We leave Arinagour around 0900, heading for Canna. The doctors have already left. The wind is from the north-north-west, just enough angle for our voyage north. We motor out past McQuarrie’s Rock, just visible above the surface, until we reach the headland of Meall Eartharna where we slow to put the sails up. Before long we are sailing at nearly 7 knots on a close reach towards the rocky north end of Coll. We pass the light at Sùil Ghorm marking the treacherous Cairns of Coll, then adjust our course directly north towards Rum and Canna. The sun appears and we settle down and relax.
I continue reading my book, Straw Dogs, by the philosopher John Gray. It is a bleak, even nihilist, view of human nature and the world, but thought provoking. His central tenet is that the idea of progress is a myth, rooted in Christianity and its successor, humanism. Both make the mistake of assuming that humans are different and above other animal species, and that our destiny is to rise beyond our biological limits and conquer and rule the Earth. In reality, he argues, we are just another animal, and a not particularly special one at that, apart from a well-developed ability to construct stories to delude ourselves. Nothing new in being another animal of course, we have been aware of that since Darwin and with the findings of modern science, as have the eastern religions for much longer than that. And for sure, we do like narratives that appear to provide a place in the universe for ourselves.
But I find it difficult to accept that progress is just a story we are deluding ourselves with. Evolution shows that there has been a steady increase in complexity from the start of life right up to the present. And the increasing sophistication of human technology and achievement in the arts – surely all of these are progress? Unless we redefine its meaning. Until recently, there even seemed to be a progression in politics. Feudalism, nationalism, fascism, communism, liberal democracy – Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ seemed to sum up the prevailing view that we had finally cracked it – a system that worked for everyone. We can all choose what we want to do, whom we marry, what we buy, whom we vote into power. We all have fantastic standards of living and we are all happy. Or are we? At the moment, there seems to be a swing back to the right-wing nationalism seen at the start of the 20th century – is this just a blip due to the inequalities of liberal democracy, or is it a reversion to an old world order? Perhaps Gray has a point.
We are roused suddenly from our thoughts by the sound of something large expiring air. We look in its direction and see a hefty body and fin just disappearing into the depths again. We don’t get a clear view of it, but surmise that it might have been a basking shark or minke whale. We slow down and keep an eye on where it was, but there is no further sign of it. Fleeting as it was, we still feel a sense of awe at being so close to a large creature of the depths. Hopefully there will be more. I wonder briefly if it, whatever it was, also has some kind of world view. Does it also have an ability for convincing itself of a plausible story to explain itself and its environment? Or does it just live from day to day?
But Gray’s argument is that while there may be technological advancement, human nature has not and will not change – there will be always wars, for example, albeit for different reasons, with scarce resources being more prominent in the near future. But why should human nature be immune from evolving if our bodies and brains do? And what is human nature anyway? Is it a real entity, or is it just a coverall term for a set of characteristics associated with humans?
We are approaching the coast of Rum, the foreboding peaks of Hallival, Askival and Ainshval rising into the clouds. In the distance on the coastline we can see the mausoleum at Harris. This was built by one of the owners of Rum, George Bullough, to bury his father in when he died. The story goes that a guest pointed out that the tiles used to build it made it look like a public lavatory, so George destroyed that one and constructed a new one nearby!
We arrive in Canna harbour, following a ketch which has appeared from somewhere. There are only two visitor buoys left; all the others have boats attached to them. The ketch aims for the furthest in of these, meaning that she will be more sheltered and have less distance to row to shore. We don’t have any choice but to go for the last one in the line, which is quite far away from the slipway and is more exposed to the swell from the east. At least the buoy has a rope attached to it, which the First Mate snares with the boathook and loops through the bow-roller and onto one of the forward cleats. We are secure at least.
We notice that the other boat is still trying to tie up to the buoy. It has no rope and they have to use one of their own and try and thread it through the eye on top of the buoy. With the wind coming in strong gusts and their boat pitching up and down, it isn’t an easy job, and they keep missing the eye. We try and repress feelings of schadenfreude; we are only human after all. Eventually an inflatable dinghy from a neighbouring boat appears and the owner grabs their line and threads it through the eye and returns it. They are finally safe.
We unload the dinghy and the First Mate rows us ashore. We decide this is part of her Competent Crew training, and she gets a star for getting us to the slipway in a straight line without getting wet. In fact, I give her two stars for managing to do it while another larger cruise boat is anchoring in the harbour not far from us. We carry the dinghy to the top of the slipway where it should be safe from the rising tide. We don’t want a repeat of our experience on Lundy Island last year!
Just along from the pier, we pass the Rhu church that was built as a memorial for a previous owner of Canna, Robert Thom, by his son. Apparently it was modelled on the early Celtic churches in Ireland. Across the harbour we see another church, this one a Catholic church dedicated to St Edward the Confessor in 1886. Later we see a third chapel, the St Columba Chapel. With three places of worship on an island having only 18 inhabitants, the population seems to be spiritually well-provided for, at least.
