Canna today is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). It was gifted to the Trust in 1981, by its then owner John Lorne Campbell and his wife, Margaret Fay Shaw, and is still run as a farm with a traditional Hebridean community, as John Campbell requested.
The garden of the Hebrides
Canna, with its smaller neighbour Sanday, is the most westerly of the Small Isles, and as such, its longer distance from the ferry port of Mallaig classifies it as an offshore island. Its remoteness is in stark contrast to the beautiful green meadows thriving on its fertile basalt soil and which have earned the island its nickname of the Garden of the Hebrides. Some 248 native plants flower there throughout the year in a wide variety of habitats amonst which are cliff-vegetation, heaths, machair grassland and shell-sand dunes.
Years of careful stewardship
Canna and Sanday were managed by Dr Campbell since 1938 as a private nature reserve. Agriculture and silviculture have, throughout this period, been carried out with objectives for the conservation of wildlife. Methods of arable cultivation and animal husbandry followed the agricultural tradition of the West Highlands and Islands with the use of natural and mild fertilisers and the avoidance of pesticides. Control of pests was restricted to rabbit clearance. The choice of tree species was governed as much for their conservation value as for their yield of ‘estate timber'.
Today, with Canna still run as a hill farm, and Sanday given over to crofting, this conservation policy has paid off handsomely. Pedigree Highland cattle and Galloway belted cattle are a joy to watch in their slow progress around the islands’ fields. Rabbits may still be over plentiful, but the rat eradication programme has ensured that wildlife is thriving, whilst preserving the special Canna mouse thought to be descended from the Viking occupation of the island.
A seabird Sanctuary
Canna has large and nationally important communities of shags, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars and Manx shearwaters. With over 20 000 breeding seabirds on the island, the impressive cliffs and stacks on the coast of Sanday facing Rum offer some of the best sea-bird watching in the UK, with the possibility of observing puffins at very close range! Other bird species of national importance are the peregrine, golden eagle, white-tailed sea-eagle, eider, shelduck and corncrake.
The islands’ oceanic climate and the warmth of their south-facing slopes have allowed the development of an insect fauna found only on very restricted sites on the Atlantic fringe of Europe. Canna and Sanday, together with the neighbouring lighthouse islet of Heiskeir, are of outstanding importance in the study of bird and insect migration. Such a study was carried on for almost 60 years by Dr John Lorne Campbell whose collection of Lepidoptera Cannae and field records and papers are part of the cultural archive of Canna.
A special place for geology
Like the rest of the Small Isles , the geology of Canna and Sanday display at the same time the great volcanic forces which have been at work in the earth’s crust and the erosive power of ice, sea and weather through the ages. Much of Canna shows outstanding examples of the Tertiary volcanic geology of Britain which occurred when Europe separated from North America and Greenland.
Canna's basalt lava flows were probably erupted from a major volcano on what is now the Isle of Skye. But what makes Canna of particular interest is that the area was traversed by fast-flowing rivers at the same time that the volcano was erupting. Great thicknesses of boulder conglomerate were deposited by this river. The boulders were rounded as they were carried along in the fast flowing river currents. Some are over a metre in diameter, indicating the strengths of the currents involved. Pebbles in these deposits have been matched with bedrock from Skye, suggesting that the river flowed from the north. These rocks were first studied by some of the early geological pioneers of Scottish geology, such as Archibald Geikie in 1897 and Alfred Harker ten years later.
A long cultural heritage
Over 5000 years of human occupation on Canna have left a rich legacy which can be discovered through the guided history tours conducted by the National Trust Ranger during the summer months. The island is especially notable for its Early Christian settlement, which featured a monastic community at Keill and a nunnery at Rubha Sgorr nam Ban Naomha. The cross at Keill is an outanding example of the art of this period. There is a wealth of monuments and buildings spanning the last 500 years, from the medieval Corroghon tower to the early 20th church of St Edwards, now turned into an arts centre in use by the community. Near the farm square, the Old Laundry presents objects from the island more recent crofting and farming past. Canna House, the home of Canna’s enlightened 20th century owners, has itself been turned in a fascinating museum, presenting the life and work of two writers with wide-ranging interests who found themselves at the centre of a Gaelic cultural hub that spanned the continents. The outstanding collections in Canna House are a must for anyone interested in Hebridean history and folklore.
Modern day challenges
Canna shares the sad history of the Highland Clearances with the rest of the Small Isles, when many of its inhabitants were forced to leave for the New World throughout the 19th century. Modern emigration patterns further eroded the fabric of the community, and today, the National Trust together with the community have had to call for new candidates to island life on a number of occasions.
With the setting up of the Canna Community Association as a member of the Scottish Development Trust Association, many challenges are being embraced by a small but determined community of only 12 people. This includes switching from 24 hour diesel generators to 24 hour renewable power, running a community shop and organizing the yearly Feis Chanaidh to build on the island’s outstanding Gaelic heritage.
Isle of Canna Websites and Videos on YouTube of Canna
Canna Community Association
Tighard Guest House
Canna History Society
The Canna Story (not really a Canna based website, but closely linked)
Videos on YouTube of Canna
Canna – An Island Story. STV
Flying around the coast line of Canna and Sanday on my Paratrike
Leahy - The Coulin.Isle of Canna
Basking Shark off Canna
Canna – Day one – Kintail Rangers kayaking trip
Canna Kayaking trip – day 2
Canna Kayaking – day 3
Canna Kayaking, last day, day 3
Canna Sheep at the Dingwall Sale
LOCHNEVIS Unloading Supplies at Canna
White Tailed Sea Eagle – Isle of Canna
Dolphins off Canna
Stop Frame animation of Canna