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The Man Who Gave Away His Island

Foreword: The House of Contradictions

The owl-lamp on the Steinway grand, quartos Of Schubert, Mozart, Moore’s Irish Melodies, The carved funny animals, the barque under glass, The curious mirrors of carved bones Made by the French prisoners in Edinburgh Castle, Books on birds and minerals, cases of butterflies, The family miniatures on ivory, piles Of the New Yorker, Paris Match, The Scotsman, The friendly bottles, ash-trays, cigarettes, The cat-clawed Chippendale and the dog-haired cushions, photographs Of Uist and Barra and of distant friends, all this Learned and happy accumulation, held together By the presence of John and Margaret Campbell.1

The poet Kathleen Raine, waiting to play her card, recorded a small part of the vast clutter that greets visitors to Canna House and found clues to the character and past of the building’s owners. Many items were probably in the same positions they had occupied 28 years earlier when she had first visited the island. They are still in place today – an eclectic collection made over long lives of curiosity, inquiry, action and compassion. I first saw that room in 1977, the year before Raine wrote those words. Arriving in Canna by boat from Mallaig on a clear spring day, it made an impression like no other place I had been – an island of contrasts. On the north side, cold blue shadows cast on the sea by 600 foot cliffs. On the south, warm sunlit meadows of vivid green. Organ-pipe columns of hard basalt granite, soft beaches washed by a clear sea – one of white sand, another of black. The man who had fallen under the island’s spell 40 years before and against formidable odds had bought it and nurtured it, was waiting for me on the pier. John Lorne Campbell, leaning on a shepherd’s stick, was dressed in a shabby tweed jacket and a black beret that appeared too big for him. While other passengers started to walk along the unmade road, John ushered me into an incongruous blue Volkswagen Beetle for a journey of just a few hundred yards to the front of the imposing stone mansion visible from the water. He answered my questions tersely, but otherwise made no conversation. You cannot see Canna House from its gate. A dark tunnel of Escalonia bushes, which have been allowed to grow so they meet overhead, hides the view until, emerging into the sunlight, the house is square before you. Leading the way up short steps and through an oak door with a dolphin knocker, John Campbell hung his beret in the porch alongside several other hats which included a conical straw sun-shield of the type worn by Chinese workers in


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paddy fields and a solar topee, the pith helmet beloved of the British Raj. I found later that John wore different hats for different tasks. On the floor was a croquet set, in a corner fishing rods, nets and a pendant flag from the top of a buoy. I had only seconds to take in the enormous two-handed broadsword leaning in the corner of the hall, the glass cases standing on a cupboard – one containing an aneroid barometer continuously recording atmospheric pressure on a roll of paper, the other a stuffed Spoonbill. A red and white ship’s lifebelt leant against a far wall. A printed sign on a door ordered: ‘Quiet. Hangover Zone.’ We passed quickly through the dining room, which would have been elegant with silverware on a mahogany sideboard, white marble fireplace and portrait of a red-coated general presiding over the table, were it not for the carved and broken slabs lying on the floor of the window bay, like toppled tombstones. I was greeted by Margaret, the antithesis of her husband: he tall, upright, reserved; she small, warm, welcoming. But John had not paused and I followed him down two steps to a large room with windows facing the garden. There were then, as there are now, filing cabinets, boxes and piles of papers on a large rectangular surface, which on closer inspection proved to be a billiard table with a wooden cover over the baize. The far wall was covered with charts of the seas around the island – still there, but now yellowing. There was another stuffed bird, a capercaillie, a stack of the satirical magazine Private Eye, a fax machine, a telephone and a photocopier. John, I learned later, loved technology. He was what would be called today an ‘early adopter’. This was before the internet age, but with a typewriter, fax and copier he was connected to the world. I was a journalist come to get a story on ferry policy. Dr Campbell, as I always called him, was campaigning vigorously against the ‘Small Boat Scheme’, a proposal to replace the ferry which provides the island with its lifeline to the mainland with a service of light craft run from a nearby island. It had set him against not only his neighbouring proprietor on Eigg, but an array of bureaucrats and politicians. He was clearly energised by the fight, eager to explain his argument. As a Financial Times reporter, I was trained to demand precise numbers and verifiable facts. I had expected anecdote and prejudice from the eccentric laird of a remote island. Instead I got a folder of official documents, transcripts of evidence, and details of the class of passenger certificate required for a vessel crossing the Sound of Canna (which, John explained, has more exposed seas than those on the more sheltered side of Rum facing the mainland). He had tabulated the exact number of days during each of the past few years on which the ferry had been unable to sail because of bad weather. Listening to him and reading the evidence I became convinced that not only would the Small Boat Scheme be a disaster for Canna, but that by backing it, the Highlands and Islands Development


