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"The harbour of Cana is small, but pretty well sheltered, and commodiously situated for vessels bound either northward or southward; and on that account is more frequented than any of the harbours in that neighbourhood". So wrote Murdoch Mackenzie in 1776, and he would have known because he was busy making the first charts of the Hebrides at the time. The same is true today. Canna is not just a magnificently safe and attractive anchorage (but watch the kelp), and easy to get in and out of, it is very special for me, right from the first time I sailed in on a chartered yacht in 1975. What a wonderful serene and scenic anchorage it was on that quiet evening in summer sunlight. Outside it may have been blowing hard, but inside it was pastoral, surrounded by the farmland so lovingly tended by the MacKinnon family who still farm it today. Years later I read Robert Buchanan's very similar feelings on his first visit in 1871: "It is a difficult job indeed to pick our way among the rocks, in the teeth of wind so keen; but directly we round the corner of the cliffs, the little landlocked bay opens safe and calm, and, gliding into five-fathom water, we cast anchor just opposite the Laird's house".
It was also special when I sailed my first young family here in our newly acquired Contessa 32 in 1988. And it was very special for family holidays in the 1980s and 90s when Ben, Margaret and Oli were growing up. Year after year we rented Tighard from John Lorne Campbell who had owned the island from 1938 until he gave it to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981, sometimes just the family, sometimes with friends. It is the Edwardian house peeping through the trees above the big Laird's house. There are not many places on the west coast where you can rent a place to park the family with easy access to a safe anchorage for day or longer trips by boat, and Canna was then the best. But alas, Tighard is now a bed and breakfast establishment — which may have its uses for a cold, wet and disgruntled crew member who wants a comfortable night ashore (although plenty of people seem to want to move to Canna to run this and other activities, for whatever reason there has been a problem keeping them happy on the island; let's hope the couple who took over Tighard in 2013 do not become disillusioned). We made up Canna Tig around Tighard; the hunter stands at the front door with their eyes shut to the count of 20 while everyone else disperses to hiding places around the outside of the house, but within range. The idea is to get to the front door without being caught by the hunter. Great fun on a summer evening.
Notwithstanding the tiny population of around 19 people, there is a surprising amount to see and do on Canna and the immediately adjacent island of Sanday connected by a newish bridge (the old one blew away in a gale), but maybe this is a bias because I know the place so well.
First up from the anchorage is the small church with the round tower — not as old as it looks, completed in 1914 and used for occasional Church of Scotland services. It is rather pretty inside, but I am not sure about the ornate 1996 gate to the churchyard. Currently funds are being raised to restore it, so please help.
The larger late-19th Century Roman Catholic Church of St Edward the Confessor on Sanday — a seamark if ever there was one — has been sadly neglected for years but the National Trust for Scotland tried to restore it and make it into a Gaelic Study Centre. Despite a grand opening by Princess Anne in 2001, the roof leaks, it has never been used, it has been vandalised, and there is dispute between the Trust, the Hebridean Trust, the architect and the contractor over the responsibility for this terrible waste of nearly £1million (Restoring Canna's Chapel, Alasdair Ross McKerlich, 2007). It has now been rebranded as the Camus Arts Centre, so we await developments, if any.
The only active church is the small Roman Catholic Chapel on the track to the farm. It has been lovingly restored and is quietly attractive. Behind the chapel a track runs up to an old burial ground and the remains of an 8th or 9th century Celtic cross, and the so-called punishment stone, in it is a small hole into which the thumb of a wrongdoer was apparently wedged.
The impressive big house — Canna House, circa 1865 — contains an internationally renowned collection of Gaelic literature, collected by John Lorne Campbell, and is now open to the public for a few hours on wednesdays and saturdays, or by appointment (presently closed for refurbishmant). You can walk round the walled garden any time. A bit further along amongst the farm buildings is the 'Old Laundry' which has a small display of various crofting bits and pieces.
Much longer walks are to the souterrain and remains of a Viking grave near Tarbert in the centre of the island, but you need the OS map to find them.
More or less all the Scottish cliff-nesting seabirds can be found on Sanday. About half a mile east of the lighthouse there is a stack with loads of puffins, fulmars, shags, kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots. Take binoculars and be prepared to be bombed by great skuas (bonxies). In the area, this is second only to the Harp Rock in the Treshnish Islands for looking at nesting seabirds.
There are two delightful beaches, facing in opposite directions and therefore good in all winds. What we used to call the pirate beach (black sand and great views of Rum) just over the hill behind the round tower church (with the sadly deteriorating barn and the now almost inaccessible and very tiny 17th century Coroghon castle, once apparently a prison), and the white sandy beach just over the bridge to Sanday on the right.
Amazingly, there is a small café cum restaurant just along from the round tower church. In 2008 it was closed after Wendy Mackinnon moved to Mallaig so her children could get to secondary school easier, an all too familiar problem in the remote parts of Scotland. However, in 2010 it reopened with Amanda McFadden and Aart Lastdrager in charge. Sadly in 2012 they too left. However, it then reopened, had a licence and did evening meals which I am told were good (ph 01687 482 488, but if no signal use VHF channel 8, call sign 'Café Canna'). But in 2018 it was up for grabs — again. Closed Tuesdays.
Well, more amazingly there is a roll-on roll-off ferry pier even though there are no proper roads on the island! Well done somebody for being generous to remote and rural communities.
10 moorings were laid in 2013 although they do not seem really necessary to me, the kelp is not that bad if you take care, and there is already plenty of custom for the restaurant from anchored boats in the harbour overnight. The silver lining is there is now loads of space to anchor because the moorings are in a semicircle around the old anchoring area. In fact a few of the moorings are too exposed in my view.
The most authoritative book on Canna, a bit of a long read, is 'Canna, the Story of a Hebridean Island', by John Lorne Campbell (Canongate, 1984). He it was who bought Canna in 1938, lived here and nurtured the island for decades, before gifting it to the National Trust for Scotland. He continued to live in Canna House until he died in 1996. There is a nice biography of him by Ray Perman, 'The man who gave away his island, a life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna', Birlinn, 2010.
In recent years the National Trust for Scotland has tried to attract families to live on the island but this has not been easy. Many come with great enthusiasm and then leave after a few years, apparently 20 residents left after only two years. I guess you have to be a very accommodating person to live here, willing to muck in, not too eccentric, and able to face the problem of your children having to go to the mainland for secondary schooling. Some blame the Trust for poor management, others the resident population. Whatever, it is very sad to see the population dwindle to — at times — single figures.
Before it was incorporated into the new roll-on roll-off pier there used to be an entertaining rock which attracted the occasional boatie. It had been well known for years, indeed it was described by Murdoch McKenzie in the first Sailing Directions in 1776 as being "about a pistol shot from the shore".
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The post office, and telephone box
The Cuillins of Skye and Canna from Sanday
Canna harbour with Sanday in the background
The lighthouse on Sanday
The pirate beach, Rum beyond
The church with the round tower.
During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 the islanders put together a charming film which gives an excellent idea of what Mull and its people are like.