There is a great deal in this book, just as there are many sides to the personality and career of John Lorne Campbell, Laird of Canna. Having purchased the island, farmed its soil and fished its waters, he championed the cause not just of Canna, but of Scotland’s islands and Gaelic culture more generally.
There is the story of the island itself and John’s commitment, as a practical farmer and fisherman, to its society and economy. There is the central story describing how John Lorne Campbell and his wife, Margaret Fay Shaw, recognized Canna’s place and destiny as the centre of a world-wide network for the study and preservation of Gaelic language, literature and song. Thanks to John’s gift of the island to the National Trust for Scotland, this story continues.
There is the personal story of John’s family background, describing how he spent most of his life in the mistaken belief that he was a disappointment to his father because he had turned his back on the `county set’ in Argyll. Finally, there is the riveting story of his sixty year marriage to his American wife, herself an authority on Gaelic, especially Gaelic song.
Within its relatively modest 250 pp., the author does justice to all these stories. As a work of scholarship, the book makes full use of sources, printed and manuscript, in the Canna House archive, but it never loses the general reader’s attention. It begins and ends with two poems; the first by Kathleen Raine, describing the disparate objects in Canna House including books on birds, cases of butterflies, and piles of Paris-Match, The Scotsman and The New Yorker,
“all this learned and happy accumulation,
Held together by the presence of John and Margaret Campbell.”
The second by Margaret herself for John’s birthday, contrasting his shabby coat and shirt, “covered in dirt”, with her own new suit from Jaeger, and concluding
“What a contrast in coverage, alas we can say,
But we love nonetheless–and so Happy Birthday.”
An island’s story: one man’s vision, 8 Nov 2010
The Man Who Gave Away His Island: A Life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna (Hardcover)
Drawing on his first-hand knowledge of the eccentric folklorist and scholar John Lorne Campbell, and on the extensive archive of material left by Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw, Ray Perman has woven a vivid, intimate and deeply engaging portrait of a man for whom the purchase of the small Hebridean island of Canna in 1938 was the start of a passionate but often tortured journey to fulfil a personal mission. It is a fascinating tale of how one man’s drive to achieve a productive, sustainable and harmonious island community was frequently thwarted by debt, ingrained distrust and bureaucratic obstinacy – as well as occasional blindness on Campbell’s part. It is also the story of how, due to their passion and persistence, both Campbell and Shaw ensured that traditional Gaelic ballads and stories would be recorded and preserved for posterity. Much of what they collected is still housed in their home on Canna (now owned by the National Trust for Scotland) where for all of their married lives they entertained friends, scholars and visitors from near and far.
Canna is a small island, and Campbell was no ordinary `laird’, so while the story of their relationship may not be typical of the Hebrides as a whole, it nevertheless provides a fascinating insight into some of the tensions that arose between traditional and modern ways of life in the islands during the early decades of the last century – tensions that continue today, and in the case of Canna, pose an interesting challenge to its new owners the NTS.