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Canna, Scotland

Gaelic name Canaigh, Eilean Chanaigh
Pronunciation ,
Norse name Possibly Kne-oy
Meaning of name Irish for 'wolf whelp island' or Scottish Gaelic for 'porpoise island'. Possibly Norse for 'knee-shaped island'
Canna is located in Lochaber
Canna shown within Lochaber
OS grid reference
Physical geography
Island group Small Isles
Area 1,130 hectares (4.4 sq mi)
Area rank 46 [1]
Highest elevation Càrn a' Ghaill 210 metres (689 ft)
Political geography
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Country Scotland
Council area Highland
Population 12[2]
Population rank 67 [1]
Population density 1 person/km2[2][3]
References [3][4]

Canna (Scottish Gaelic: Canaigh; Eilean Chanaigh) is the westernmost of the Small Isles archipelago, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. It is linked to the neighbouring island of Sanday by a road and sandbanks at low tide. The island is 4.3 miles (6.9 km) long and 1 mile (1.6 km) wide. The isolated skerries of Hyskeir and Humla lie 6.2 miles (10.0 km) south west of the island.[3]

The islands were left to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) by their previous owner, the Gaelic folklorist and scholar John Lorne Campbell in 1981, and are run as a farm and conservation area. Canna House, one of two big houses on the island (the other being Tighard), contains John Campbell's important archives of Gaelic materials that were donated with the islands to the nation.[3] Since then the NTS has engaged in new initiatives to attract new residents and visitors to the island.


  • Facilities 1
  • Transport 2
  • Wildlife 3
  • History 4
    • Prehistory 4.1
    • Early Christian period 4.2
    • Viking rule 4.3
    • Medieval Scotland 4.4
    • Modern times 4.5
      • Stamps 4.5.1
    • Overview of population trends 4.6
  • Recent developments 5
    • Invasive species 5.1
      • Rat problem 5.1.1
      • Rabbit overpopulation 5.1.2
    • Call for families for Canna 5.2
    • Gaelic Study Centre 5.3
    • Crime 5.4
  • Gallery 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


There are some 20 buildings on Canna and Sanday, including three churches, one of which has been deconsecrated (see below). There is also a post office which was converted from a garden shed. The Canna tea room, which closed in 2008, reopened in 2010 as the Gille Brighde Cafe and Restaurant.[5] A new resident manager for the island was also appointed in the same year.[6] The island is isolated and the inhabitants must buy their provisions from the mainland, but it has a telephone link, a red telephone box and broadband internet access, although there is no mobile phone coverage. Electricity is provided by a diesel generator, at mainland voltage and frequency, and there is a private water supply.[7][8] In 2010 a proposal to establish a fish farm off Canna was defeated in a residents' ballot, even though it would have created a number of new jobs.[9]

The island has a very low crime rate, but a mainland-based policeman visits the island twice a year, mainly to inspect gun licences. A doctor based on the neighbouring island of Skye is available for house calls once a month. The roads on Canna are not metalled and are privately owned; local vehicles therefore do not require road tax. The previous footbridge to Sanday was destroyed by storms during 2005, and has recently been replaced by a road bridge. This allows vehicular access at all tide levels for the first time, although the road on Sanday is still covered by high tides.[7][8]


Lochnevis calls at Canna

A large natural harbour is formed between Canna and Sanday. The pier on Canna and those of the other Small Isles, was rebuilt and enlarged in 2005. This is used by the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, MV Lochnevis, which links Canna, and the neighbouring Small Isles of Rùm, Eigg and Muck, to the mainland port of Mallaig (2½ hours away). Lochnevis is capable of carrying motor vehicles, although NTS permission is required to land them. The harbour is sheltered. It is the only deep harbour in the Small Isles, and is very popular with west coast yachting traffic out of Oban and Arisaig.[3][10]


Canna is renowned for its wildlife, including sea eagles, golden eagles and puffins. Recently, peregrine falcons and merlins have been sighted also. The island is also inhabited by a number of rare butterfly species. In the nearby waters one can spot dolphins and smaller whales.

