The Life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna by Ray Perman

In memory of Magda Sagarzazu


Without Magda Sagarzazu, who has died after a long fight against cancer, I would not have become an author.

At Christmas 2006, ten years after the death of John Lorne Campbell, I scrawled a note on a card to Charles Fraser, who had been John’s lawyer, executor and friend: ‘who is writing John’s biography?’ My intention was not to write it, but to read it. No-one was, but Charlie suggested Hugh Cheape, who had acted as John’s literary secretary, helping him get much of his last work published, but he felt himself too close. So the task fell to me.

I set two conditions: that the National Trust for Scotland would give me permission to consult the Canna archives and that Magda would agree. I called her and she accepted that a biography should be written: ‘It is time,’ she said. But I would have to go to see her on Canna before she would endorse me.

Magda met Fay and me at the pier (the whole island meets the ferry). We had actually met her decades earlier in the late 1970s or early 80s at dinner in Canna House – and were struck by this beautiful, warm young Spanish woman – but she had forgotten us.

Our business meeting took place over coffee in Canna House the following morning. When, she asked, had I first come to Canna and met John? On my answer – around April 1977 – she went away and came back with the visitors’ book for that year.

Friends of Canna

Like Margaret Fay Shaw, John Campbell’s wife and collaborator in their work preserving Gaelic culture, Magda believed in signs. The book gave the first: my name was there – and the very next name was hers. We had been on the island at the same time.

The second sign came with her search of John’s meticulous filing system: he kept a folder of my cuttings and letters – and there was the article I had been commissioned to write in 1977 by the Highlands and Islands Development Board. They had refused to publish it and I had given it to the West Highland Free Press – sending back the cheque to the HIBD in a fit of moral outrage.

The reason, for the rejection, was I had said that the board was acting against its own ferry policy in supporting Keith Schellenberg’s scheme for small boats from Eigg to replace the Caledonian MacBrayne vessel. John had fought that policy tooth and nail, believing – rightly – that it would lead to the end of Canna as an inhabited island.

My article marked me as a ‘friend of Canna’ and for John and Margaret – and later Magda – that was an endorsement that once earned, would never be taken away.

My book, The Man Who Gave Away His Island, was really written by Magda and I together. Sitting for days at a time in Canna House, she brought me the diaries, journals, letters, pictures and other documents which helped me piece together the story. When I needed to speak to others, she facilitated it.

Thanks to Magda, I travelled to Stokenchurch, Buckinghamshire, to see Sheila Locket, who had been John’s secretary. Anne and Warner Berthoff, retired English professors from Boston – some of John and Margaret’s old friends – I met in Mallaig on ‘their last visit to Canna.’ And again the following year on Canna on another ‘last visit.’ Sister Margaret MacDonell, the last living link between John, Margaret and St Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia, I met on South Uist.

Magda always said she did not know how to write, but she had an eye for a story and brought them to me: the exchanges with Compton Mackenzie; the box of letters between John; the American folksong collector Alan Lomax; Seamus Delargy, head of the Irish Folklore Commission; and Calum Maclean, the Commission’s Scottish representative. It was a tale of misunderstandings, lost tempers and missed opportunities, which showed some of the less attractive aspects of John’s character.

There was a lot of that in John’s own diaries and journals, especially when he was recovering from depression. He could be very hard on himself. My draft reflected too much of that harsh side. It took Magda to correct me: ‘But you liked him, Ray. You must rediscover why you liked him.’

Lasting memories

She delighted in that other often unseen, unexpected side of John – the man who collected comics and wind up toys, the prankster who played practical jokes, the humorous storyteller who wrote tales of Canna cats, the man who was almost a second father to Magda and her sister Maria Carmen.

I hope the final book is a lot more balanced. Certainly, Magda never disowned me, or the warm acknowledgement I gave her in the foreword.

The story of how the Sagarzazu family came to be as much part of the life of Canna as any of the indigenous inhabitants is one of the most romantic I know. It is told in my book and perhaps I shall tell it here some other time.

I saw Magda many times after the book came out, but my lasting memory of her is of an occasion when I was staying with her in Doirlinn, the little white house by the bridge to Sanday. It was the first house Fay and I stayed in during our holidays on Canna, 30 years before. Now she had made it a little outpost of the Basque country in a Hebridean island.

After dinner, she led me over the bridge, we skirted the white-sand beach and climbed the hill behind, to the place which she knew would catch the last rays of the sun before it set behind the Cuillins of Skye. Before us was the beauty of Canna harbour and the surreal colours on the cliffs of Rum. We sat in silence until the light was gone and then walked home.

Magdalena Sagarzazu. 16 September  1949 – 3 June 2020.