Canna Two: Trouble in Paradise

Continued: A visit to to tiny island in the Hebrides

         Rabbits.  If you happen to live in Canada, a group of rabbits is called a fluffle.  The rest of the English speaking world calls this a colony, nest or herd.  One or two rabbits scampering around are charming; four or five are interesting; seven or eight in the vicinity begin to feel uncomfortable; and 16,000 are just too many.
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In 2005, the population of brown rats on Canna had grown to 10,000.  This is not unusual:  In Sea Room, Adam Nicholson readily admits that his own beloved islands, The Shiants (inherited from his father), though beautiful, were overrun with rats.  A small island is an ecosystem easily tipped if an animal without a natural predator is introduced.  In 2006 the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland culled the rats on Canna using a rodenticide.  Within four years, losing their only natural predator on the island, rabbits over ran Canna causing severe damage to archeological sites, not to mention havoc in the islanders’ vegetable gardens.

The only restaurant on the island at the time began serving rabbit with cranberries and pistachios.  Not surprisingly, this hardly made a dent in the rabbit population.  Rabbit males and females are both notoriously promiscuous.  In 2014 a team of six men, using traps, dogs, ferrets and guns culled 9,000 rabbits.

Our trip to the island occurred in 2012 when the rabbit population was still robust and I admit, though I had no idea of the scope of the problem, I was aware of being peered at constantly by rabbits and the feeling of being surrounded in some unnerving way never entirely left me.

The Days  Before Yesterday

       Scotland abounds with ancient sites, many Iron Age or older.  But that doesn’t mean they are easy to find.  An indication on a map may only be an intimation on the ground—just the slightest swell, the most innocuous scattering of stones.  But for me, this is part of the pleasure—places quiet, unmarked, difficult to discover, but once found, a kind of joyful secret shared with the original builders.

Canna has many treasures.  Easily seen and obvious, the medieval prison tower is accessible by “a narrow and horrible path” as described by Thomas Pennant in 1772.  I climbed this narrow and horrible path, though my partner, not so fond of horrible, gave it a pass.  “Tradition says it was built by some jealous regulus to confine a handsome wife in,” says Pennant.  From the tower, the view is magnificent, but probably not much appreciated by the tower’s tenants.

On the south side of the island, there are the remains of an enclosing wall and the name of the area translates from Gaelic as “grassy slope of the holy women”.  In the 19th century local people believed it had a healing spring and that nuns had once lived there.

And there is a burial site which probably dates back to Viking occupation of Canna, known as “The Grave of the King of Norway”; we hiked out from the small settlement near the harbor to find it.  We walked north towards the coast for a few miles and then looked for a “narrow rectangular structure approximately ten meters long by two meters wide on a grassy promontory below the cliffs”.  This proved difficult to find, but once we did—after several hours of looking—it was obvious.  It felt thrilling to stand where others had stood more than a thousand years ago to bury their king.  As we rested there, the mists crept in off the moor and once again, time, which sits very lightly in Scotland, shifted and we were spilled backwards into the past.

A number of other relics and artifacts exist and probably there are many which haven’t been found.   Canna was once under the ecclesiastical control of Iona, another small island off the coast of Mull, with a deep religious history and the home of St. Columba.  St. Columba, an Irish nobleman turned monk, seems, like Washington, to have slept everywhere and Canna may have been used by him as a monastic retreat in the 7th century.

There are two 10th century carved crosses on the island. One of the two Celtic crosses is eight feet tall and sits in a field known as Keill, where a village once stood until it was emptied of people in 1849 during the Clearances—the notorious explusion of people in favor of sheep, at the behest of landowners who aimed to maximize their profits through grazing.  In fact, Canna has been inhabited since prehistoric times and a shard found beside a mound excavated by those ubiquitous rabbits, was identified as the upper part of a beaker c1900—1500BC.

In effect, everywhere on Canna the 21st century sits like a shallow scrim on the surface of time.  And Now exists here only in the most transparent way.


Joan Jaffe                      Canna Three (conclusion) next week








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