The Life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna by Ray Perman

John Lorne Campbell’s last journey home

Another stormy summer solstice stirs memories. Nine years ago John Lorne Campbell’s body was returned to the Island of Canna for burial in the woodland he had planted near Canna House. That much was planned well in advance but like many island stories it had taken unexpected twists and turns on a long journey home from Italy.

This was John’s second burial. He had died ten years earlier on 25 April 1996 in the peaceful surrounds of the Blue Nuns’ garden in the Villa San Giralomo, high above Florence in the hilltop town of Fiesole. It had become an annual pilgrimage for John and Margaret, a chance to recover from the Canna winter and refresh themselves for another season of summer visitors. Several of the Blue Nuns who ran the 50-room guesthouse had become friends. John, recovering from a winter of illnesses, relished the chance of speaking Irish Gaelic with them.

Visiting Florence three years ago, I could understand what drew the Campbell’s there. Although the Villa San Giralomo is no longer owned by the Blue Nuns, we could peer through the gates and picture how the villa’s terrace would give incomparable views across gardens, orchards and rooftops to Florence. In the haze of sunshine, there is the distinctive dome of Brunelleschi’s cathedral, and the mountains beyond the Arno valley.

A winding pathway between stone villas

A hilltop view of Florence, taken from near Villa San Giralomo

On the morning of the 25th April, John had been netting moths in the garden. The day was warm enough to have lunch outside, but at the start of the meal John interrupted Margaret to point out a butterfly. As he did so he slumped to the table, dying instantly from a heart attack. He was five months short of his ninetieth birthday.

After 6o years of marriage, Margaret was without John for the first time since 1935. With the help of the nuns Margaret made the necessary arrangements. John had asked to be ‘buried where he fell’ so that decision was easily taken: he would be interred in Fiesole. And that was how things were until 2006 when, following local custom, John’s body had to be exhumed and re-interred.

That task was to fall to Hugh Cheape, who was co-executor of John’s will, and a great champion of Canna (as historian and musicologist Hugh has worked tirelessly to secure the legacy of the Campbell’s archive). Together with Margaret he agreed that when the time came John should not be reburied in Italy but brought back to Canna.

As it happened by June 2006 Margaret was no longer alive; she died in December 2004 just a few weeks after her hundred and first birthday. Eighteen months later John’s remains were exhumed from his grave in Fiesole and flown to Heathrow Airport. John’s nephew, Neill Campbell, collected them and travelled to Edinburgh where he met up with Hugh Cheape and they journeyed on to Mallaig. The casket was placed in St Patrick’s Catholic Church overnight and in the morning the parish priest, Fr Joe Calleja, said mass.

It was Midsummer’s Day, a Wednesday, chosen because on that day the ferry Loch Nevis was scheduled to remain at Canna pier for two hours at lunchtime before going back to Mallaig. As a mark of respect Caledonian MacBrayne had donated tickets to those accompanying John and the plan was to complete the burial and return on the ferry. But the day started with a fierce storm and the ship could not leave the harbour. Cheape and Campbell spent several hours in the Mallaig Seaman’s Mission drinking tea.

A small stone church with distinctive 'rocket-like' tower

The Presbyterian church on Canna

On Canna, Gordon Galloway and Julie Mitchell were also anxiously scanning the sky. They had been on the island for several days preparing for their wedding which was to be on that day in the Presbuyterian church, near the pier. But the humanist minister who was to conduct the ceremony and 30 of the wedding guests were also stuck in Mallaig.

By 3 pm. The weather had improved and Captain Tony McQuade decided that they could sail. As they reached Canna the sun broke through the cloud, the wind lessened and the evening was fine and warm. While the minister and the wedding party filed into the church, a Land Rover met the Loch Nevis and took Johns remains to a small birch wood behind the Catholic chapel which he and his old friend Saturnino had planted. In spring it is filled with bluebells. Now, on the longest day of the year, the late sun was casting dappled evening shadows. Magda [their devoted friend and daughter of Saturnino] had dug a grave in a small clearing and all the islanders gathered there while Fr Calleja said a blessing and Hugh Cheape and Neill Campbell lowered the box into the earth.

Two years later, the present owner of Taynish House, where John had been brought up, gave permission for a piece of stone to be taken from the garden for John’s headstone. It was set in a small cairn, with the inscription:

Iain Latharna Caimbeul

1.10.1906 – 25.4.1996

Fear Chanaidh

As the numbers make clear, it is now 19 years since John’s death. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of his death, and ten years since his long journey home – that is surely an occasion worth celebrating. Whatever the midsummer weather.

John's gravestone among bluebells in the birch wood

Among bluebells in the birch wood: John’s last resting place

This blog post includes extracts from The Man Who Gave Away His Island. The paperback is now out of print but the ebook is still available from Waterstone’s and Amazon.