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Board was going against its own policy. How could they not see this themselves? I asked. The answer was damning: ‘Because they are not practical men.’ The John Lorne Campbell I first got to know was nothing if not a ‘practical man’. At the age of 70 he was still a working farmer and fisherman, running a business in a location which presented daily challenges that town and city-dwellers never have to face. I learned only later that he was also a scholar who had devoted a second lifetime to the Gaelic language and a third to the study of butterflies and moths. In the years that followed, I got to see more of the house. To sit where Kathleen Raine had sat, not playing cards but listening to Margaret playing the piano, John the flute and visiting musicians the violin and cello. To see the books, not just the library (the ‘Hangover Zone’) of books, papers and recordings, but in every room and on shelves lining every corridor and landing. The more I learned, the more I became intrigued by the puzzles. John believed his library of Celtic languages was the most extensive anywhere in private hands and contained many rare books. But he thought his most valuable works might be his bound volumes of the Mickey Mouse Weekly, faithfully collected over decades. Shortly before he died he parcelled them up ready to go to an auctioneer to be valued. They are still in their wrappings. Other curiosities emerged as I got to know him better. John the scientist meticulously pinned and labelled drawers of butterflies and moths, showing the subtle variations in the patterns on their wings, like Darwin’s Galapagos finches. But he dismissed the theory of evolution for the most obtuse reason. The radical land reformer wanted to destroy the old order, but revered his ‘honoured ancestor’ who had assembled a vast Highland estate. The ardent Scottish nationalist loved that most English of games, cricket, and bought a copy of Wisden every year. The shrewd investigator saw through charlatans in print, but was so trusting in face-to-face meetings that he could be deceived and cheated. The generous man who would spend a fortune, without thinking, on his island or his Gaelic work, wrote to me approvingly of the bargain second-hand furniture he had bought at the Corpach cattle sale. Perhaps most surprisingly, the warm, welcoming and confident man I care to know could appear rude and unfeeling to others – the result of paralysing shyness. Canna House has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland for nearly 30 years, but is not open to the public. It is not a museum. Apart from a few damp patches and the peeling wallpaper, it is much as its former owners left it. Cats come and go at will as they always did, Patchin the dog still sits in the doorway looking out over Canna harbour to Rum. The piles of magazines and newspapers have long since been cleared, as have the friendly bottles and cigarettes. The ashtrays have been cleaned.


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Unopened bottles of long-forgotten brands of whisky, salvaged from the SS Politician after it foundered on the rocks of Eriskay in 1941, are still in John’s desk. The musical instruments: brass, woodwind, pipes, are still there, with a drawer full of flutes, all of which John could play. Only very recently did I dare to try to get a sound from the bugle which sits on the hall table, which John blew to summon guests to dinner. Compton Mackenzie’s kilt still hangs in a cupboard. Cheap clockwork toys and novelties sit on antique tables and cabinets, a reminder of how a serious man could find amusement in simple things. It is still possible to imagine John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw moving from room to room. They do not haunt the house, but it continues to be inhabited by them and provides many more clues to the unfolding story. The portrait of Archibald Campbell, the red-coated general in the dining room. The recording equipment and Margaret’s heavy camera – now museum pieces, but the most modern available in their day. The billiard table where games of ‘penny pool’ were played. John modified the rules from those invented by Compton Mackenzie on Barra – but the islanders still beat him. And the visitors’ book with its extraordinary list of names from Europe, the Americas, New Zealand – a kaleidoscope of friends and acquaintances, most invited, some who invited themselves – all providing a different way of seeing a man at the centre of his world. Many people have helped me to try to understand this complex man but none more than John. It is unusual to start a list of acknowledgements with the subject himself, yet without the narratives and insights he gave in books, notebooks, articles and letters it would not have been possible. Did he intend his biography to be written? His hand-written notebooks were never published, nor shown to many people, but John, the diligent scholar, begins one with a list of sources and references to which the reader can turn for more information on aspects of his life. I am sure that he wanted his story to be told one day. Whether he meant me to write it is much less certain. Looking again through a long exchange of letters, I rediscover enclosed articles and off-prints which seemed irrelevant at the time, but which now complete another part of the picture. Several times I have spent hours in the British Library or the National Library of Scotland trying to trace an article from the 1930s or 1940s only to find that I already had a copy, sent to me by John 20 years ago. I know I am not the only person to have received such unsolicited gifts. Perhaps he hedged his bets. John was a meticulous keeper of files. It would have been impossible to find my way through them without Magda Sagarzazu, but she has been much more than just a guide to the Canna House archive. In writing, John could be a harsh critic and applied his uncompromising judgements to himself as much as to others. Some of his autobiographical notes were obviously written as therapy at a time when he was weakened and depressed. Some letters were


