THE MAN WHO GAVE AWAY HIS ISLAND: A LIFE OF JOHN LORNE CAMPBELL OF CANNA BY RAY PERMAN (Birlinn Ltd £20)
By JANE SHILLING
Last updated at 4:51 PM on 4th October 2010
Everyone loves an island. Throughout history, the magical fantasy of possessing a little kingdom has tempted a colourful succession of eccentrics.
But for some, the ownership of an island comes not just with a powerful poetic charge, but an equally powerful sense of obligation to the little realm of which they have, for a while, become the custodian.
John Lorne Campbell, the Laird of Canna, or ‘Fear Chanaidh’, to use the Gaelic term he preferred, was such a man. He was born in 1906, the eldest son of the landowning Campbell family of Argyll.
John’s parents were absent during much of his childhood: his father was often away working and his mother, who detested stuffy Scottish society, spent most of her time in London or Paris. John and his brothers, Charles, Colin and George, were left in the care of Miss Martin, their ‘domineering hell-fire Calvinist’ nanny.
More happily, John spent hours in the company of his grandfather ‘Old Inverneill’, a traditional Highland patriach from whom John learned to cherish the special relationship that could exist between a benevolent and visionary landowner and the people who worked his land.
He was an unusual child: insecure, lonely, painfully shy.
His conventional upper-class education at Rugby and Oxford did little to increase his confidence. Expecting to take over the family estate, he studied Rural Economy, but his real love was Gaelic.
Soon he began to research his first book, Highland Songs Of The Forty-Five, in which he set out a passionate argument for the preservation of Gaelic culture. Shattered by his father’s decision to sell the estate, in 1933 John set off for a holiday on the Isle of Barra – a decision that would change the course of his life.
On Barra, John met two men who became father figures to him, a Gaelic speaker known as the Coddy, and the novelist Compton Mackenzie, author of Whisky Galore.
When the Island of Canna came up for sale in 1938, Mackenzie initially proposed to John that they buy it together. In the end, John impulsively made the purchase alone. And then had to break the news to his wife.
Some wives might not be thrilled to learn that their husband had just spent a hefty sum that he couldn’t afford on a remote Hebridean island. But Margaret Campbell was an exceptional woman.
American by birth (though of Scottish origins), a talented musician, and almost as shy as John, Margaret had fallen in love with the Hebrides and their folklore during a student visit to South Uist.
After a ‘slow, cool’ courtship, John proposed and they moved to Canna, to live in a house with wooden baths, no electricity, and a vast collection of stuffed animals, all of which were so moth-eaten that they had to be burned.
The idyllic vision of island life is invariably an illusion, and so it was with the Campbells. John’s shy, prickly and fragile nature meant that he found dealing with people difficult, and the emotional and financial strain of supporting the island community led to a severe nervous collapse.
An extra sadness was that he and Margaret never had the ‘curly-haired boy’ they longed for, and as they grew old, the lack of an heir to take on the island led them to decide to pass Canna to the National Trust for Scotland.
John’s biographer, Ray Perman, was a friend of the Campbells for 20 years. His affection for them both is evident in his book. As a former business journalist, he gives an eloquent account of the financial and emotional cost of landowning.
But missing from his portrait is a sense of psychological insight, not to mention that essential element of good biography – gossip. Even from this rather sparse account it is clear that John’s distant relations with his parents must have formed his character, but Perman doesn’t venture beyond the bare facts.
Still more tantalising is his silence on the subject of the Campbells’ friendships. Perman notes that the visitor’s book at Canna House contained the signatures of the poet Kathleen Raine, the artists Helen Binyon and Gilbert Spencer, brother of Stanley, the cellist Vivien Mackie, the engraver Reynolds Stone and the Scottish poet Helen Cruickshank – a vibrant social and cultural circle of which Perman tells his readers next to nothing.
True as his book is to John Campbell’s passion for his island and its fragile, precious traditions, a little less finance and a little more fun might have made a more rounded portrait of a fascinating, difficult man.