Island of the Month #6 Canna

“Tiny Scottish Island launches appeal to help double its population” ran the headline in the
Scotsman newspaper back in August 2021.

This ‘tiny island’ is the Isle of Canna which is the most westerly in the group of islands known as the Small Isles, just south of the Isle of Skye and reached via ferry from Mallaig. We spoke to two Directors (Isebail MacKinnon and Geraldine MacKinnon) from one of our newer member groups, Isle of Canna Community Development Trust (IoCCDT), about what’s going on in Canna and what the key components are for securing a community-led sustainable future for Canna. Isebail runs the popular Canna Campsite, and Geraldine is the Farm Manager in Canna, responsible for over six hundred breeding ewes and fifty suckler cows.

Telling Their Own Story

Canna and the adjoining island of Sanday are renowned for their archaeological and early Christian sites of interest. The island is owned by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) after they were gifted the island in1981by Dr John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw who assembled huge volumes of Gàidhlig song, poetry, and writing. The cultural value of their work has the potential to draw hundreds of visitors to Canna House. Renovations are planned by NTS to enable the house to be open and accessible to all visitors to the island. Most of the island is a Site of Special Scientific Interest thanks to its geographical and biological importance; it has a Special Protection Area due to its 20,000 breeding seabirds; and it is part of the wider Small Isles National Scenic Area designation.

A community’s heritage is often closely bound up with who has owned the land. However, there is a growing desire to ensure that Canna’s story – their history – is owned by and told by the community. Like with many other whole islands that have been privately owned, there can often be a sense that the island’s history belonged to a particular owner. In Canna the community want to be much better at telling their own story – read on to hear a bit more about that story.

Geographical location binds each of the small isles together. Isebail explains that the Small Isles have similarities, but each is unique. It’s not just the MV Loch Nevis ferry that Canna shares with its neighbouring islands of Eigg, Muck and Rum – they unite under the Small Isles Community Council banner, as well as the Visit Small Isles website.

Hundreds of visitors make the trip to Canna every year and the IoCCDT funding in place for a visitor hub just up from the pier. Plans for the hub include facilities such as showers, laundry, ranger office, Doctor’s room and toilets. With Canna being so popular with sea-kayakers and yachts, this would provide an essential service for them. The community also intend to renovate the iconic Coroghon Barn to provide a large flexible space for workshops and events with a bunkhouse attached to allow groups to visit and stay. The barn would house a community archive and be a focal point of telling the community’s story through visual information displays.

The Small Isles are undoubtedly popular with tourists but the numbers are curtailed by ferry capacity. “A lot of people would like to visit more than one island at a time but that is made quite challenging due to the ferry timetable.”As well as access via the Calmac ferry service, IoCCDT have 10 moorings for boats and have noticed a huge increase in recreational boat traffic, with the yachting season expanding and more domestic traffic which would otherwise go abroad. “Boats stay for longer now, and visitors perhaps wander round a bit more”.

In future, IoCCDT plan to explore the feasibility of expanding their offering by upgrading the facility to pontoons which would help to keep traffic from being concentrated around the main ferry pier.

Being a Scottish Island, they are unlikely to struggle to attract visitors – but what about new permanent residents? After some previous well-publicised attempts to attract working people to the island, is there enough jobs to attract people?

“An expanded school roll would bring a teaching job, but there are so many opportunities for people to start their own business and Canna has a good range of small businesses. The tourism-related employers are always looking for staff and there is potential for these roles to become more than just seasonal summer jobs. We always need more people with skills to help with things like water system management, and those who are skilled in joinery for example. It’s hugely expensive getting tradesmen to come 75 miles from Fort William.”

The reality is that most people don’t appreciate the extra costs that come with living in an island. The rapidly rising fuel and electricity costs hit island communities hard.


