The Life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna by Ray Perman

Not so Mickey Mouse

Living history: the entrance to Canna House

John Lorne Campbell would have taken a keen interest in the storm over the (English) National Trust’s latest attempt to breathe new life into historic houses. He did not want the National Trust for Scotland to turn Canna into a tourist attraction and he would have been appalled at the thought of using actors and stage props to recreate the past for the benefit of visitors.

Of course, I hasten to add, ‘Disney-fying’ Scotland’s trust properties is not one of the 22 proposals for reform recommended in the Reid Report. And Disney-fying might not have been a valid term of abuse as far as JLC was concerned anyway. An enthusiastic fan of Mickey Mouse cartoons, the laird of Canna thought his precious collection of the Mickey Mouse Weekly in bound volumes was probably the most valuable work in his archive.

But that begs the question of how posterity – in the form of the trust – cares for the rest of his library, that extraordinary Campbell legacy in the house overlooking the harbour.  The collection of John and Margaret’s books, paintings, photographs, music, folk-song and folk-lore – now so carefully and sensitively curated by the archivist Magda Sagarzazu –  is not open to the tourist or day-tripper visiting the island.

And to recreate the past inside the house would take the touch of a sorcerer. A clumsy make-over for the modern tourist might have recorded music echoing through the rooms and a fire in the grate.  The silent grand piano is somehow a more eloquent witness to past evenings where friends and visitors were encouraged and cajoled into making music while whisky and conversation flowed long into the night. The stuffed birds in the dining room once cast their beady eye over the weekly games when the laird genially set out to beat the island men at billiards – and was a little put out on the occasions that he did not succeed.

What happens to it all now? The terms of the bequest ensure that the archive  remains on Canna and in Canna House. Somewhere among all those papers and records in Canna House there are meticulously researched, well-written reports and recommendations for the preservation and continuing use of the archive and the house that contains it.  One day, when the NTS has decided its own future, some important decisions will have to be made about when and how to implement them.