As a theatrical tribute helps to keep alive Canna’s dream of becoming the heart of a thriving Hebridean culture, some of the island’s 11 residents explain why they will never let their home become a museum
From Mallaig the crossing takes more than two hours, and it can be unpleasant in rough weather, the swelling sound like some lumbering beast unsettled by the ferry on its back. To fight sea-sickness there are two approaches: lie down with your eyes closed, or else go on deck and try to pick out some object on which to focus. Through the rain, through the wind, you might spy a gannet, a bright cruciform above the ashen waves, and follow the bird west until the island itself comes into view – a long dark crag with the prim silhouette of a chapel visible from a long way off. This is Canna.
“There’s something calm about it, even in bad weather,” says the Gaelic singer Fiona J Mackenzie. “Something gets into you and finds a place inside. When I come off the boat, I feel I’ve come home. I would love to live on Canna one day. From the first day I visited there was something there that gripped me.”
Mackenzie, 49, is visiting Canna as preparation for A Little Bird Blown Off Course, a work she has created for the National Theatre of Scotland. Combining music, storytelling and film footage, the piece celebrates the life and legacy of Margaret Fay Shaw – the orphaned daughter of a Pittsburgh steel foundry owner – whose love affair with Gaelic led her to settle first on South Uist in 1929 and later on Canna, living among the native people, learning their language, and chronicling their traditions. Miss Shaw, as she is still known by many islanders, took brilliant photographs of life in the Hebrides, earthy yet unearthly. She also collected hundreds of songs from the islands, writing them down and later recording them being sung, thus amassing for posterity material that would otherwise have been lost. It is priceless, deathless, peerless.
Shaw, who died close to Christmas in 2004 at the age of 101, was a petite woman, and towards the end of her long life could still often be found perched on a stool in Canna House, pecking with arthritic fingers at the keys of her piano or typewriter; alluding to her unorthodox journey from America to the edge of Europe, “a little bird blown off course” is how she liked to refer to herself, yet there was something determined and willed about her decision to build a nest so far from home. Her life, in the end, was a migration not a storm-wreck.
“One of my biggest regrets is that I never met Margaret,” says Mackenzie, “but I like to think that I am in some small way telling the world of the work that she did and why it is so important for the future of Gaelic culture. It’s not just a collection of songs. She helped to preserve images and sounds of a way of life that has disappeared. They are part of every Scot in one way or another.”
The wind is howling, the rain horizontal as we disembark at Canna; deep and sheltered, one of the best natural harbours in the Hebrides has attracted travellers for thousands of years, pilgrims and pillagers and all. Saint Columba is said to have loved Canna, which he may have known as Hinba, sailing here on retreat when he found Iona, that bustling metropolis to the south, too frenetic.
Evidence of more recent arrivals can be found on the rock wall above the harbour, where hundreds of sailors have written the names of their craft in cheery paint. Lunar Bow, Hercules, Harvest, Orion, Gypsy, Glen Orsa and many others scrawled on top of one another and fading slowly from view, battered by winds that can reach 135 miles per hour; it is a seafarers’ palimpsest.
“That’s going back to the war times and the herring boats,” says Murdo Jack, 59, a farmer on the island who meets the ferry coming in. “It was once suggested that we whitewash it, but we wouldn’t have it. That’s history there. It’s all going now, though.”
It’s all going now, though. Some might say that could be the Canna motto. This is an island with an elegiac air. In 1821, when islanders made a living by collecting and burning seaweed for kelp, the population peaked at 436. Canna, now, is home to just 11 souls; there is fear that if things do not improve it could become another St Kilda, a museum not a living island. Like St Kilda, Canna is owned and run by the National Trust for Scotland, having been gifted by John Lorne Campbell, the husband of Margaret Fay Shaw, in 1981.
Campbell, from a land-owning family in Argyll, bought the island in 1938. His vision was that it should be a place where the traditional Hebridean way of life was preserved; a Gaelic-speaking crofting community. It has not turned out quite like that.
“What he would have liked most of all was for someone like himself to have succeeded him on Canna, but unfortunately Margaret could not have children,” explains Ray Perman, author of The Man Who Gave Away His Island. “Canna is going through a slump in population at the moment and that is very sad. You can look at, for example, Muck where there’s been a much more stable population over a long period – three times as big as Canna, and yet on a smaller island. So it must be possible to sustain a bigger population on an island that’s as attractive and fertile as Canna. But the Trust doesn’t seem to be able to find the formula to make that happen.
