A Long-Awaited Adventure to the Small Isle of Canna

There’s the bright white light of a summer’s early morning, mirroring on the water. Dagger shards pierce through faint, watercolour cloud, searing downwards. The rhythmic glide of the gentle sea, stretching for miles, laps seductively, its rolling consistency for miles interrupted only by the odd raised head of curiosity. The seals have stirred for the day too. Bleary-eyed travellers shuffle around deck, no-one yet awake enough to engage in words. But excitement peers over face masks, like kids over a wall of promise. It’s been a long time coming. The Isle of Canna is calling.

I’ve been more fortunate than the vast majority, seeing out the final months of this year’s lockdown a stone’s throw from the water and surrounded by rugged Highland beauty. It’s certainly not a fortune I take for granted. But that’s not to say I’ve not missed much, and not at times felt hopelessly caged. The buzz of pub life when there’s a good game on the tele, the freedom to mountain bag at will and the spirit-like shiver that a good ruin can send straight to your spine. Most of all I think, I’ve missed the islands. They’ve been there every day in recent months, the Small Isles of the west coast, teasing me on the horizon from the mainland. I’m not sure whether that’s made it more or less difficult.

After much careful consideration – and appropriate caution in today’s circumstances – I opt to make the Isle of Canna, along with its connected neighbour Sanday, my first port of call. It’s time.


Where Legends Linger

Entering the Sound of Canna, the wee ferry is terrified by the flanking peaks of Skye and Rum, gliding quietly through the narrow water corridor, trying not to wake the giants. From this angle, Skye sits seemingly in geological confusion, lost in identity somewhere between the alluring rolling hills of Tuscany and the foreboding jagged spikes of Mordor.

The final approach is a prestigious one, entering a storm haven on the fringes of the Atlantic’s battleground, and one made famous by great predecessors. Neolithic settlers, St Columba, Viking warriors and Lords of the Isles have made this landing in the early and often most troubled days of Scotland’s story. And as I take those significant steps from ferry to turf, that forgotten friend, traveller’s adrenaline, sticks up a willing hand. Ferry faces, whitened by the early morning journey, come alive with unleashed holiday eagerness.

sanday church small isles
The serene welcome to A’Chill
sanday sea stacks
A more dramatic stretch of Sanday’s coastline

Columba, or Colum Cille, beat us here by 1500 years or so when he is widely thought to have extended his reach from his Iona base to entice numerous other Hebridean jewels into his web of Christianity. The man most responsible for our enduring religious foundations, the Irishman would surely have brought with him a sense of peace and consideration, of compassion and care. Canna’s still-enviable sheltered harbour would have been a welcome sight, a lighthouse of its time, amidst this smattering of dramatic geographic diversity.

Our Scandinavian friends brought something else. Industry, curiosity and progressive thinking merged with rape, pillage and evisceration – civilisation had never seen anything like the Vikings. From the end of the 8th Century, their raids across Britain inspire thoughts of robust, frothing-at-the-mouth warriors straining at the leash of their longboats, poised to rain terror down on Christian serenity and deliver un-whisperable terror. On this still and overcast day, I can just about hear their war horns. An apocalyptic drone, amplified by the sea’s mist-cloaked, glassy surface. Their unique legacy remains in these islands’ place names and in the occasional tool, weapon or utensil that has been unearthed.

isle of canna tarbert
The isthmus at Tarbert would have been a bustling settlement once upon a time
canna souterrains
Subterranian Neolithic hideaways, purpose unknown

Medieval centuries brought The Lords of the Isles into dominance on the west coast, and challenges of different kinds. Clans fighting for territory, ingrained, irrational and non-negotiable hatred of one’s neighbour, and perpetual fear of conflict by land and sea would have made for a hard, hard existence for those in pursuit of peaceful and simple lives. It wasn’t actually until the 1500s that the Clanranald, a branch of the powerful Macdonalds, took an active interest in the Isle of Canna but by 1588 this hatred was brought down on the island’s unsuspecting inhabitants by Hebridean neighbour Lachlann Maclean of Duart, who’s rivalry with the Macdonalds led to an horrific, indiscriminate slaughter.