Canna is noted for its tiers of basalt pillars that rise over the eastern half of the island and the sea cliffs that dominate its northern shore. The highest point on the island is Càrn a' Ghaill (Gaelic for rocky hill of the storm) at 689 feet (210 m). Another point of interest is Compass Hill. Its peak is at 456 feet (139 m) and sits on the eastern edge of the island. It is made of a volcanic rock called tuff, and it has such a high iron content that the compass of nearby ships are distorted, pointing to the hill rather than north.[3]


Ruins of An Coroghon "castle" on top of a stack at the east end of Canna


An Coroghon is a possible dun site on an isolated stack at the east end of the island. A medieval prison tower was built on the site which was described by Thomas Pennant in 1772 as "a lofty slender rock, that juts into the sea: on one side is a little tower, at a vast height above us, accessible by a narrow and horrible path: it seems so small as scarce to be able to contain half a dozen people. Tradition says, that it was built by some jealous regulus, to confine a handsome wife in".[11] There are the remains of a lintelled entrance in a mortared wall.[3][12]

Early Christian period

Canna is known to have belonged to the monastery of Iona in 1203 and it is likely that it did so from a much earlier period, possibly the 7th century.[13] The island is a possible site for the Columban monastic retreat of Hinba.[14] However, Adomnán the chronicler of the life of Columba, notes that Brendan the Navigator set sail from Ireland to visit Columba and unexpectedly found him en route at Hinba. Canna is a most unlikely landfall on such a journey as it is well to the north of and thus beyond Iona.[15] There are two carved stone crosses on the island, one of which is 10th century of a unique design and which may have a significant Viking influence and ten cross marked slabs.[13] Sgorr nam Ban-naomha on the south coast has the remains of an early Christian cashel. The site has the remains of an enclosing wall and could only have been conveniently supplied by sea. The Gaelic name translates as "grassy slope of the holy women" and in the 19th century local people believed that it had a healing spring and that nuns had lived there at one time.[16] Three carved stones, bearing crosses, were found in the enclosure in 1994.[17] In 2012 the National Trust for Scotland announced that the first cursing stone to be found in the Scotland, dated to circa 800, had been discovered on Canna.[18]

Uaigh Rìgh Lochlainn

Viking rule

The Norse and their Norse-Gael allies ruled the Hebrides from the 9th century until the 1266 Treaty of Perth,[3] at which time Canna was part of the Sudreyar. Written records are few, but the Viking occupation of Canna is evident from place names such as the element sgor, gearaid (enclosure), tota (homestead) and Sanday ("sand island"), although the name "Canna" may pre-date the Norse period.[19][20] There is a burial site from this period known as Uaigh Righ Lochlainn ("The grave of the King of Norway") at Rubha Langan-innis on the north coast. This is a narrow rectangular structure approximately 11 yards (10 m) long by 2.2 yards (2.0 m) wide on a grassy promontory below the cliffs.[3][21][22]

Medieval Scotland

Blaeu's 1654 Atlas of Scotland - The Small Isles

References to Canna are absent from documents relating to Clan Macruari holdings in the Small Isles in the 13th and 14th centuries, suggesting the island was still under ecclesiastical control. In 1428 the Abbot of Iona wrote to the Pope requesting immunity for the island's inhabitants on pain of excommunication for those who violated this status, claiming that:

"by reason of wars and other calamities in the past divers homicides, depredations and other ills were perpetrated so that some strong men of the familiars of the Abbot and convent were slain by pirates and sea rovers and divers farmers and inhabitants of the island were afraid to reside there".[23]

It is unlikely that Canna ever formed part of the territories of the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles, which title became forfeit in 1493, as Monro reported of "Kannay" in 1549 that the island was a: "faire maine land, foure myle lange, inhabit and manurit, with paroche kirke in it, guid for corne, fishing and grassing, with a falcon nest in it, pertines to the Abbot of Colmkill",[24] although it "burned with fire" as part of the feud between Clanranald and Maclean of Duart in the late 16th century.[25]

In the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 a Royal Navy vessel arrived on 3 April 1746. The crew demanded 20 cows, which were duly provided by the islanders. However, the ship was becalmed for four days and the sailors complained of the smell of the cattle they had slaughtered and demanded 20 more. The "Bailie" of the island complained that this was unjust.

