It is nearly 40 years since John Lorne Campbell fought his battle against the small boat scheme. He realised then that the proposal to withdraw the CalMac ferry serving the Small Isles of Eigg, Rum, Muck and his own island of Canna could spell the death to the islands as inhabited communities.
The plan was to substitute passenger launches and a flat-bottomed landing craft for the ageing Loch Arkaig, the ship which had been providing the service. But as he pointed out even that vessel was inadequate to meet the summer demand and not reliable enough to provide a regular winter service. To replace it with smaller capacity boats, unable to put to sea in stormy weather would be to consign the islands to a slow death. The tourist trade would suffer, it would be more expensive to get livestock to market and import vital supplies and everything from getting to the doctor to travelling to school would be more difficult.
John Campbell and his many allies won that battle, but it unsettled him. He was energised by it (he loved a fight), but he worried about who would fight future battles after he was gone. It was one of the reasons he gave the island to the National Trust for Scotland, reasoning that it had the political clout to secure the island against the cost cutters.
Now history is repeating itself. David Ross, the excellent Highland Correspondent of The Herald, has revealed that the Scottish Government is proposing the redeployment of the car ferry Lochnevis away from the Small Isles to serve Colonsay. In its place would come a “daily fast RIB (rigid inflatable boat) passenger service” and “a minimum of two visits a week from a vehicle-carrying ferry and freight provision.”
A Scottish Government spokesman claimed that the proposal would mean all the Small Isles having a seven-day-a-week service for the first time.
Islanders are rightly sceptical of this sort of promise. RIBs are open and exposed. They do make the journey to Canna in calm summer weather, but to believe they could provide a regular service in winter is naive. Ad hoc freight services also have a way of turning out to be less reliable than promised, as ships are taken out of service for maintenance or diverted to more profitable duties. This is nakedly a reduction in an essential service in order to save money and to dress it up as anything else is disingenuous.
The Small Isles Community Council, which warned last year of the threat to essential services posed by the fall in population of Canna, is going to fight. The spirit of John Lorne Campbell stands alongside them. So too should the National Trust for Scotland.
The institution may have lost prestige and influence since its zenith four decades ago, but its Chairman, Sir Kenneth Calman, and its President Lord Jamie Lindsay, are well-connected and well-respected in high places. It is time for them to use their networks and their persuasiveness to preserve the community left in their charge.