The Scots Magazine January 2011

The Man Who Gave Away His Island by Ray Perman

In April 1938 John Lorne Campbell bought the island of Canna for £9000. A son of the Campbell’s of Inverneill, he was a tall, gangly young man, painfully diffident, woefully lacking in self-confidence, social and practical skills and at odds with his dysfunctional parents. As a student at Oxford, he had developed a passionate interest in Gaeldom and the precarious state of the Gaelic language at the beginning of the 20th century. While studying economy, he had also published a collection of Highland folksongs. Fired by a singular determination to preserve the language and its centuries-old oral tradition, he embarked on what was to be a lifelong task. He travelled widely in the Outer Isles and to Novia Scotia gathering and soaking up not only points of linguistic difference in the Gaelic spoken there, but carefully noting the successes of the co-operative systems in Cape Breton and how they helped to reduce reliance on imported goods. Campbell regarded ownership and control of the land as fundamental to economic development. Without jobs and property holding, he argued, it would be impossible to retain a population in the remoter parts of Scotland and the islands. With a volatile mix of the visionary and a confrontational style, he campaigned mostly in print to turn his passions into reality. Hence the purchase of Canna where he and his wife Margaret Shaw strove for the next 40 years to turn it into a viable self-supporting community.  Ray Perman’s biography is a masterful account of this extraordinary man and the enormous contribution he made to Gaelic studies resulting in an archival treasure of printed works and recordings that he bequeathed to the nation. With an eye to the broad readership, he outlines historical backdrops, contemporary economic and social conditions in the Highlands.

He introduces and fills out information on Campbell, his disastrous military career, his education, his eccentricities, leading readers deftly towards an insight into his character with all its flaws and strengths.  Life on Canna, the problems he had with national bodies, ferry companies, the devastating effect of his financial affairs, are all worked seamlessly into a crisp narrative. This is a wonderfully rounded portrayal of a formidable scholar who was a national treasure.