A matter of trust: the enduring history of Canna

How delighted John Lorne Campbell would have been to find – nearly 20 years after his death and more than 30 after first publication – that his book Canna, The Story of a Hebridean Island, is still in print.

The volume is now in its fifth edition, thanks to the tireless work of his editor, Hugh Cheape, the tenacity of Birlinn, the publisher which has ensured that many of John and Margaret’s books are still available, and a grant from the National Trust for Scotland, to whom John gifted the island in 1981.

The cover of the book, a watercolour of Canna harbour with old sailing vessels in the bay

This financial assistance shows the trust at its most generous and forgiving, for at times during his lifetime John was unstinting in his public criticism of the way it was running his island. Even the first publication was not without its headaches for the trust’s staff.

It was Jamie Stormonth Darling, then director of the trust, who suggested that John write the definitive history of Canna and, with some secretarial help partly paid for by the trust, he had thrown himself into the work. He had already amassed a wealth of source material and with his knowledge of Highland history and expertise in scholarship he was ideally placed to write the book.

The trust was not going to produce the work itself, but persuaded Oxford University Press to publish it and raised money from public bodies and private philanthropists to fund it. If they expected a straightforward uncontroversial volume, they were mistaken.

In telling the story of the island from its days as a Norse and early Christian settlement, John was determined to write the book ‘from the point of view of a Gaelic-speaking Jacobite islander, turning a good deal of official Hebridean history upside-down.’ He began with the startling assertion that Canna had been visited by St Columba, founder of the Celtic Christian Church in Scotland, and was in fact the island described in an early biography of the saint as ‘Hinba.’ He produced a lot of circumstantial evidence to back his claim, but few scholars were convinced.

Pale gold sunset over the westernmost tip of the island, reflected in the sea

A holy island?

 

He thought the trust would be excited by his claim – they already owned Iona, where Columba had founded his monastery, now he was offering them the chance to claim custodianship of a second important religious site, but the trust were unconcerned about a 1,400-year-old controversy. What did alarm them when they saw the manuscript of John’s chapter on Canna in modern times was his retelling of the political battle to stop the Small Boat Scheme, which pitted John against the united forces of officialdom.

He had a few old scores to settle, particularly against the Highlands and Islands Development Board (now Highlands and Islands Enterprise), which he felt had betrayed him by backing Keith Schellenberg, the owner of Eigg, who had wanted the subsidy withdrawn from the state-owned ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne. He laid into the establishment with relish, alleging that the board had acted ‘with a noticeable degree of hostility towards its opponents.’

The trust was trying hard to develop friendly relations with the HIDB and particularly to persuade it to co-finance projects on Canna. The trust’s factor called for the toning-down of ‘somewhat intemperate language’ but the president, Lord Wemyss, went further, demanding the suppression of the chapter on transport on the grounds that it was ‘the most boring subject conceivable for those not involved’ and that John’s account was ‘not quite complete, slightly inaccurate and misleading in places.’

John defended himself: ‘authors can be difficult about the futures of their brainchildren. In the case of this book, it hasn’t just been researched – it has also been lived, which makes for an even stronger involvement.’ But he agreed in the end to take out some material and moderate his language.

This was not the only embarrassment. Around the same time NTS senior managers had been wooing Ranald Alexander Macdonald, 24th Captain of Clanranald. They intended to ask him to finance the restoration of the stone bothy on the shore below Canna House and adopt it as a Clan Macdonald project. Their argument was that it was popularly called ‘the Clanranald House’ and there was a story that Do`mhnall Dubh of Clanranald – a notorious chief of the clan – had died there in 1686.

A white single storey house on the shore below Canna House, this was the original laird's house on the shore, now known as The Bothy and tearoom

The original laird’s house on the shore, now known as The Bothy and tearoom

 

Macdonald seemed quite interested, visited Canna and was entertained in Tighard. He sent the trust director copies of pages from The Young Chevalier, Or a Genuine Narrative of all that befell that Unfortunate Adventurer, a nineteenth-century history which claimed that Bonnie Prince Charlie had visited Canna during his escape after his defeat at Culloden.

But John torpedoed the trust’s funding case by showing that the house in question had not been built until nearly 100 years after Do`mhnall Dubh’s demise. It should not be called Clanranald’s house, but more accurately MacNeill’s house, he insisted. ‘Bang goes my chance of getting any money out of Clanranald,’ wrote one exasperated trust executive.

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