Deserting the island of Canna

Attempts by the National Trust to woo people to live on Canna and other remote islands are faltering. Our reporter asks those involved what has gone wrong

• Schoolchildren make their way home from Canna Primary School at the end of the day. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

FOR many families the idea of selling up and moving to a remote Scottish island seems like heaven. Fresh air, a sense of community, little or no crime, and a proximity to nature. When houses become free there are often dozens of applications for The Good Life on islands such as Rum, Muck, Eigg and Fair Isle, many of them from people currently living outside the United Kingdom.

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For some, the isolation is not a drawback but an attraction, the closeness of the community a boon after the anonymity of a city, and the lack of facilities a way of escaping over-familiar consumerism.

But sometimes the dream can fade.

This week it was revealed that the Hebridean isle of Canna is to lose 12 of its 22-strong population. One family has already left, another is going in August and a third couple will quit this winter.

While a family with pre-school children is about to move in, it will not prevent the island school from being mothballed as it will have no pupils after the summer.

Frustration has built up over the lack security of tenure which prevents residents buying or building property on the island, which is owned and run by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

First to go were Neil and Deb Baker, who arrived in 2008 with their two children, having been chosen from 400 original applicants, some from as far afield as Germany, Sweden, Dubai and India.

Geoff and Eilidh Soe-Paing are leaving after five years on Canna where Mrs Soe-Paing is a teacher at the school and their two children the last remaining pupils.

Mr Soe-Paing was also secretary of the community association on Canna, which has no major roads, shop, pub or mobile phone coverage, and the nearest doctor is a boat trip away. Canna is one of the Small Isles, along with Rum, Muck and Eigg, which all have different forms of ownership.

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He said it had been a huge upheaval to move his family from Fort William to Canna, from where his wife's grandparents hailed.

"For any family to uproot and embark on a new life, going to live on what they see as a potential Hebridean idyll, there is a lot of emotional investment in that. As the months and years go by and the family grows with the island you come to very much identify with it and have an affinity with the place.

"It's only fair and inevitable that people then want to have more of a stake and eventually families want to put roots down."

But he said after the last family with children left, and with his children making up the entire school roll, their position became "untenable".

"Having an understanding of how the National Trust for Scotland works and having expectations of there not being any, or very little, development in terms of housing, either new builds or renovations, then we could see that in a few years there will be no housing available for families to come here. We feel we have no choice but to move on.

"The trust is arguably very good at managing old buildings and collections of antiquities. But, in terms of managing a group of people and a community, I feel they are finding that hard.

"My family is heartbroken to have to leave the island. But there is an ostrich mentality in the management of Canna. Issues have been deferred at best and at worse simply ignored."

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He says the trust must ask itself why people come and go instead of just accepting it. He added: "Does Scotland want to see an island preserved in aspic like a picture postcard and a cardboard cut-out community, or does it want to see a forward-thinking, progressive contemporary Hebridean community?"

John Clare and Sheila Gunn, who arrived in 2007 to run the island guesthouse, are also preparing to leave. Mr Clare says incomers to Canna have only a short-term future there. "We all come here with great enthusiasm, determined to put everything into our new life, but then you realise there is a limit," he says.

Alexander Bennett, the NTS's countryside and islands group manager, north, says the situation in Canna is neither new nor unique.

"People come and go on islands. It's nothing new, it happens all over the world in remote communities. It's because generally people come to these places with a rose-tinted view on things and reality kicks in, gulfs start to open up and people move on because they can't cope.

"It's a challenge living in a remote community. People tend to think it's going to be great, they are going to get away from it all. Far from it.

"We know often that people come with hidden agendas, with serious baggage, they are running away from something.

"Don't think that going to a remote place will heal things for you. It will open up the wounds if anything.

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"We must not get upset at people leaving, as that's what happens. We will move on and bring new people in."

