After lunch on the day of our first meeting in 1977, John took me to bale out his boat – a sturdy work vessel, not a laird’s yacht – and then to walk up Compass Hill. He strode easily, while I, less than half his age, panted beside him.
Around the horizon we could see Barra, the Uists, Benbecula, the Cuillins of Skye, Rum and the mainland. Below us the land which John had bought and struggled for forty years to protect and sustain.
He knew every inch of it. What the soil structure was and what would grow where. In the house there are many identical maps of Canna, each one neatly annotated to identify a different hoard of treasure: the best places for lobster fishing, the plan of native tree plantings, the haunts of migrating birds and butterflies. But here, laid out below us, was the ground itself. From the highest point on the island, the beginning and end of his property was clearly defined by the sea. As I was to discover later, the boundaries of responsibility which he both inherited and bequeathed, were never so easily defined.
From, The Man Who Gave Away His Island, which will be published by Birlinn in September 2010.