Book review: The Man Who Gave Away His Island: A Life of John Lorne Campbell of CannaView Gallery

The Scotsman: 26 September 2010


By Ray Perman Birlinn, 288pp, £20

In 1938 the author Compton Mackenzie wrote from his home on the island of Barra to his estranged wife, Faith, in the south of England. “Inverneill,” he said, “has put in a offer for the island of Canna. If he gets it, it means he will be able to feed quite 40 people …”

There is a wealth of patrician sentiment in those two sentences. Mackenzie’s assumption that, with a European war imminent, the 40 people of Canna could not feed themselves: his parallel supposition that they required a benevolent laird to lift the spoon to their lips. His belief “Inverneill” was the man for the job. Inverneill was his young friend John Lorne Campbell. It was a title Campbell himself refused to adopt. Campbell was born in 1906 into the Argyllshire landed gentry. He died almost 90 years later as a pivotal figure in the Gaelic 20th century.

Campbell’s long journey is traced in Ray Perman’s The Man Who Gave Away His Island. He was a scion of the Campbells of Inverneill by Loch Fyne. He was the son of an American mother, raised an Episcopalian in a family which had abandoned the native language of its tenantry for English and owed much of its status and property to its Hanoverian, anti-Jacobite background, and he was educated at Rugby School and Oxford University.

He died a Roman Catholic, a Scottish nationalist, a latterday Jacobite, a visionary supporter of the political rights of the ordinary people of the north-west Highlands and Islands, and among the greatest of Gaelic scholars, historians and folklorists.

The fulcrum of Campbell’s life was the day in 1933 when he caught a steamer from Oban to Barra. He intended to take a three-week holiday on the island. He stayed there for five years, and for the 63 years left to him after 1933 he made his home in the Hebrides.

Perman suggests that for a son of the Argyll county set, the culture shock of landing in the egalitarian crofting democracy of Barra was life-changing. There were English-speaking landowners in the southern Western Isles, but they did not dominate society. They were ignored. The primary paternalist influence on men and women who had not deviated from the Old Religion was a series of robust Roman Catholic priests. Gaelic was the everyday tongue – anybody who failed to try to speak or understand the language was effectively excluded from the community. Barra, Vatersay, Eriskay and South Uist were proud, hard-working, self-sufficient and remarkably happy islands. To the 26-year-old Campbell, they were what the Highland seaboard had forgotten to be.

He fell in love with a place and its people.

Campbell was instantly adopted on Barra by two older men, John “the Coddy” MacPherson and Compton Mackenzie. Few people in Barra – few people in the whole of the Highlands – in the 1930s could avoid that twosome. The Coddy was a walking ambassador for Hebridean culture, and his friend Mackenzie was the most famous writer ever to settle in the Catholic islands.

In his fifties, Mackenzie was an extraordinarily energetic man. From his house overlooking Barra’s cockle strand he churned out the books which would make him famous, he entertained visitors and locals alike, and he co-opted Campbell into a number of agitations for the improvement of island life.

Ray Perman is right to highlight the presentient nature of many of the ideas which were broadcast by Mackenzie and Campbell in the 1930s, and in later decades amplified by Campbell himself. They called for a Highland development board 30 years before one was established, for protected local fishery zones 50 years ahead of time, and for a form of Road Equivalent Tariff on ferry fares 70 years before RET was trialled in the Western Isles. Campbell was a painfully shy man. Mackenzie’s attempts to groom his protégé for a career as a barnstorming Highland politician were badly misplaced. But the islands provided him with a perfect wife: Margaret Fay Shaw.

A little piece of Pittsburgh steel, she had settled happily in a quiet South Uist glen, taking photographs and transcribing songs and stories, when Campbell met her in 1934. They married in 1935. Three years later Campbell bought the beautiful, small, Catholic, Gaelic-speaking island of Canna, halfway between Uist and Skye. There they settled, and there they stayed.

Canna was his opportunity to put his theories into practice, and he knew it. On the face of things, he failed. The population continued to fall. There are now not many more than a dozen people on Canna. Few are Catholic and none are native Gaelic-speaking crofters.

Campbell and Shaw struggled for decades to keep Canna working and solvent. In 1981, when he was 75 years old, he signed the island over to the National Trust for Scotland. The Trust, some of whose officers regarded the place as much more of a liability than an asset, were left to preside over the next 30 years of decline, often with an irate John Campbell heckling from the sidelines.

Campbell and Shaw remained in Canna House until their deaths. Sequestered in his incomparable library, he wrote essays and books and cultivated the immense body of Gaelic song and lore which he had saved, before the lights went out, from South Uist and Barra.

When Dr Hugh Cheape first visited Canna early in the 1990s, he would remember “the warmth and hospitality we received from the Campbells in their home, typical of the old Highland tacksman’s house – learning, civilisation and conviviality in the middle of the seas”.

It was a unique life because it came 200 years too late, but still managed to make the best of a hostile modern world. The man who was born as Young Inverneill died as Fear Chanaidh, an older, more modest and more fitting title. Ray Perman has told his story well.