it runs guided tours of the island during the summer half of the year. Tours of the island should be booked through the visitor centre.
Eilean Bàn has an ancient history. It seems likely it has been used as a staging post by those crossing Kyle Akin for centuries: especially by drovers from Skye moving their cattle to markets in the lowlands. If your cattle had to swim across, it must have made more sense to subject them to two relatively short crossings rather than one much longer one. Earlier still, Eilean Bàn seems to have been used by the residents of Caisteal Maol, the castle whose stump still looms over Kyleakin harbour, to help enforce tolls on shipping passing through the narrows of Kyle Akin.
It's not obvious today, but until fairly recent times, the only way to get around in the Highlands and Islands was by sea. And if you wished to pass up or down the country's western seaboard it was a very much shorter and safer option to do so by passing between the Isle of Skye and the mainland rather than taking your chances in the exposed waters west of Skye. Legend tells that in about 900 a Norse princess, popularly known as "Saucy Mary", married Findanus, the 4th Chief of the MacKinnons, and they lived together in Caisteal Maol. They enforced tolls on ships passing through Kyle Akin by stringing a chain of boats from Skye to Eilean Bàn, and another from Eilean Bàn to the mainland.
The importance of this passage for navigation only increased as the centuries passed. In the 1850s the Northern Lighthouse Board, responsible for lighthouses in Scotland, took the decision to place a lighthouse on the seaward side of the island. This was built by David and Thomas Stevenson and came into operation in 1857. Today the lighthouse and its almost unique iron bridge to the island survive in the care of the Eilean Bàn Trust and form part of the tours they operate of the island. The light was automated in 1960, and was made redundant by lights placed on the Skye Bridge when it opened in 1995.
In 1963 the disused lighthouse cottage was purchased by Gavin Maxwell, the naturalist and author best known for his work with otters. Maxwell lived at the time at Sandaig, on the mainland south of Glenelg, a place he referred to in his books as Camusfeàrna in an unsuccessful attempt to keep its location secret. In January 1968 Maxwell's house at Sandaig was destroyed by fire, and he moved into the lighthouse cottage he had brought five years earlier on Eilean Bàn. Here he continued to write and to rear otters. He also launched an unsuccessful venture to breed eider ducks for their down on the neighbouring smaller island of Eilean Dudh.
In 1969 Gavin Maxwell invited the naturalist John Lister-Kaye to move to Eilean Bàn to help him set up a small private zoo on the island, with a view to linking it with a small visitor centre he planned to open in Kyleakin. Lister-Kaye accepted Maxwell's invitation, but the venture collapsed when Gavin Maxwell died later the same year of cancer. In 1972, John Lister-Kaye published a book about his time on Eilean Bàn: The White Island.
Eilean Bàn today is a rather noisier place than it was during Gavin Maxwell's short stay here, with vehicles passing fairly constantly over the bridges at either end of the island and the road between them. But despite that it remains a remarkable haven. The tour of the island operated by the Eilean Bàn Trust and booked through the Bright Water Visitor Centre is excellent. For fans of Gavin Maxwell this is virtually a place of pilgrimage: but even if you have little interest in him as an author or naturalist, the tour is a fascinating one. It is also fully wheelchair accessible apart from the lighthouse, which is climbed by spiral stairs and two ladders.
Highlights include the long room in part of the lighthouse cottages. Gavin Maxwell used this as a study and lounge, and today it is furnished and fitted as it would have been during his stay on the island. You also get to see the gardens he created here, the memorial stone to Teko the Otter, who died shortly after Maxwell, the jetty, the lighthouse, and the wildlife hide on the seaward side of the island. This is a great way to spend an afternoon!