Canna was also caught up in the chaotic fallout from Culloden in 1745, as the face of the Jacobite-supporting west coast was changed forever in the form of Clearance and abandonment. Emigration – both voluntary and enforced – saw the population of even these remote, largely self-contained island hideaways fall dramatically, from hundreds to dozens, and they have never recovered those losses. In permanent melancholy, a way of life sailed away to the New World with them.


The Father of Today’s Canna, John Lorne Campbell

As legacies go, being the effective modern-day father of a Scottish island is a proud one. The 20th Century writer and Gaelic scholar, along with his wife Margaret, were those who most shaped the Canna underneath today’s footprints. Following their purchase of the island in 1938, they continued the good work of the Thom family in keeping the island functional. Their efforts to farm, fertilise and nurture the land give it an enduring structure and made it something of a partisan, rebelling against the norm of challenging Hebridean terrain. In the atmospherics, there’s a more remote sense than most, with influences as much from Shetland as from its nearer neighbours.

Yet the land is far from barren, long rewarding those that made it home. The low-lying is suited to crops, the higher to pasture for the roaming cattle, that were my only companions on my perimeter hike. Uncharacteristic Hebridean trees too have historically presented a vital resource for fuel and construction, partially cloaking as they still do Canna’s gnarled basalt stacks and cliff-faces, themselves chewed up and spit out volcanic smears that present an ogre-ish mood to an otherwise green and inviting landscape.

isle of canna cliff
The sea bird-littered northern coastline
isle of canna highland cow
The Highland Mufasa, addressing his flock
canna house
Canna House

That a Campbell should have taken such a role in such a Macdonald part of the world is not an irony wasted on those who know their clan rivalries. His former home, Canna House (closed for refurbishment at time of writing), sits protected by some of those trees in A’Chill, the main settlement. Other visible structural standouts include the small, compact and distinctive Presbyterian ‘Rocket’ Church and the beautiful yet incongruous Catholic Church on Sanday. And there’s Coroghon Castle, a grim and precarious tower that sits atop a huge basaltic stump on Canna’s east coast. Legend has it that that the island’s particularly unpleasant leader Donald Macdonald (brilliant) jealously imprisoned his beautiful wife in the tower in the late 17th Century to hide her away from curious eyes.

canna coroghon castle tower
Coroghon Castle. I see your Lion King and raise you Beauty and the Beast.
rocket church isle of canna
The Rocket Church

Exploring the Isles of Canna and Sanday

Foot or bike are the only options for all but residents, and the island is now under the protective care of The National Trust for Scotland. Pathless cliff faces and erratic terrain leave me quickly weary on my ambitious coastal wander, sensations that escalate towards deeply unfamiliar exhaustion as the day wears on. Lockdown legs aside, a coastal traverse of the 5-mile long island is challenging. A full circuit of Canna requires upwards of eight hours, while Sanday’s puffin-incentivised return route to the coast (with beautiful beach en-route) from the ferry is nearer three. I opt to tackle the eastern half of the former, descending at the isthmus at Tarbert, and finishing with the latter in a plan that consumes the entirety of the day trip ferry allowance.

canna view to rum
Canna’s summit, looking towards Rum
puffins on sanday
Distant puffins visible on Sanday’s sea stacks
sanday beach small isles
Sanday’s sandy beach

Ferry times from Mallaig to the Isle of Canna are unusual, and restrictive, with only Saturdays currently offering the scope for full-day exploration. A quicker route has also recently opened up, departing from Arisaig. Alternatively there are a very limited number of accommodation providers (and a seafood-offering Café hello there) on the island that can facilitate more thorough pokeaboutery over multiple days.

I’m reminded that there are few things more powerful than a good travel experience, especially when an island is involved. The blast of fresh sea air, the tingling, heavy sense of exhaustion afterwards and the mental stimulation of getting properly acquainted with a new place all take a welcome toll. The Isle of Canna, and it’s younger sibling Sanday, are not ones that get a lot of visitors – and the evidence suggests that may be a good thing – but I predict they find a deep hole down which to burrow in the memories of all that do. It’s near-neighbours among the Small Isles – Eigg, Muck and Rum – remain very much on my imminent radar.

The bar is high.


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