“We should remember that the National Trust is a benign landlord. It is not trying to run Canna down – quite the reverse; it is looking to preserve that heritage and maintain a viable, sustainable community there. There is goodwill, but it’s not an easy job.”
Canna House is a short walk from the harbour. Roads here are single track with the emphasis on track. The island is four-and-a-half miles long by one mile wide. Its shape suggests a whale, and it has a calf, the little tidal island of Sanday. Everything feels miniature and dainty; as though one could reach across the harbour and lift St Edward’s chapel by the belfry. The colours, too, are striking. Mustard bladderwrack clarts the shore. In gardens, sky-blue hydrangeas and sunset fuchsias. Pink sea thrift dots the dykes.
The house was built in the 1860s. You walk up from the garden gate through a tunnel of escallonia before you see it properly. Margaret Fay Shaw, in her memoir From The Alleghenies To The Hebrides recalled the first time she saw the house, in August, 1938: “It had a melancholy air, as though the home of sick Brontës.” It has been uninhabited since her death (Campbell having predeceased her in 1996) yet its atmosphere now is anything but melancholy. Open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays, it has a Marie Celeste quality. Crabbing nets propped up in the porch, sheet music open on a stand, hats kept handy on a chair in the hall; you get the not unpleasant feeling that John and Margaret have just popped out to the garden to collect eggs and will return presently.
Magda shows us round. Magda Sagarzazu is a Basque and the archivist here. Her job is to catalogue and protect the collections and documents of the Campbells. Yet her relationship with Canna goes far beyond the professional. She first came to the island in 1961 as a child, following the death of her mother. Campbell, a close friend of Magda’s father Saturnino, suggested that she and her sister Maria would find solace during a summer break on Canna; this became an annual event.
“It was natural for me to come every summer,” she says. “My father used to work with John planting trees or putting creels out on the boat. Margaret was teaching us English because we did not have the language. We would speak French with her and with John we would speak Spanish. For me, it was another world. All the sad things had happened in Spain. Here was fun. This big house, the garden, the animals; everything was different.” She feels, she says, that Canna has its arms around her.
We are talking in the billiards room. The baize of the old table is protected by wooden boards. A stuffed capercaillie glares down from a high shelf. Between 1944 and 1989, there was a Saturday night tradition of games of pool played here, evenings lubricated by tea and rum served from separate teapots; the scores have all been kept (everything in this house has been kept) and one can read back over the contests between the poets, painters, farmers and priests who gathered here to talk and play. Covering one wall is a huge map of the Hebrides, torn in places, deep brown with age, marinated by decades of cigar smoke, booze breath and chalk dust.
Shaw thought of Canna as a refuge, “a restorer to many”, and Magda has found it so. “Three years ago I was diagnosed with cancer,” she says. “Everyone at home was saying you’d better come back to San Sebastian because the oncologists are very good, really modern, but I decided no, I would like to be in Canna. For me, it was a healing place from the beginning. There is a kind of a freedom here. You are born in one place and you adopt another one to live. This is the home I have adopted.”
She moved to the island following Campbell’s death, giving up her teaching job to become the archivist and Shaw’s companion. She lives on a house on Sanday with her partner Joaquin and cat Willy Beag – reputed to be 27 years old – the descendant of Wicked Willy, a tom which had accompanied Shaw from South Uist to Barra and eventually to Canna. Animals on this island, much like the people, are known for their longevity; for proof, see also a 33-year-old white pony called Bow-tie belonging to the postmistress Winnie MacKinnnon.
The MacKinnons are the oldest family on Canna, arriving on the island following the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Some say they are “the real kings of Canna”, though queens would be more accurate as this crofting dynasty is a matriarchy. There is Winnie, her sister Gerry, their mother Nora and their niece Caroline Donna. Gerry manages the farm and is married to Murdo Jack.
Winnie is 51 and lives on Sanday, accessing her home by means of a wooden bridge, the footbridge having been swept away by a storm in 2005. She has, like all Canna folk, several jobs. In addition to being in charge of the little green hut that serves as a Post Office, she looks after the holiday cottages and works as an NTS ranger; whatever needs doing she does, including staying up after midnight baking cakes to replenish the stock of the community shop. Some tasks are outwith the power of the community to do for themselves. The priest comes once a month from Mallaig, the doctor once a month from Eigg; groceries arrive by ferry from the mainland.