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written when he was angry or irritated. The richly layered personality which emerges from those pages is not always admirable or agreeable. It was Magda who helped me put those documents in perspective and prompted me to rediscover why I liked and respected the man. Many of John’s friends have been generous in their help and encouragement. Ann and Warner Berthoff, both distinguished professors of English and visitors to Canna for 60 years, have not only given me much personal information, but helped me with the structure of this book. Few first-time authors of my age can have had the privilege of a one-to-one tutorial from an authority on form and meaning, as I had from Ann in a caravan in Canna on a cold and stormy June day. Hugh Cheape has been my guide to Gaelic, as well as an important participant in this story. Donald MacInnes also helped me with translations. Since I do not speak the language, this cannot be the definitive account of John’s work in Gaelic, and I am sure that I have underplayed its significance as a result. Another book remains to be written by someone more qualified. Neill Campbell allowed me to quote from the Inverneill family papers and has been always supportive and encouraging. Gilmour Thom lent me the diaries of his father and great-grandfather as well as a unique collection of original letters relating to Canna in the nineteenth century. Sheila Lockett, another important person in John’s story, graphically evoked the atmosphere of Barra and Canna in the 1950s. Charles Fraser, much more than just John’s lawyer, has been a source of inspiration. The National Trust for Scotland readily granted me unfettered access to the Canna papers and its own files, where Ian Riches, the archivist, was patient and helpful. Many other friends of John and Margaret have contributed memories or let me read letters. The people of Canna, new and old, have always been hospitable and taken a great interest in the progress of the book. I am especially grateful for the friendship of Winnie MacKinnon, even though it was occasionally expressed by prodding me to get on more quickly. Fay Young, my wife, is not only a writer and editor, but lived a lot of this story with me; she knew both John and Margaret and loves Canna as much as I do. She has read the manuscript more than once and her professional expertise has been invaluable. Inevitably there will be omissions and mistakes and I would welcome corrections or constructive criticism. After lunch on the day of our first meeting in 1977, John took me to bail out his boat – a sturdy work vessel, not a laird’s yacht – and then to walk up Compass Hill. He strode easily, while I, less than half his age, panted beside him. Around the horizon we could see Barra, the Uists, Benbecula, the Cuillins of Skye, Rum and the mainland. Below us was the land which John had bought and struggled for 40


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years to protect and sustain. He knew every inch of it. What the soil structure was and what would grow where. In the house there are many identical maps of Canna, each one neatly annotated to identify a different hoard of treasure: the best places for lobster fishing, the plan of native tree plantings, the haunts of migrating birds and butterflies. But here, laid out below us, was the ground itself. From the highest point on the island, the beginning and end of his property was clearly defined by the sea. As I was to discover later, the boundaries of responsibility which he both inherited and bequeathed, were never so easily defined. Ray Perman Edinburgh, January 2010

The Canna Story Foreword  

The Man Who Gave Away His Island by Ray Perman is the biography of a remarkable man, John Lorne Campbell, who bought the Hebridean island of...

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