Solving the conundrum of Canna House

“The happy accumulation” of Canna House moved Kathleen Raine to poetry.  In many ways the room her poem describes is still the same – ashtrays are empty and friendly bottles gone but books, pictures and owl lamp are still there, symbols of full lives and personal quirks.   But this is not the kind of ‘visitor experience’ members of the National Trust for Scotland are used to. And indeed it poses a problem for the Trust.

In fact very few visitors knock on the door and they are disappointed – sometimes angry – to find it closed, but it is practically impossible to open the house to the public on a regular basis.  Canna has no convenient pool of NTS volunteers to draw up. Volunteers are occasionally willing to come but ferry schedules mean that they have to stay for at least two nights and the lack of accomomodation on the island again becomes the block.

Visitors who do gain access are sometimes shocked by the state of the building. It is not typical of a National Trust house, freshly painted with furnishings appropriate to the period in which is was built. Its wallpaper is faded, its paint yellowing. There are damp stains on ceilings. It does not have a reception desk or a gift shop, no public lavatories or café. The dining room is no longer dominated by Sir Archibald Campbell, just an outline on the wall where his portrait used to hang. (It was left by Margaret to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery with the hope that it would be on permanent loan in Canna but for the last three years it has languished in the gallery’s store in Edinburgh, likely to remain there until the NTS can guarantee a more benign environment for its preservation.)

The books which line the corridors and bedrooms are unsorted and uncatalogued. Curtains are faded, carpets threadbare. Some pictures have artistic merit, but many were hung only because they meant something to the former owners. There are knickknacks and ornaments, souvenirs, posters and postcards, the sort of things which end up at clearance sales.

The effect is that the house remains much as John and Margaret left it, except for peeling wallpaper and brown stains where rainwater has seeped in. It is possible to imagine it as it was in the days whern there were frequent visits by poets and writers, schoolteachers and farmworkers, fishermen, artists, academics, priests and politicians and it resounded to music, argument and laughter. It remains a conundrum for the Trust: how to let more people see inside without destroying what they have come to see; how to preserve it without having to spend money it will never be able to repay?

But maybe it is possible to bring new life into Canna House without destroying the spirit of the place. Since I wrote my closing chapter for the book – describing the challenge the house poses for the Trust – Magda, the highly dedicated archivist of Canna House, has developed plans to open two rooms to visitors in the summer of 2011. I am sure she would have the blessing of John and Margaret.

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6 Responses to Solving the conundrum of Canna House

  1. David Hoult says:

    Great news that it may be possible to visit part of Canna House this year. We stayed on Canna for a week in 2009, and fell in love with the island immediately – we can’t wait to return.

    With the cafe reopening in 2010, and a new NTS manager on the island, let’s hope Canna can move on from the difficulties of past years. Key to a more prosperous future must surely be the provision of more visitor accommodation. What chance the restoration of St Edward’s on Sanday as a hostel?

  2. Ray says:

    Great to see your comment David – visitor accommodation is certainly a challenge for the island as there are so many of us who want to keep going back! It sounds as if there are many enterprising ideas for increasing the accommodation and St Edwards is on the list. Incidentally my son and his girlfriend enjoyed staying in the belltent with added benefit of woodburning stove in the autumn.

  3. Kathleen Canna says:


    I happend across your article on the web. I am quite curious, obviously. As my dad Giovanni Canna came to the USA from Ficarazzi, Sicily in 1955. I don’t think that I a related. I will research the book and all I can find to read on the subject of Canna house. If you might point me in the direction of where I may begin, I would be so grateful.
    Thank you for your kind considerations.
    Warm Regards,
    Kathleen Canna

  4. John and Yvonne Selby says:

    We were the very first visitors to Canna House on the 30th of March this year!
    Having been pressganged into visiting by the very enthusiatic National Trust For Scotland warden who even came to prise us out of the cafe!!! We were very pleased that he had .
    Although we only had a short time before the ferry ,Magda gave us a charming tour of the few rooms which they have managed to get ready for opening, it looked as though the occupants had just gone out for a stroll.

  5. Ray says:

    Well done! It’s definitely an experience not to be missed. Be sure to tell your friends!

  6. lisa stout says:

    I just read a wonderful article by Barbara Kilpatrick in the May issue of “World of Interiors” (with photographs by Ricardo Labougle). John Campbell and Margaret Shaw sound like a very lovely couple…I would’ve loved to have tea with both, listening to music and looking at maps and the entemology collection. Canna House is a must see for me now.

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