The next arrivals will be in June or July, a forrester from another part of Scotland, with his wife and two pre-school children. They will move into a renovated cottage having been chosen ahead of 22 families that initially applied to move to Canna.

Mr Bennett added: "The difficulty we have at the moment is that one of the couples leaving is disillusioned with us because they are not getting their own way.

"It's the same in any organisation, sometimes people like what you do and other times they don't. On occasion we have had to do some tough love and not everyone likes it and some are voting with their feet.

"There were two or three people didn't like some of the things that were going on. They were not entirely community-minded some of them and, therefore, it starts to work on them and work against each other and they all fall out. Before you know it war breaks out and we are left holding the baby." He said the trust will not sell properties but in future it may be able to offer part ownership. Selling raises the prospect of homes being taken over by an unscrupulous landlord, for a holiday cottage or by someone "not community minded".

"The house might lie empty for 50 weeks of the year. We need an occupier who is living there and contributing to the community", he said. "So we are very nervous about that possibility. If Joe Bloggs from Devon bought the house and rented it 50 weeks of the year all the profits are going to Devon and not to Canna. That is the scourge of the Highlands."

SIMILAR complaints to those on Canna were aired on Rum where islanders criticised the domineering nature of the owners, Scottish Natural Heritage, which controlled nearly all the jobs, owned every building except the primary school, and every house apart from the teacher's accommodation.

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However, two years ago SNH handed over assets in the village of Kinloch to a trust run by the 27-strong community while it concentrated on running the island nature reserve.

Houses are leased by the trust but one property has since been sold and other sites will be sold in future. Charlie King, chairman of the Isle of Rum Community Trust, said: "From being the landlord on Rum, SNH is now the neighbour. There have been a few sticking points but on the whole its working out well."

He said people used to stay until their children went to secondary school, but a new hostel in Mallaig means the youngsters can now return home every second week. "It's made a vast difference to the lifestyle", said King. "A lot of people are now coming for the long term."

He said the change of ownership in Rum is something Canna might consider:

"It could be looked at anywhere. Before people were dependent on SNH 24 hours a day, but now their destiny is in their own hands, which is the way it should be," said King.

Sarah Bentley, SNH's Lochaber and Rum operations manager, said community ownership has given islanders the "ability to set its own direction", hopefully allowing it to become more viable in the future.

"It is unlikely any one solution would work for all islands – each has its own unique challenges and opportunities. We would be happy, though, for others to consider what we have done in the context of Rum and consider if it would work for them."

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Lawrence MacEwen, whose family owns the island of Muck which has a population of 31, believes the loss of families from Canna is a "blip". "We have a lot of sympathy with Canna, we are both in the same boat as fragile communities.

"It's difficult for these big organisations to run islands. Rum and Canna have difficulty and, to be fair to the NTS, they are letting the islanders decide far more than they used to about who comes to the island.

"The islanders have the final say now, which wasn't the case in the past.

"We tried a democratic system here a few years ago with everyone voting on six candidates and we chose a family because they seemed to have more chance of being able to support themselves. But they didn't manage it and they weren't successful.

"But you can easily make mistakes. It's very hit or miss, you can get very promising people that don't fit in and others that are very doubtful in time can fit in very well. It's not a precise art. You have to look at things in the long term."

He said houses on Muck were only available to rent: "We always just leased out houses because we didn't want them to become single-occupancy holiday homes."

On Eigg, the population has risen from 67 in 1997, when the island was bought by the community, to 90 today and new housing is encouraging more people to move or return.

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Owners, the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, offer secure long-term leases on properties and has released 20 building plots on a shared-equity basis to encourage new blood.

Maggie Fyffe, the trust secretary, said: "The places is buzzing just now, its very vibrant. We have more arrivals than departures. There are two houses built, a third is being built and there are a few in the pipeline.

"Those who are coming are here for the long term, but I think security is the key because people are not going to invest in a place if there is no security.

"That was an issue on Rum, although that is getting better, and it appears it is the situation on Canna too."