A great adventure on Sanday

Welcome to the Spence family – Alison, Duncan, their children, two-and-a-half year-old Savourna and five month old Fergus, and two collies – who moved at the weekend into MacIsaac’s cottage, on Sanday [the picture above shows the restored cottage in its spectacular setting and the view is just as dramatic in the other direction as you will see below].

They are the first family to live in the house for 30 years. I recall meeting Ronnie MacIsaac, then well into his eighties, on one of my first visits to Canna in the 1970s. When he died, none of his family wanted to take on the croft and it was sold to the National Trust.

The house, which occupies a spectacular position on the seashore facing Canna’s basalt columns, had been abandoned for most of the period until the NTS patrons, who seem to have a special affection for Canna, raised the cash to restore it.

We had a peek inside when we were last on Canna. It looks warm and comfortable. The Spences had already seen it so they knew the drawbacks before they made their final decision. At high tide the house is unreachable by road, meaning a detour from the bridge to Canna across the fields. It is passable by quad bike or tractor, but whether a 4×4 would make it in the winter I’m not so sure. Living there will be a great adventure.

In the distance, MacIsaac’s cottage before restoration

The coming of the family is good news for the Canna community, not only because it brings new blood, but also because their children bring the prospect of the school reopening when they reach school age. That will bring new people to the island and replace the income which will be lost when Eilidh, the current teacher, leaves. The school paid not only her wages, but payments to other islanders for part-time teaching, cleaning and maintenance. The school also paid a large proportion of the cost of the diesel electricity generators.

When I met Ronnie MacIsaac he was keeping his sheep in the derelict Point House, which is next on the NTS wish list for restoration. It occupies an even more spectacular and more exposed position than the Spences’ new home, on the headland above it, looking out over Canna harbour. It will be a hardy family which takes that.

Awaiting restoration: the Point House on Sanday overlooking Canna harbour

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One Response to A great adventure on Sanday

  1. Thank you. Life at MacIssac’s where we have been living since October is indeed a great adventure. Sadly, it is an adventure which is already coming to an end: we are moving back to the mainland after only eight months and will be very sorry to say goodbye to our friends and neighbours here on Canna and Sanday, as well as in the rest of the Small Isles and Mallaig.

    I am reading ‘The Man Who Gave Away His Island’ with great interest at the moment, and filling the margins with scribbles. I am trying to reconcile in my mind John Campbell’s views on land ownership, island communities and the responsibility of having tenants with our experiences of the National Trust for Scotland’s handling (actual and official) of his island gift to them. I haven’t succeeded yet. The current owner of Canna needs to clarify internally and to declare publicly its opinions of, and intentions for, the ‘community’ before asking any more families to bring their lives to the island.

    The school nursery was due to open this week. Not any more. With my family’s departure the age of the youngest full-time resident goes up by about 40 years. The population is again in decline and has halved in less than a year. I don’t think it is inevitable. I would love to have been able to sit down with John and Margaret and discussed it.

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