Canna becalmed: Deserted island copes with two ferries a week and no tourists at all

Canna in the Small Isles off Skye is normally busy at this time of year as it gears up for the tourist season, with 15,000 visitors expected over the spring and summer months.

More than 80 cruise ships visited Canna last year

But now, like everywhere, life is being redefined.

Some residents are in self-isolation, social distancing is the norm and getting vital supplies to the island can be a major challenge.

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The harbour is empty, the guesthouse and café closed and there is not a tent on the campsite to be seen.

After a rough winter harbourmaster Donald Mackenzie has been hit by the perfect storm

As Donald Mackenzie, harbourmaster at Canna for the National Trust for Scotland, put it: “Our daily lives are not governed by the normal days of the week, rather it is whether it is a ‘ferry day’ or not”.

Food deliveries come from the Co-op at Mallaig, a shop that also serves the other Small Isles of Eigg, Rum and Muck. Normally, orders can be placed the night before and placed on the ferry next day but with items now restricted to two per order and the ferry timetable cut to twice a week, islanders are looking at getting four tins of tomatoes, or say four pints of milk, for the week.

Mackenzie said: “We sometimes struggle to get everything we order. The supermarket does its best, however it is trying to supply all four of the Small Isles as well as the population of Mallaig.”

Moving rubbish off the island can also be a headache with islanders relying on new skips being sent by Highland Council but a mixture of weather-related ferry cancellations and travel restrictions have hampered this.

Mackenzie has lived on Canna since 2015 along with his wife, award-winning Gaelic singer Fiona Mackenzie, who also works for the Trust as Canna House Manager and Archivist.

He describes his job as “one of the best in Scotland” and is responsible for the safe navigation for the hundreds of vessels that visit the island every year, as well as the berthing of the CalMac ferry, Lochnevis.

As the coronavirus pandemic shuts down even the most isolated place, the loss of normality is being keenly felt on Canna.

Mackenzie said: “As spring approaches we are normally getting ready for the busy tourist season which sees around 15,000 visitors descend on the island to enjoy the rich wildlife and wonderful scenery.

“Canna is a popular destination for yachts and cruise ships, with as many as 30 yachts in the bay at night and more than 80 cruise ships last year. After one of the stormiest winters locals can remember, when 30 per cent of ferry sailings were cancelled, we were looking forward to better weather and a breathing space before the visitors start arriving. The coronavirus pandemic has changed all that.”

Summer repair and maintenance programmes, which are essential to safe winters, have been put on hold with work at both Canna House and the harbour postponed given contractors cannot reach the island.

Islander Murdo Jack and his mini-excavator are waiting for a good spell of weather to regrade the road. During recent storms, tonnes of seaweed was dumped there forcing the community to dig in to remove the debris by hand.

Mackenzie added: “A range of essential pier infrastructure repairs are now on hold until the pandemic is over. It is critical to the island’s survival that the pier and harbour are in good condition as it is the only means of servicing the island. Canna House is due major renovation works in preparation for its re-opening to the public and this has had to be delayed under the current circumstances.

“This is a blow to the island and a significant investment but we are confident that time will be caught up.”

In the case of a medical emergency, patients are taken to hospital by the Coastguard helicopter from Stornoway or the Mallaig lifeboat.

The helicopter can get to Canna in around 30 minutes and have a casualty or patient in hospital in Fort William in under 15 minutes.

Mackenzie said: “Despite everything we are carrying on our lives and work as usual and we are a very resilient community.

“Hopefully we will be able to open up the island to visitors before the end of the season as the income they provide is much needed by the island businesses and the NTS.”

Some things do remain the same on Canna, however. It is business as usual on the farm where new calves and lambs are making their first appearance in the world. A very different world perhaps, but proof that not everything has changed.

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