Upon which the officer.... gathers all the cattle of the island.... shot 60 of the best dead, threw the old beef overboard and would not allow the poor distressed owners to finger a gobbet of it, no, not a single tripe.[26]

On 18 April "King George's men" went "hunting the Canna women" who had to hide from them in isolated caves and under cliffs. One pregnant woman died after being chased by 12 of them.[26]

The lands belonging to Iona were transferred into private ownership during the Reformation[27] and Macdonald of Clanranald sold the island after the failure of the kelp boom to Donald MacNeil in 1827.[3]

Modern times

A' Chill, situated to the north west of Canna Harbour was the main settlement until 1851 when the island was cleared. It was then under the ownership of Donald MacNeil's son Donald, who was a minor at the time. The post-clearance population is recorded as 57 in 1881 (with a further 62 on Sanday), in which year MacNeil sold to Robert Thom, a ship owner from Glasgow. His more enlightened stewardship continued until 1938 when his family sought a sympathetic purchaser and sold to John Lorne Campbell. Campbell lived there until his death in 1996, gifting the island to the NTS in 1981.[3] His widow, the American musician Margaret Fay Shaw, remained at Canna House until her death in 2004 at the age of 101.[28]


A single local stamp was issued for Canna in 1958 by then-laird John Lorne Campbell. The stamp shows Compass Hill and two Manx shearwaters, a seabird found in profusion on the island. Their use is optional and all proceeds from the sale – at the island farm and post office — go to the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.[29]

Overview of population trends

There are populations records going back to the 16th century, the earliest of which combine Canna and Sanday.[30] Following the clearances, population numbers remained fairly stable at around 20 to 30 during the second half of the 20th century, but by the time of the 2001 census had dwindled to 6 (12 including Sanday).[3] Since then new residents have settled on the island, bringing the 2009 population of Canna and Sanday to around 20 (see below).
Year c. 1595 1728 1750 1755 1764 1768 1772 1794 1807 1821 1831 1841 1851 1861 1881 1891 1931 1961 1981 1991 2001 2011 2014
Canna population 57 40 40 24 11 20 6 12 11
Sanday population 62 62 20 0 7 0 6 9 7
Total population 84-100[31] c.253[32] 210 231 253 233 220 304 300 436 264 255 238 127 119 102 60 24 18 20 12 21 18

In 2015 it was reported that the population of Canna had risen to 19.[33]

Recent developments

Invasive species

Rat problem

In September 2005, it was reported that the population of brown rats on the island had grown to 10,000 and was causing such problems to both the human population and the birdlife, particularly the rare Manx shearwaters, that a complete cull would take place. Because the mice on the island are believed to be a rare and distinct subspecies of woodmouse,[34][35] a breeding population of mice was removed beforehand by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) so that the cull could use rodenticide. By the end of 2006 it was believed that Canna was rat-free and during that summer there was also an encouraging increase in the number of breeding puffins and razorbills; Manx shearwaters were nesting for the first time since 1997.[36]

Rabbit overpopulation

Within four years of the eradication of rats, a rabbit overpopulation problem was reported.[34] The pests caused damage to archaeological monuments, such as an Iron Age mound and stone remains from the Clearances, as well as the islanders' vegetable gardens.[34][37] The island's only restaurant started serving rabbit meat in pies and with cranberry and pistachio.[34] By 2013 rabbit numbers were estimated to have risen to 16,000[37] and the following year a team of six men engaged in a three-month cull of them, using traps, dogs, ferrets and guns to kill 9,000 rabbits.[38]

Call for families for Canna

In October 2006 the NTS[39][40][41] decided to invite two families to rent properties on the island, in an effort to attract new skills and spirit to the island community. The invitation was mainly aimed at people with "skills in building, plumbing and gardening". The call was global[42][43] and over 400 responses were received, from places as varied as Germany, Sweden, India and Dubai. From these, Sheila Gunn and John Clare were chosen to move to Canna during summer 2007.[44] They were joined in early 2008 by two more incomers, Neil and Deborah Baker, from Llannon, in the Gwendraeth Valley in South Wales. Neil is a gardener, and his job was to restore the fine but overgrown gardens of Canna House.[45] Since then, a further cottage was restored and was expected to be occupied by newcomers in 2011. However, in June 2011 it was announced that 12 people were planning to leave the island: Clare and Gunn, the Bakers and their two children, and schoolteacher Eilidh Soe-Paing, her husband and four children. The school would close, temporarily at least, as there would no longer be any school-age children on the island.[46]

