The Life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna by Ray Perman

Solving the conundrum of Canna House

“The happy accumulation” of Canna House moved Kathleen Raine to poetry.  In many ways the room her poem describes is still the same – ashtrays are empty and friendly bottles gone but books, pictures and owl lamp are still there, symbols of full lives and personal quirks.   But this is not the kind of ‘visitor experience’ members of the National Trust for Scotland are used to. And indeed it poses a problem for the Trust.

In fact very few visitors knock on the door and they are disappointed – sometimes angry – to find it closed, but it is practically impossible to open the house to the public on a regular basis.  Canna has no convenient pool of NTS volunteers to draw up. Volunteers are occasionally willing to come but ferry schedules mean that they have to stay for at least two nights and the lack of accomomodation on the island again becomes the block.

Visitors who do gain access are sometimes shocked by the state of the building. It is not typical of a National Trust house, freshly painted with furnishings appropriate to the period in which is was built. Its wallpaper is faded, its paint yellowing. There are damp stains on ceilings. It does not have a reception desk or a gift shop, no public lavatories or café. The dining room is no longer dominated by Sir Archibald Campbell, just an outline on the wall where his portrait used to hang. (It was left by Margaret to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery with the hope that it would be on permanent loan in Canna but for the last three years it has languished in the gallery’s store in Edinburgh, likely to remain there until the NTS can guarantee a more benign environment for its preservation.)

The books which line the corridors and bedrooms are unsorted and uncatalogued. Curtains are faded, carpets threadbare. Some pictures have artistic merit, but many were hung only because they meant something to the former owners. There are knickknacks and ornaments, souvenirs, posters and postcards, the sort of things which end up at clearance sales.

The effect is that the house remains much as John and Margaret left it, except for peeling wallpaper and brown stains where rainwater has seeped in. It is possible to imagine it as it was in the days whern there were frequent visits by poets and writers, schoolteachers and farmworkers, fishermen, artists, academics, priests and politicians and it resounded to music, argument and laughter. It remains a conundrum for the Trust: how to let more people see inside without destroying what they have come to see; how to preserve it without having to spend money it will never be able to repay?

But maybe it is possible to bring new life into Canna House without destroying the spirit of the place. Since I wrote my closing chapter for the book – describing the challenge the house poses for the Trust – Magda, the highly dedicated archivist of Canna House, has developed plans to open two rooms to visitors in the summer of 2011. I am sure she would have the blessing of John and Margaret.