We arrive at Canna Shop tacked on the end of Canna Café, and are surprised to find it reasonably stocked with the essentials of life. We are even more surprised to find that it is open 24 hours and operates only on a honesty box system. If you take any items, you just leave the required money in an empty ice-cream tub, in itself a possible temptation judging by the amount of money in it already that morning. You can also pay by PayPal to an e mail address if you have no cash. Payment for mooring dues is in the same way. Talking to one of the islanders later, we learn that the system works well, and they have had only one occasion four years ago when goods were taken without payment. It restores our faith in human nature to some extent.
We have lunch at the Canna Café in the sunshine, then walk along the rough track that is the only road on Canna. Not far from the café, we come across Canna House, which was where the previous owner of the island, John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw used to live. I had read the book of their story, The Man who Gave his Island Away, a few years ago. They had bought the island in 1938 and made their life there. Both had a passion for Gaelic culture which they saw as declining, so as a way of preserving it, they had collected together a huge number of songs and recordings and other material which they had kept in a library in the house. Poets, scholars, musicians and artists came from all over the world to visit Canna House to gain inspiration from the collection. In 1981, they donated the island, including Canna House, the library and archives to the National Trust of Scotland for maintaining in perpetuity.
We push open the rusty iron gate and walk up to the house through the overgrown Escallonia tunnel. The house itself is locked as it is in the process of being refurbished by the National Trust, but we peer in through the windows and see dusty piles of old office equipment and books. The gardens around the house are well-maintained and it is clear that someone has spent a lot of time keeping them in good shape.
We walk further along the track as far as the bridge that connects Canna to the island of Sanday. Apparently this used to be a much more flimsy structure, and from time to time would be destroyed by heavy seas surging through the narrow gap between the two islands during a storm. Nowadays it is a much more sturdy structure.
We return to the Canna Café and sit in the sunshine and order a tea and coffee. My toe is hurting from the walk and I take my boots off to get some fresh air on them. The bandaged toe gets some sympathetic glances from passers-by which makes it feel a little better.
“That looks nasty”, says one lady.
“Oh, it’s nothing really”, I say, through clenched teeth, but secretly feeling pleased that my suffering hasn’t gone unnoticed. I haven’t had man flu for a while.
She sits down to talk. She is on the small cruise ship we had seen anchoring in the harbour earlier and is waiting for her fellow shipmates to return from a walk. They had started their ‘Small Islands of Scotland’ cruise in Oban two days ago, and had overnighted in Tobermory before arriving in Canna this morning. It was great so far – the boat was run by a husband and wife couple who had cruised the Scottish Islands all their lives and knew all the best places to go. The food was fantastic – it was a NZ chef on board.
The First Mate is talking to two woman who turn out to be mother and daughter. The daughter, Fiona, runs the guesthouse up the hill. On one of our previous voyages to the Small Isles, we had met her predecessor on the Isle of Eigg, who had had to leave Canna because of difficulties caused by an intransigent NTS officer in charge of the island who wouldn’t let her and her husband build a house on the island for their retirement.
Fiona tells us that things have improved since then, but that the NTS is still not the best of landlords. Her guesthouse is owned by the Trust (as are most properties on Canna) but they took forever to respond to her requests to have the windows replaced because some were broken and leaking rainwater into the house. When they did eventually have them replaced, they were only single-glazed rather than double-glazed and lost a lot of heat from the rooms.
“Are there many children on the island?”, asks the First Mate.
“No, none at the moment”, says Fiona. “There were two up until last year, but then the eldest had to go off to boarding school in Oban, which the family found too difficult, so they left the island. Since then the teacher has left and the school has had to be mothballed. They have to keep the school available for future children even if it is not being used at the moment. One of the islanders is paid to keep it in good condition.”
“Are new people coming to the island?”, asks the First Mate.
“We would like more people to come”, says Fiona, “but the problem is that there are no houses for them, as the National Trust won’t permit the building of any new ones. Having said that though, the farm manager is retiring soon, and they will need to find a replacement somehow. So if you want to apply …”
“What about the wind turbines over there?”, I ask, pointing to the rows of turbines across the harbour on the island of Sanday. “Do they belong to the community, or to the National Trust?”
“They belong to the community”, says Fiona’s mum. “The National Trust see their role as just preserving the island as it was with John Lorne Campbell, and the community have to make their own efforts to be sustainable if they want to stay here. We managed to get some money from the Lottery and we put up quite a bit of money ourselves. That paid for the turbines and having them installed, but the problem is in maintaining them. We do it ourselves, but no-one on the island really is an expert in them, so we just make it up as we go along – common sense can go a long way. Luckily, they are quite simple inside, and most problems can be solved with spanners and screwdrivers. So far so good, at least!”
Eventually Fiona and her mum say they have to get back to the guesthouse to prepare for the evening meal. It has been a fascinating conversation and given us a good insight into island life. On a day like today in brilliant sunshine, it all seems so idyllic, but we realise there are many difficulties under the surface that have to be overcome by the resourcefulness of the islanders, particularly where there are absentee landlords.
We climb back into the dinghy and row back to Ruby Tuesday. That evening, we sit sipping our wines watching the moon rise over St Edward’s Church. There is hardly a ripple on the water. Peace descends.