Canna: Part One

A tiny island in Scotland....

 I love islands.  Particularly remote Scottish islands.  And so we set off for the tiny island of Canna, which floats off the northwest corner of Scotland, a fleck in the Atlantic just 4.3 miles long and 1 mile wide, with a population of nine.

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It’s not easy to get to Canna:  first a bus from Vermont to Boston; then a plane from Boston to Glasgow; and a train to Oban, a town called “The Gateway to the Isles”.   From there, north in a rental car via a long circuitous route which hugs the sea, often single tracked and sometimes sheep strewn, to Mallaig, a small port.   And finally, board a nutshell of a ferry, for a rough and frisky three hour journey over white capped waves.  The small ferry, wending its way past a series of small islands, kicks a salty sea spray up into our faces.

 We stopped at Rum, Muck and Eigg, three small islands south of Canna—worth stopping at just for their names--leaving off goods and a few travelers at each island.  And finally, in the late afternoon, the ferry decanted us gently onto a small pier jutting out from a natural harbor.  As we stood on the jetty collecting our things, seagulls cried and swooped and circled over head.   Two seals barked and played in the water near us;   we could almost reach down and touch their silky wet backs.  They smiled; we smiled.  The sun shone.   And a soft breeze, carrying the coconut scent of yellow gorse drifted down from the moor.

The main island curved its small body around an even smaller crop of land called Sanday.  Sanday is diminutive by any standards, but large enough to seat a lovely old church; and two white stone cottages crouch down near its shoreline which faces out onto the Canna pier, separated from it by a loch of rough choppy sea.

Sanday could be accessed by a small bridge from the Canna mainland—a bridge impossible to cross, we were told, when the weather whipped up wild and winds gusted over the water.

We shouldered our backpacks and made our way slowly up a steep path embraced by huge rhododendron bushes.  The rhododendron, depending on who you ask, is either the bane of Scotland or one of its great ornaments.  Imported by the Victorians from Spain and North America, it had found a happy home and grew exuberantly, creating large thickets which explode into purple, scarlet and white flowers from April through July.

At the top of the hill, the path opened onto a wide clearing, with a vast view of the land and sea below.  Seated well in the middle of the open clearing stood Tighard, an Edwardian house, one of only two substantial houses on the island.  Tighard provides the only place to stay on the island, with the exception of several converted cottages which can be rented for “self catering”.  Self catering, the British phrase for buying and cooking your own food, is challenging on an island with no grocery shop.  The ferry, which at this time of the year, arrives every third day, brings only intermittent supplies.  And I wanted to feel as if I lived on Canna.  I wanted the illusion of being here in the past, when the home farm provided milk and vegetables and mutton.  And so we booked a room, breakfast and dinner at Tighard.

   Now we stood and gazed at the face of the house with deep pleasure.   A small peaked porch sheltered the front door and a large bay window fronted the sitting room.  As we stood there, three brown rabbits scampered across the lawn—an intimation of things to come.  We knocked on the door; then heard footsteps coming towards us.  “Hello, hello!” welcomed a friendly man, half of the pair who run the guest house.

The vestibule was light and cheerful:  a few pairs of Wellingtons stood in a corner near the door; some walking sticks jutted up from an umbrella stand.   In the hallway, a water color of a stag and another of grazing sheep hung on the walls.  And quite suddenly, we fell backwards in time, to the beginning of the 20th century when the house was built.  Certainly, from where we stood, it didn’t look as if any changes had been made in a hundred years.

One door from the hallway opened into a large sitting room, complete with a dancing fire, a deep couch and books; through the other we glimpsed a dining room with a large sideboard and an array of wines and whiskeys.

We were given two substantial brass keys—one for our room, one for the front door, though this hardly seemed necessary as no one else was staying at the moment or could even arrive for two days until the next ferry landed.  And Colin, our host, admitted they never locked the front door.

Our room, up the curved staircase, was airy, spacious and light.  A marbled fireplace faced a large king sized bed; an armoire provided closet space; a small couch footed the bed.  A huge bay window framed the stunning view:  straight ahead, the sea and Sanday, crowned with its old church, and beyond that, kissed with a rosy light, the island of Rum hovered on the horizon.  To the east, we could just glimpse an old stone tower--a medieval prison tower we were later told—and to the west, the beginnings of heather and moor and wide open land studded here and there with sheep.


Joan Jaffe       January 2016       Stay tuned for parts two and three of "Canna"

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