“You’ve got to graft here,” Winnie says. “There are only 11 of us and it is a really tight knit community. There’s been a lot of malcontents have come in and not been happy with the place. But pulling together is what’s going to make a success of Canna.”
According to Winnie, people who move here sometimes do so for the wrong reasons. “People say they want to get away from it all, and what they mean is get away from themselves. But Canna is the last place you should come for that because you meet yourself coming round the corner. If you want to get away from yourself, move to the middle of London. Don’t come to Canna where you have lots of time to think.”
She pauses, then adds with a laugh: “There is a saying in Gaelic – ‘An idle man will throw the cat in the fire.’”
Neil Baker, 50, who arrived with his family in 2008 and worked as a gardener at Canna House before leaving after three and half years, believes that life on the island can intensify problems such as depression. “There is something about Canna,” he says. “It is stunningly beautiful, but there is a darkness about it. This sounds a bit silly, but there’s something coming up from the soil almost.”
Some 20 residents have departed since 2011, a number citing alleged bullying by Stewart Connor, the NTS’s 51-year-old property manager, who lives on Canna with his partner Julie. Connor, who was backed by his employer and cleared by a subsequent investigation, resigned from his position towards the end of August but says he intends to continue living on the island he adores and work with the Community Development Trust.
What about suggestions he is a bully who wants to be in control of Canna? “It’s ludicrous,” he says. “The island is not controlled by me personally. I perform a function on behalf of the organisation. I’m a respected member of that community. Each person who left was also a member and had ways of raising things through that community, but chose not to and chose to blame me. There was a lot of injustice there.”
A number of those living on Canna speak well of Connor, unprompted. Talk to some of those who have left and the pain of leaving is still raw. There are tears and anger. Others look back with a more philosophical regret. “Margaret Fay Shaw and John Lorne Campbell would be turning in their graves if they knew what was happening in the community now,” says Alison Spence, who moved to Canna from Laggan in June 2011 with her husband and two young children; they left in February last year, and live in France. “It’s really sad. Three years ago there was the potential to have a big school, a community, a population that was increasing and getting younger – but now that’s all gone again.”
Those resident on Canna now say they are optimistic about the future. Everyone agrees that more people are needed, ideally families with children; not only because this would allow the primary school to reopen, but also because communities need kids to be worthy of the name.
The NTS are advertising a family home to let, and are seeking tenants to run a restaurant or tearoom. The plan, over the next few years, is to get the population into the thirties. One stumbling block is that moving to Canna means leaving the property ladder as the terms of the Campbell bequest do not allow the Trust to sell buildings or land. That said, the natural charms of the island are obvious and – to those disillusioned with the modern grind – grow more beguiling with every passing year.
Colin Irvine and his partner David Marr are Canna’s newest residents, moving from London in October, leaving behind them jobs in academia and the financial sector to run the Edwardian guest house, Tighard. They were worried by the stories of conflict, but have found the people welcoming.
“The joy is feeling that you are part of something,” says Colin, 45. “You are no longer in a city where you are faceless and can disappear. Here, you feel like you’re making a difference and improving things.”
He enjoys being part of a continuum of community going back thousands of years. He is keen on the idea that Campbell and Shaw’s artistic social circle constituted a sort of Hebridean version of the Bloomsbury Group, and believes that the island could become again a cultural hub, all bohemianism and bonhomie.
He has reopened the deconsecrated chapel as the Camus Arts Centre (A Little Bird Blown Off Course will be performed there on 14 September) and even has hopes that the legendary billiards evenings in Canna House will soon resume.
The poet Kathleen Raine, a veteran of those evenings, once wrote from London to Shaw: “Canna and her people – I remember so many of them. Every day one realises that it is not scenery but people who create a world and all its beauty.”
The island, these days, lacks people, but it does not lack beauty; nor do the people who remain there lack commitment to ensuring that their home has a future as well as so much fascinating past. As we leave Canna on the evening ferry, the gannets are once more above the waves, and a blue sky is – finally – breaking through.
A Little Bird Blown Off Course opens at St Peter’s Hall, South Uist on 4 September, then tours. For more information see www.nationaltheatrescotland.com