Canna, History & Heritage, Island enthusiast

By Robin McKelvie

The Isle of Eigg shines brightly as an example of a Scottish island where a community buy-out has not only halted depopulation, but led to an increasing population, a surge in community projects, a flurry of new businesses and an increase in tourism. The rest of the Small Isles have not had it so good in the years since Eigg’s buy-out in 1997. So it was with some trepidation that I sailed back into the best natural harbour in the Small Isles to land on Canna.

Gareth at Café Canna

I’ve been lucky to sail to Canna half a dozen times over the years and have explored its joined-at-the-hip neighbour of Sanday too. On previous visits sleepy Canna seemed to me like a museum with a farm attached, controlled by the distant National Trust for Scotland (NTS). The architectural history may have been well preserved, but I felt the tiny community was fairing less well, without even the basics of a community centre.

Canna sea cliffs

But I’m delighted to find things are changing and there are genuine green shoots. “Until recently younger people thought of heading for the mainland, or even across to Eigg for opportunities,” says Gareth Cole, who now leases Café Canna from the NTS. “Things are looking up with primary school age kids and a trio of new houses being built by the Isle of Canna Community Development Trust (IOCCDT). We’ve hopefully learned from mistakes on other islands and we’ll get young families with skills that can benefit the community.”

Gareth, who has a ten year lease at the café, tells me of improvements like better shopping, better internet, the success of the community-run shop and the monthly community meet-ups. I hear about the campsite’s renewable energy, the renovation of stately Canna House, a new snorkel trail and – very importantly – of new housing. The IOCCDT are working with NTS and the Communities Housing Trust to build a trio of new homes to help secure and boost the population.

Gareth describes a tight knit community who benefit from Canna’s superb natural resources: “We forage for produce and you cannot beat the local seafood, beef and lamb. We bake our own bread and even brew our own beer too.” I tuck into one of those lovely beers, as well as a chunky homemade sandwich stuffed with a thick wedge of perfectly pink Canna beef. Things turn up at dinner with the highlight a platter of local seafood.

A warm welcome at Café Canna

I spend the afternoon hiking: Canna is a great island for walking, whether it’s on the sturdy coastal track, on the white sand beaches or deep into the surprisingly wild hills. When I come back down from those hills I meet island specialist architect Wil Tunnell, the man behind the rebirth of Eigg’s community hub, the deeply impressive An Laimhrig. That Tunnell is here working is a very good sign.

“A lack of houses and facilities have always been obstacles to growing a sustainable population on Canna, and these are issues being tackled head on by the Isle of Canna Community Development Trust,” Wil explains. “There’s no doubt it is a challenging place to live and work, but those who do live here are passionate about the island. There is a real drive and focus from the community who work brilliantly as a team.”

Wil Tunnell with his Canna project

Tunnell is working on designs for new community spaces in the striking Coroghan Barn building: “We are also exploring options for new visitor accommodation to add to the good, but limited number of places to stay on the island. The islanders are very welcoming people, and recognise that sustainable tourism is essential to underpin a sustainable community. This investment is backed up by the National Trust for Scotland, who are investing millions in the restoration and conservation of Canna House, and John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Faye Shaw’s important archive of Gaelic culture it houses. The new community-owned bunkhouse or Bunk-Hotel will provide compact quality accommodation for the increasing number of people keen to engage with the island’s rich history, extraordinary landscape, and wider Hebridean cultural history.”

Wil takes me to the site where the project will take shape. It is both an apt and a poignant spot. Canna, like much of the Hebrides, was decimated by the Clearances. This new life will emerge where the homesteads of the souls who were spirited across the Atlantic, never to return to their beloved island home, once stood. “I want to breathe new life into Canna, new life into the community at the spot where that community was once ruptured,” says Wil, his eyes alive with ideas and the excitement of working on a project that is clearly very close to his Hebrides-loving heart.

On Canna – as I now do with all Scottish islands – I check out the Scottish Islands Passport app for inspiration and information. It tells of the island’s history and of how the NTS came to be gifted Canna by John Lorne Campbell in 1981. The unusually fertile island, which has been nicknamed the ‘Garden of the Hebrides’, is explained too: the result of the basalt soil. I also learn more about that locally produced green energy, nigh essential as neither Canna or Sanday is connected to the National Grid.

All too soon it is time to sail back out of that fantastic harbour again. On my previous visits I’ve left concerned about Canna’s future. This time I leave cheered by the palpable positivity of a swathe of exciting new projects driven by the expanding and dynamic local community.

I love the ‘Experiences’ section on the Scottish Islands Passport app too.  It covers A’ Chill and its dramatic Celtic Cross in what was once the main settlement on Canna. There are cliff and hill walks on there too, a Puffin Trail I hadn’t heard about before and information about Prison Rock and Black Beach. The app tells me about the local legend that Marion Macleod was imprisoned here as punishment for her infidelity. I follow the recommendation and spend time on this volcanic black sand beach.

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