On summer holidays we dreamed of living on the island. We picked drift wood on the beach to fire the old Rayburn for the evening meal. When wind battered the cottage at night we poured whisky and listened to the radio crackling news from the mainland. It was all part of the dream (not the dram as I typed by mistake just now) that lingered even when we went home.
After a week without cars, telly or telephones, the mainland seemed too full of noise and people. Even Mallaig felt metropolitan. Back in Edinburgh, walking the boys to school on grey pavements we had happy memories of wild Canna where children had rocks and sandhills and fields to explore, free from traffic, free from television and (best of all) free from parents and their fears of predatory strangers.
But while we nursed the dream, John Campbell brought us down to earth. You can’t escape reality on an island where childhood freedom comes to an end with secondary school. The boat which took us home also carried away the children when they outgrew the old stone primary school by the beach. In those days the nearest secondary school was at Fort William, a long boat and train journey away. Now there is one in Mallaig but once children leave the island they tend not to return to bring up their own children there.
John and Margaret had no children of their own though they took a keen interest in the children of the islanders who have kept the school going sometimes with a single pupil.
In the end John gave his island away. Without heirs he did not want it to become a playground of absentee landlords. Which of course is why Ray has been going back to Canna, revisiting our island dream as he researched the book that is launched today. His story of John’s life does not duck realities of hardships that faced John and Margaret in their long life on Canna. But I am glad to say it is also full of dreams and the spirit of adventure that took them there in the first place.
Now read on…The Man who Gave Away His Island is published by Birlinn today.