The 49 in 50 of Scots who don’t live on an island give the other 1 little thought, as they seldom visit, preferring Lanzarote sun or Ibiza fun, and finding the long journey and inevitable ferry crossing off-putting. Of the 100,000 or so islanders, 90% are on Orkney, Shetland, Bute, Skye or Lewis, leaving barely 10,000 to cover Scotland’s other 95 inhabited islands. Which means some of them are pretty small and even marginal when it comes to keeping a community together. One that has recently seemed marginal is Canna, the furthest out of the Small Isles and, until recently, populated by 30 people.
That is changing, as the school teacher is leaving, taking the only four pupils, as is the family that run the only B&B. The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) was given the island by the celebrated Gaelic folklorist John Lorne Campbell in 1981. They also own Rum, whose population is stuck around 20, despite a new pier and plenty of deer in its vast bracken wastes. In contrast, the third Small Isle, Eigg, was the subject of a community buy-out barely a decade ago and seems to be thriving.
Romantic though it may sound, island life is not for everyone, especially when November gales threaten to take the roof off and turning your hand to anything is not everyone’s gift. But, given a shop, a school and two-days-a-week sailings, most people seem to pitch in, reciprocate the warmth and generosity such fiercely self-sufficient places generate and make it a real home. At least, that’s Eigg—or the Uists or Gigha or Westray. Only far St Kilda in the thirties and Stroma in the fifties have been abandoned. So, what’s not working on Canna?
It would seem that the culprit is the landowner—NTS. To boost the population, in 2005
they instigated a world-wide search to find two families to move there; both those families are among those leaving. In part, it appears to be about ownership—residents can only lease and so feel poorly rewarded for work and investment they put into houses or small-holdings. It is similar to Rum, where virtually everyone works for NTS. No vehicles can be brought ashore without NTS permission on either island and the local managers, while highly motivated and principled, dictate what is permissible in too many aspects of life. The net result is a reactive, NTS-dominated culture on each island, in stark contract to the much more shambolic but dynamically expanding culture on Eigg and Gigha.
Having been there myself (a week of John Muir Trust fence clearing, staying at Kinloch Castle), I was struck by the similarity with how SNH runs the (uninhabited) Isle of May along such lines: they appear affable and welcoming but you soon learn that they have a wheen of rules and tolerate your presence mainly because of the income you bring. They seem to secretly wish that you were not there fouling up their concept of paradise. I hope NTS sees the light on this before the last dozen inhabitants Canna thole it any more.