Canna: Part Three

Submitted 8 months ago
Created by
Joan Jaffe

Last part of a trip to a tiny Scottish island; please read parts I and II first.....

Farmhouse, Canna

Recent Past to Present

Canna is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland.  From 1938 to 1981, it was owned by John Lorne Campbell, a folklore scholar who lived in Canna House with his American wife, Margaret Fay Shaw, a musician and historian.  Some years ago, already drawn to the remoteness of Canna, I read  Shaw’s book, From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides, chronicling her life and adventures, including her time on Canna.  Her lively book clinched my desire to visit the island.

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Canna House was built in the 1860’s by the laird Donald MacNeill, for his young wife.  The house has largely been preserved intact as left by the Campbells, and holds the considerable body of music, language and folklore of the Hebrides assembled over decades by them, along with correspondence and other writings by Shaw and a collection of rare butterflies found on the island by Campbell.

The house is open to the public during the summer at prescribed times, but we were there well into the fall.  But, coming to a small island with only nine people has its advantages.  I arrived with a deep enthusiasm and some knowledge of the Campbells and this was appreciated.  The manager of the island and his partner, a woman who seemed to know Shaw’s life almost as well as her own, opened Canna House to us.

This private tour, including the descendant of one of the Campbell’s cats and a glance at Shaw’s study wall, overlaid with a grey  smoke residue (Shaw chain smoked while she wrote—a habit which doesn’t seem to have done her any harm as she died at the age of 101) was moving and fascinating.

The house is in the care of Magda Sagarzuzu, gone from the island for a few days while we were there.  Sagarzuzu first came to Canna in 1961 with her father, a friend of Campbell’s.  Subsequently, she returned many times and later began to help Campbell catalog his collections.  She remained as archivist after Campbell died and when the island came into the care of the National Trust, continued in this job.

The Campbells left a legacy of Gaelic heritage and culture and archives of Scottish Gaelic songs and poetry and the island sometimes hosts groups which come to study these.

And in their off time, like us, students can see a myriad of wildlife, including golden eagles, puffins, falcons and merlins; dolphins and seals swim in the waters and an occasional renegade rabbit may still be spied scampering across a field.

A peak 456 feet high called Compass Hill sits on the eastern edge of the island.  It is made of volcanic rock called tuff and has such a high iron content that the compasses of nearby ships are distorted, pointing to the hill rather than the north.

But for me, the entire island has a pull—of deep history, wild places, the mystery of the past, and the enduring beauty of the present.

Joan Jaffe






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