Gaelic Study Centre

The church, which is also owned by the National Trust for Scotland, was restored and converted into a hostel and study centre by the Hebridean Trust. This project was undertaken at the invitation of the owners. The centre is linked to the archive of Gaelic language and culture that was created by the former owner of Canna and Sanday, the late John Lorne Campbell. It was successfully completed and opened in 2001 by Princess Anne. Subsequently, there was water ingress, which caused damage to the interior. This challenge is in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland.


The island enjoys a near zero crime rate,[47][48] with only a handful of crimes recorded in the last several decades.

In 2009 Patrick MacKinnon, the island’s former special constable, was convicted of two sexual assaults upon local women committed in 2008, and of possessing two unlicensed rifles and a shotgun.[48][49] He lost his job and his home after the assaults and, having been born and brought up on the island, became an outcast; he hanged himself the following year.[48][49]

In June 2015 the island reported its first theft in an estimated 50 years when sweets and woollen hats were taken from the community shop, which was left unlocked overnight and run on an honesty box system.[48] Islanders were described as "shocked" and "gutted".[47]


See also


  1. ^ a b Area and population ranks: there are c. 300 islands >20ha in extent and were listed in the 2011 census.
  2. ^ a b National Records of Scotland (15 August 2013) (pdf) Statistical Bulletin: 2011 Census: First Results on Population and Household Estimates for Scotland - Release 1C (Part Two). "Appendix 2: Population and households on Scotland’s inhabited islands". Retrieved 17 August 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Haswell-Smith (2004) pp. 143-46
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b "The Internet Guide to Scotland: Canna" Retrieved 18 July 2008.
  8. ^ a b "Westword" Retrieved 18 July 2008.
  9. ^,
  10. ^ "Small Isles ferry timetable" Caledonian MacBrayne. Retrieved 24 September 2007.
  11. ^ Rixson (2001) p. 5
  12. ^ "Canna, Coroghan Castle". RCAHMS. Retrieved 27 Feb 2011.
  13. ^ a b Rixson (2001) pp. 29-31
  14. ^ "Ernan" Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 9 December 2007.
  15. ^ Adomnan of Iona, (tr. & ed. Richard Sharpe) (1995) Life of St Columba. Penguin ISBN 0-14-044462-9
  16. ^ Rixson (2001) pp. 31-34
  17. ^ "Canna, Sgor Nam Ban-Naomha". RCAHMS. Retrieved 27 Feb 2011.
  18. ^
  19. ^ Rixson (2001) pp. 66-69
  20. ^ Mac an Tàilleir (2003) p. 103
  21. ^ Banks (1977) p. 46. calls it a "ship-burial".
  22. ^ "Canna, Rubha Langanes". Retrieved 27 Feb 2011.
  23. ^ Rixson (2001) p. 94 quoting the Scottish History Society (1956) Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome.
  24. ^ Monro (1549) no. 103
  25. ^ Rixson (2001) p. 118
  26. ^ a b Banks (1977) pp. 63-64
  27. ^ Rixson (2001) p. 119
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 143 for all individual Canna and Sanday records. Rixon (2001) p. 170 for earlier combined figures.
  31. ^ Rixson's estimate is based on a figure of 20 "fighting men"
  32. ^ Rixson's estimate is based on a figure of 236 over the age of 5.
  33. ^
  34. ^ a b c d
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^ a b
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^ "Joining the island race" (29 March 2007) The Guardian. Retrieved 27 September 2007.
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^ a b
  48. ^ a b c d
  49. ^ a b


  • Perman, Ray (2010) "The Man Who Gave Away His Island." Edinburgh: Birlinn.
  • Rixson, Dennis (2001) The Small Isles: Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck. Edinburgh: Birlinn. ISBN 1-84158-154-2
  • Shaw, Margaret Fay (1999) From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides Edinburgh: Canongate.

External links

  • National Trust for Scotland – Property Details For Canna
  • Birlinn
  • The Canna Story

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