Anecdotally, the freight needs of Scottish Islands are rising and even in Canna their need is growing which can create problems getting space on the MV Loch Nevis. The Small Isles and the Isle of Raasay are the only two islands that Calmac handle loose freight for, through a special arrangement. There have been recent attempts to end this service with Calmac trying to define “what is freight” but if Calmac is a lifeline service then everything that is needed to make lives sustainable on the islands needs to be delivered.

The increase in freight demand is for good reasons – the small businesses and community enterprises are expanding their offering. The Canna Community Shop is relied on by residents and greatly appreciated by visitors – but the freight capacity constraints can mean the shop can’t be fully stocked. “It might be a choice between crisps and ice cream depending on how much freight can get across. We can never be fully confident that things will arrive.”

Canna, as part of the Small Isles Community Council have tried to engage with Calmac and local elected representatives over this issue due to the outstanding concern about potential reductions in the service. Ultimately, the community feel that there will need to be a new ferry which has increased capacity – but with the well publicised lack of progress towards two new
ferries for elsewhere on the Calmac ferry network, the community aren’t optimistic. The need for increased capacity is despite the fact that Canna’s car-owning population leave their car in Mallaig and travel on the ferry as a foot passenger – but car parking spaces in Mallaig in summer are few and far between.

It’s becoming increasingly popular to sea-kayak to the small isles – Isebail suggests this might be easier than trying to get the ferry at times!

Repopulation: “It starts with Houses”

With the island’s population sitting at 15, Isle of Canna Community Development Trust (IoCCDT) are undergoing a project to build three new houses in a bid to try and increase the population. IoCCDT would love the population to increase to around 30 or 35 but are under no illusions about the challenge of achieving this. As highlighted earlier this year in an article about Canna school by Roger Hutchinson in the West Highland Free Press (11th February edition) the population of Canna in 1881 was 119,
three years after the school was built. After a steady decline it settled at around 15 people from 1986 with some small fluctuations since.

ICCDT would like to get the school open again and aim for total population levels at around 30-35 initially – but housing is crucial to securing the sustainability of Canna. “We’re currently trying to close the funding gap [for the housing project] and our Development Manager is currently looking at options for design and build of the houses. We’re looking at what other islands have done and what worked well to see what we can learn from them”.

Canna may well be learning from other islands – but many communities would do well to look at Canna’s energy self-sufficiency. The Small Isles have previously been recognised for “putting Scotland on the map for it’s innovative approaches to decentralised, local energy”.

The community-run renewable energy system in Canna powers the islands through turbines, solar panels, and a battery storage bank. “A big achievement for a wee island” as Geraline puts it. The system is now in it’s fourth year and is now generating surplus income for the community.

ICCDT are under no illusions about how this system needs to be carefully nurtured. “With the extra things we want to do, we have to be careful about our power. We might have to increase either turbines, solar or battery banks to increase local capacity.”

They don’t expect construction of the three new houses to have a material impact on the system and the aim is to ensure the houses are constructed to be as energy-efficient as possible.However, they are cognisant of the fact that anything else they want to do will require careful consideration on the potential impact the power. Water usage is another consideration most of us probably take for granted – in Canna water is supplied by NTS and the system is managed locally by Murdo Jack. They have two large water storage tanks on higher ground above the main settlement which are fed from natural springs. A centralised filtration treatment unit distributes the water round the island. With pinch points of higher demand from spring to early summer, responsible use is crucial. The small but self-sustaining community in Canna have much to be proud of – their
reputation for renewable energy micro-system is one example.

Another example is their community shop which, despite being in a small building, it provides a huge service for visitors and locals alike. Open 24hrs a day and based on honesty payments, it saves people having to bring everything with them from the mainland when they visit. Beyond the selling of essential goods, it provides a point of contact with free WiFi for anyone who sets foot on the island. “The shop is a huge achievement for the island and visitors love it”.

Canna has a lot going for it and sustainable population growth is realistic when supported by good employment opportunities, good services, improved facilities, and most importantly – affordable housing. IoCCDT have a partnership with the island’s owners, NTS with the aim of bringing together the necessary skills and expertise to drive forward the island’s sustainable development. Watch this space!

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