The Campbells of Canna and their precious legacy

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When devolution was talked about in the late 1970s there was scepticism and growing concern among those living in the Highlands and Islands that they would lose out badly to the highly populated central belt if Edinburgh, and not Inverness, became the seat of government – even a devolved one.

Were their fears justified? I believe so.

In 1978 the former Highlands AND Islands Development Board chairman and chief planner for Scotland Sir Robert Grieve announced, ‘Glasgow is one joker in the pack; the Highlands are the other’.  Coming from the former chairman of the government agency charged with developing the region economically and industrially, this comment did little to quell a feeling in the UK that it was on its knees and controlled by a gang of tartan ne’er-do-wells.

In 1935, one of the region’s most progressive lairds, Donald Walter Cameron of Lochiel KT (1876-1951), wrote in a letter to Highland development campaigner and provost of Inverness, Sir Alexander MacEwen, ‘I heartily distrust Glasgow and the Lowlands far more than I do London’. A sentiment echoed by an elderly gentlemen in Sutherland who, when asked if he would be voting for devolution in the 1979 referendum, said: ‘Well, in London they don’t give a damn about Highlanders, but in Edinburgh they hate us’. Shades of advice given by Edinburgh minister, Lord Macleod of Fiunary to his son in the late 1980s, ‘Never do business north of Crianlarich’!

Political tension has always existed between the land of the Gael and all parts south of Perth. Others have written about the reasons – too numerous to go into here except to say most of them were, and still are, based on culture, independence, language and, above all, a sense of identity found nowhere else in the UK.

Perhaps Ada Goodrich-Freer (1857-1931), clairvoyant, Scotophile and author of the Outer Isles (1902), was right to remind her readers that the Hebrideans were Christianised long before St Augustine and sending scholars to establish European universities two centuries before the existence of Oxford. And who, according to early Gaelic poems, were drinking wine and burning wax candles, while the Sassenach kings slept on straw, and bought wine as a cordial from the apothecaries.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, told about John MacDonald, fourth Lord of the Isles, who was negotiating with King Edward IV of England in 1461 to overthrow the Scottish government. On one of his visits to London he was invited to the lord mayor’s banquet and placed near the foot of the table where a simple squire might perch. Half way through the proceedings someone told his host that he was, in fact, a great prince in his own country working out a deal with the King. The anxious mayor sent a footman inviting John to come up and sit at his right hand – the place reserved for honoured guests. The reply was, ‘Tell your master not to worry. Wherever MacDonald is sitting, that is the head of the table’.

Nothing namby-pamby about this man’s vocabulary!

If there was one champion of the Gaidhealtachd in modern times it was John Lorne Campbell of Canna (1906-1996), Scottish historian, working-farmer, environmentalist and Gaelic folklorist. A man of learning with a rare passion for the land he walked on, JLC had one of the ablest brains in the country and used it well to speak out against civil service humbug wherever it reared its unwanted head in the Hebrides.

In the late 1930s the Westminster government, under pressure from the Scottish Office, appointed a committee to examine economic conditions in the Highlands and Islands. Their report contained a large amount of information and statistics. It was a start, but as far as JLC was concerned it had so many recommendations there was a danger that some of the most urgent would not receive the attention they deserved.

In 1939 he and Sir Alexander MacEwen (1875-1941), chairman of the Inverness County Education Committee and first leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, attacked the report in a 56-page booklet called, Act Now for the Highlands and Islands. They did not hold-back.

Their first, and strongest recommendation, was to establish a Highland Development Board of four members, one of whom would have to be a Gaelic speaker and another qualified to deal with crofting and fishing. The chairman was to be a Highlander who would command general confidence. The duties of the board were: to collaborate with the Ministry of Transport and Department of Agriculture, to make additional grants for new roads and the repair of unclassified, parish and township ones; to collaborate with other authorities in setting up land, sea and small-holders residential training centres and to encourage the study of co-operative schemes.

Where steamer services were concerned, comfortable waiting rooms were called for. Provision of adequate notice of time of arrival in stormy weather was also recommended. Crippling freight charges, which were strangling the economic life of the Highlands and Islands, were to be lowered to halt shipping companies putting their profits before the needs of the districts affected.  As for the postal service, it was recommended that inter-island mail should be speeded up by being sorted aboard the mail boats allowing for late posting on the piers until within five minutes of sailing.

The 1938 development board soon fell apart, leaving JLC to abandon his great vision and settle in Canna with his wife Margaret Fay Shaw. There they spent the rest of their lives recording and saving Gaelic and Highland culture and jousting with Inverness County Council and the Scottish Office in Edinburgh about the transport problems of the Inner and Outer Hebrides.

The Campbells were unique in the annals of landownership in Scotland. So, too, are their records which are now at risk. To allow their legacy to flourish, their entire accumulation of papers, books, photographs and sound-recordings need to be removed from Canna, which is without a reliable ferry service and lacking in study facilities, to a mainland locality but still in Lochaber, where they would be more accessible.

Canna was John Lorne Campbell and John Lorne Campbell was Canna. Now that he has gone there is an emptiness about the island which will never be replenished. The National Trust for Scotland and his executors should work with the Inverness Highland Archive Centre to house the Canna collection in Fort William in a building that will meet the high UK Standard for Archives Accreditation. Above all, it must be open to the general public.

The Canna papers are precious but they are not religious icons to be put away and brought out on high days and holidays. Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye has been suggested as a long-term repository. It would be wrong if they went back to another island and were squirreled away by academics to be taken out now and again for visiting professors to coo and caw over. The information they contain came from the indigenous people and should go back to the people. I doubt if the Campbells would want it any other way.

Iain Thornber

Image and caption

Canna Harbour (Photograph Iain Thornber)