Smallest of the Small Isles

By Colin Hogarth

Travel to the ends of the earth and not far from the edge you will come across the tiny Hebridean island of Canna. Just five miles long and around a mile wide, it is the smallest of the Small Isles.

Now of the care of the National Trust for Scotland, it is home to a handful of crofting islanders whose only contact with the mainland is the tiny Caledonian MacBrayne ferry which plies a regular course from the west coast fishing port of Mallaig to Canna and her sister islands of Rum, Eigg and Muck. Take the boat out early on a Saturday morning and you can spend a day on the island, leaving later in the afternoon. This gives you plenty of time to walk around Canna and neighbouring Sanday, taking in some of the fascinating historic sites.

Accommodation is very limited and if you plan to stay overnight, you have to plan in advance. The trust own two properties which can be rented out on a weekly basis and there is a small camp site with no facilities other than a bubbling little burn that runs through it. If you plan to camp, obtain permission from the trust first.

Most visitors to Canna walk, take in the spectacular island scenery and pay homage to the various archaeological sites and quaint little churches.

The island is linked by a small footbridge to the even smaller island of Sanday and the sheltered stretch of water between the two forms one of the best natural harbours on the west coast and, as such, is well used by fishing boats and cruising yachts.

Islanders make their living from the land and sea and have done so for centuries. The local economy relies on hill sheep farming, cattle with some arable crops grown to supply feed during the long lonely winter months. In the 16ths century, Canna was described as "good for corn, grassing and fishing" and this still holds true. The fertile soil, the warm air of the Gulf Stream and the protection the island enjoys from harsh northerly winds has earned it the reputation of the garden of the Hebrides. Fushias grow in profusion and it has not been unknown for locals to successfully cultivate artichokes and the like.

Canna has been settled since the Stone Age and during the Middle Ages it belonged to the monks of Iona. Some place names and the existence of a long boat burial mound point to Viking settlement at some point in the island's history.

It passed from the hands of the monks to the Macdonalds of Clanranald who constructed an imposing castle on cliffs at the islands western end where the clan chieftain was said to have locked up his wife to keep her safe from unwelcome marauders. In quieter times, Canna passed through the hands of two families before being bought in 1938 by eminent Gaelic scholar and author Dr John Lorne Campbell. He widened the ferry boat pier, improved the soil, increased the amount of woodland and modernised the cottage homes of his crofting tenants.

He also farmed the land himself, rearing sheep and cattle, and over the years built up a large collection of Hebridean butterflies and moths. Indeed, Canna is perhaps best known for its wildlife. Inland, there are some 260 varieties of butterflies and moths, many of them unique to the island and the high coastal cliffs are home to puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes. Canna has been a bird sanctuary since 1938 and over 150 species have been recorded, 71 of these have successfully bred on the island. In addition to the seabird colonies, several birds of prey, including the sea eagle which was recently re-introduced on neighbouring Rum, are known to haunt the island.

In 1981, Dr Campbell gifted Canna and Sanday to the National Trust for Scotland. The present population amounts to around 20, considerably less than during the heyday of crofting when the number of people living off the island was at least 10 times this. The Mackinnons represent the traditional crofting people and the trust are making efforts to boost the population.

For the people of Canna there are few facilities or amenities. The main area of settlement is around the harbour basin but there are no shops or pubs, just a tiny shed that acts as a Post Office. There is also a small primary school, but youngsters have to go to the mainland for their secondary education.

The main roadway is unmade and cars and Land Rovers exist happily without the burden of road tax or MoTs. Even if such a thing was required, there is no garage to carry out the necessary test or repairs. As a result, the islanders not only have to be competent farmers, they must also be a jack of all trades. From fixing machinery to repairing a barn or building a new house, they have to cope on their own. Food and provisions are ordered from Mallaig and shipped in while power for heating, lighting and cooking, is taken from noisy diesel generators or bottled gas.

The Post Office sells stamps, T-shirts and the odd postcard as a concession to the tourists and the island even has its own stamp which features two Shearwaters flying past Compass Hill, a mound located on the east coast. Outside, an elderly telephone box, fitted with an old A and B button phone makes every effort to deter folk from trying to make contact with the mainland.

One thing that is well catered for on Canna is worship. There were originally now fewer than three churches although only one offers regular salvation now. The small Church of Scotland chapel in the main street has a Sunday service delivered by a Mallaig minister whose charge takes in all the Small Isles.

Near the ferry pier, the Rocket Church - so called because of its pointed tower - is still maintained as a church. However, the Roman Catholic church on Sanday fell out of use and the interior has been badly vandalised. In the fields overlooking the harbour there is the site of St Columba's Chapel and the island graveyard. Nearby at A'Chill there is a Celtic cross and other historic standing stones where, in days gone by, wrongdoers were punished by having their thumbs forced through small holes in the stone.

On Sanday, at the end of the footbridge, there is a small shrine which was erected by a visitor and features a tiny stained glass depiction of the Virgin Mary and child. Nearby there is a short sandy beach which makes a good swimming spot on a fine day, but beware of jelly fish.

Geologically speaking, the two islands are low lying platforms of basalt and away from the houses around the harbour, much of the land is barren wilderness rising to just over 200 metres at the highest summit, a trig point at Carn a'Ghaill.

The northern coastline of Canna is bounded by high cliffs and at the east end is Compass Hill, a huge magnetic rock said to be strong enough to cause compass deviations on passing ships. At the west end the remains of various ancient cliff top forts are testament to the days when visitors to the island were less than welcome. Now, however, all that has changed and anyone can discover the beauty of Canna.

On foot, walk round the harbour on to Sanday, passing the Rocket Church, the Church of Scotland chapel and crossing the footbridge en route. Head out to the Catholic church and if you have time go along the coast down to the east end of Sanday where there is a small unmanned lighthouse. Keep you eyes pealed for seals along the way.

North of the harbour, on Canna itself, climb up to the castle and then ascend Compass Hill for spectacular views over the sea to Skye. Walk along the cliff tops and trek to the west end of the island. Beware though, as the underfoot heather can be a little hard going in places.


Accommodation Contact the National Trust for Scotland, 5 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. Tel 0131 226 5922. One good way to explore Canna is to take part in one of the trust's volunteer conservation camps which last a week and allow plenty of free time for exploring. Write to the NTS for a brochure. The camps usually run during the summer but demand is great for places. 

Transport The ferry goes direct to Canna on Fridays and Saturdays taking about two and a half hours (Depart Mallaig around 5am). On Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, it goes via the other Small Isles first and the journey takes about four hours (Depart Mallaig around noon). If you just want to spend a day on the island, go on a Saturday and leave Mallaig on the 5am boat and depart from Canna at 5pm, returning to the mainland at 7.30pm. More details from Caledonian MacBrayne -

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