Light on the horizon: does Canna offer a model of good practice?

On a later summer afternoon patrons of the National Trust for Scotland looked out over the clear waters of Canna harbour to say farewell to the island sometimes described as the Jewel of the Hebrides. With the island bathed in sunshine, the dark cloud hanging over the trust itself must have been the last thing on their minds.

The bi-annual patrons’ visit to Canna is a thank-you to some of the trust’s most generous supporters, but it also gives them an opportunity to see what is being done with their money. I think they will have been pleased at what they found. The island – owned by the trust since 1981 – is at its happiest and most optimistic for several years, with native islanders and incomers working harmoniously together.

If Canna offers a vivid illustration of the challenges facing the trust, it may also offer some solutions when members meet to debate the hard-hitting Reid report at the end of this month.

First the good news. The farm, one of the mainstays of the island economy, is doing well with fields, animals, fences and gates in good condition.  Geraldine MacKinnon –whose father and grandfather were Canna farm managers – is exceeding her financial targets and Canna stock is in demand in the local marts. The garden of Canna House, an overgrown wilderness two years ago, has been brought back to colourful life by Neil Baker, his wages paid by a generous patron. Sheila Gunn and John Clare have converted one of the larger houses into a stylish guest house, while Aart Lastdrager and Amanda McFadden have turned the tea room into a popular restaurant using local produce, much frequented by visiting yachtsmen and women.

The patrons will also have seen the start of work on rebuilding one of the long-abandoned houses, to provide accommodation for another family – vital if the community is to grow from its present number of less than 20 to a sustainable level.

Canna is important, not only as a beautiful Hebridean island – there are many others – but also as the home of the unique archive of Gaelic literature and learning established by John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw.  With no children of their own they wanted to prevent the island becoming a rich man’s playground. So John gave Canna to the National Trust for Scotland, a gesture he hoped would secure its future. It was accepted in the same spirit, by the trust’s charismatic director, Jamie Stormonth Darling, and its President Lord Wemyss – well-meaning men who recognised is value to the heritage and culture of Scotland.

So to the gloomier part of the story. In researching my book, the trust gave me unfettered access to its archives. The story I discovered there illustrates the deep financial problems which now beset the trust, starkly spelt out in the report by George Reid, which is to be debated at the trust’s annual meeting later this month.

Despite Stormonth Darling’s enthusiasm, the trust’s professional staff had reservations about taking on the island. They calculated that an endowment of £1 million would be needed to produce enough income to cover Canna’s running costs. The trust thought it could raise £150,000 itself, but applied to the National Heritage Fund for the rest. The fund, however, was not convinced and sent in accountants to do their own assessment.

Their report criticised the trust’s case, thought it had underestimated the risks and recommended a grant of only £350,000. To add to the problems the trust’s appeal raised only a third of the target, meaning that Canna would have an endowment of £400,000, less than half of what was thought necessary.

While John Campbell continued to farm the island as the trust’s tenant, paying rent, things went well, but after he was forced by heart problems to retire the trust took over management of the farm itself, with disastrous results. Decisions which should have been taken on the island now had to be referred to Inverness or Edinburgh. An annual loss of £17,000 in 1983-4 had ballooned to £100,000 eight years later.

As the Reid Report shows, it was a pattern repeated for many of the properties accepted by the trust. If Reid’s recommendations are accepted at the trust AGM, it will mean drastic action, but also open up new opportunities. Canna has a lot to thank the trust and its patrons for, but if it is to achieve a sustainable future it will have to form a new relationship with both, one that allows the community more say in the management of the island, but perhaps also puts more responsibility on it to earn its own keep.