Shedding the light on the future for beautiful island of Canna
WE HAVEN’T heard much about Canna in The Oban Times recently until the week before last when it featured in two places and both on the subject of light.
The first was an intimation that an application had been received by Highland Council to build six large wind turbines on Sanday and the second, an in-house advert, announcing that anyone taking out a subscription to this newspaper would receive, a free, luxurious, hand- crafted and organic candle from the Isle of Canna. If you think I am in danger of becoming flippant read on. This is serious.
Canna is one of the most beautiful of all the Scottish islands and has played a prominent part in the story of the Hebrides for more than 1,000 years. In 1938 it and the nearby islands of Sanday, Heisker and Humla, was bought by the Gaelic-speaking John Lorne Campbell (JLC) a distinguished Celtic scholar and linguist whose writings changed forever our knowledge of the history and culture of these parts.
JLC was also an environmentalist long before Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) was invented. He combined farming with conservation and showed what could be achieved by an egalitarian laird on an island free from the anglicising influence of what is known as ‘the Big House’ which usually goes hand in hand with land ownership in Scotland.
In 1981 JLC generously gave Canna and his unique scholarly collections to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). It was a condition of the gift that the trust maintain a flourishing Hebridean community through a viable and sustainable agricultural regime, preserve the special nature of the property, particularly its archaeology, flora and fauna, butterflies and moths and most importantly, establish a centre for advanced studies for Scottish Gaelic and language based in Canna House.
Thirty four years later it is not unreasonable to ask if any of these conditions have been fulfilled and what benefits, if any, this particular development will bring.
The applicant, Isle of Canna Community Development Trust, has commissioned Wind and Sun Limited, a Herefordshire company specialising in renewable energy solutions, to upgrade the existing electricity system on the island.
The design report, which forms part of the application, based on a two- day visit, ticks most of the right boxes, except for example, the number of nationally important archaeological sites that could be destroyed if it goes ahead. More worryingly, little in it sits comfortably alongside any of JLC’s aspirations.
The development trust says it is exploring options to enable the local community to expand and maximise the island’s potential as a viable tourist destination and as a location for educational and activity retreats. If that is the case why, in 2010, did its residents reject Marine Harvest Scotland’s plans for a large new fish farm off its shores by eight votes to seven?
Had it gone ahead it would have provided long-term, all-year-round employment, kept the school open - which has just closed for the second time in recent years - and allowed the building of several new houses - all of which any other small island in Scotland would have welcomed with open arms.
Where exactly is the National Trust for Scotland in all this? As the owners of Canna, they should be working with JLC’s trustees and taking the lead in ensuring that the conditions of their windfall are met or are they back-pedalling in the hope that one day they will be able to abrogate their responsibilities altogether in favour of a community buyout?
What of the centre for Gaelic studies which was to be created around JLC’s library and archive of unparalleled richness in the field of Gaelic culture and language?
Fortunately the NTS, with help from the National Sound Archive, has at least seen to it that much of the 18,000 hours’ worth of sound recordings and photographs dating from 1935- 69, have been scanned and transferred to digital format while the library and manuscript collection is being fully catalogued.
Canna was special while John Lorne Campbell and his wife, the distinguished musician and folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw, lived there and dispensed their legendary brand of hospitality to visitors and friends from around the world.
When they passed away a light went out on the island which can never really be rekindled.
Perhaps the time has come for NTS to transfer the Canna Collections, on loan if need be, to Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture, on nearby Skye?
Here they would become part of the University of the Highlands and be more easily accessible to a far greater number of students of Celtic history than they will ever be on Canna. I understand only eight people have visited Canna to study JLC’s papers since his death in 1996. Does that not tell us something?
If The Highland Council approves the construction of this huge development and its ugly infrastructure, which I note will be determined by an official with delegated powers and not the full planning committee, the sheer beauty of Canna’s delicate, cultural landscape as well as its unique atmosphere, which is the envy of the Hebrides, will be seriously compromised. It deserves better. Iain Thornber firstname.lastname@example.org
CELTIC SCHOLAR: John Lorne Campbell of Canna.