The Life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna by Ray Perman

Remembering the battle of the small boats

Looking forward to next week’s trip to Eigg and already memories come flooding back before we even set foot on the Shearwater, which will carry us from Arisaig to the island.  The last time I visited Eigg was almost 35 years ago when I was a Financial Times reporter researching ferry policy.

Canna harbour in sunlight

Canna the only Small Isle with a natural harbour

At that time the island was owned by businessman Keith Schellenberg who was campaigning to remove subsidies from state-owned Calmac ferry services.  A former Olympic bobsleigh champion who objected to being called a playboy landlord (though play was a an important part of his island activities), Schellenberg wanted to create a new small boat service based on Eigg.

A year earlier I had visited Canna to meet the laird who was campaigning vigorously against the ‘Small Boat Scheme’. It had set him against not only his neighbouring proprietor on Eigg, but an array of bureaucrats and politicians.

Dr Campbell, as I always called him, was clearly energised by the fight, eager to explain his argument. Working for the FT, I was trained to demand precise numbers and verifiable facts. I had expected anecdote and prejudice from the eccentric laird of a remote island. Instead I got a folder of official documents, transcripts of evidence, and details of the class of passenger certificate required for a vessel crossing the Sound of Canna (which, John explained, has more exposed seas than those on the more sheltered side of Rum facing the mainland). He had tabulated the exact number of days during each of the past few years on which the ferry had been unable to sail because of bad weather.

Listening to him and reading the evidence I became convinced that not only would the Small Boat Scheme be a disaster for Canna, but that by backing it, the Highlands and Islands Development Board was going against its own policy. How could they not see this themselves? I asked. The answer was damning: ‘Because they are not practical men.’

That meeting was to establish a lasting relationship with both John and his wife Margaret, maintained over two decades by family visits to the island and through letters (this was of course before email) which led eventually to my first book: the reporter turned unexpectedly into author.

Meanwhile, I had met Schellenberg on that 1977 visit to Eigg. Travelling with Fay and our first son, then 4 months old, we arrived to find nowhere to stay. The island was full up for  Schellenberg’s colourful and eccentric version of Highland Games. So he put us up on a work boat in Eigg harbour and we rowed ashore in the dark with a carrycot in the dingy –  a scary prospect for land lubbers like ourselves.

Campbell won the battle of the small boats and Schellenberg has long gone from Scotland. Now we’re looking forward to a journey on the Shearwater to the community-owned island with a growing population full of enterprising ideas. It promises to be a fascinating trip.

Leaving Canna on MV Lochnevis at sunset

Leaving Canna on MV Lochnevis