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30 Aug 2021

A day in the life of the ... Isle of Canna Harbourmaster

Written by Donald Mackenzie, Harbourmaster, Isle of Canna
A man in an orange high-vis jacket and a white hard hat stands beside railings on a pier. A grassy slope rises behind him.
Donald Mackenzie on the pier at Canna harbour
In this series, we join colleagues from across the Trust for a behind-the-scenes glance at the important role they play in caring for our special places. Donald has been the harbourmaster on Canna for the last five years and talks about his unique job within the National Trust for Scotland.

I have lived on the Isle of Canna for just over six years; for five of those I have been the island’s first full-time harbourmaster. This is the only post of its kind within the Trust because here on Canna we are the harbour authority – this means we are responsible for all the infrastructure as well as the day-to-day safe operation of the harbour and all its users.

Despite Canna’s small size, we have an extremely busy harbour during the summer months: 6 ferries a week, up to 30 yachts anchored or moored every night, and numerous tourist boats and RIBs each day. In 2019 we also had 84 visiting cruise ships, from 12-berth ships right up to those with 450 passengers on board. We estimate that we receive around 15,000 visitors every year.

A group of white yachts are anchored out in a sheltered bay. Mountains rise in the distance beyond. It is a sunny day, and the sky and sea are blue.
Yachts in Canna Bay

There is no such thing as a typical day for me but my time is largely governed by the ferry timetable. During the summer, Saturdays can often be the busiest day. I am always down at the pier before 9am to get the pier ready for the first ferry of the day, which arrives at 10am. Even at that time of day, the harbour can already be busy with yacht tenders coming and going – it’s always a good opportunity to meet visitors and talk about how special Canna is.

A CalMac passenger ferry is berthed alongside a pier on the Isle of Canna. A rocky slope rises behind it. A yacht is anchored out in the water in the foreground.
MV Lochnevis berthed at Canna

Once the CalMac ferry MV Lochnevis has arrived from Mallaig and landed supplies and visitors, it departs until its return in the early evening. I am ably assisted with berthing the ferry by Murdo Jack, a long-time Canna resident. As soon as the ferry has left, there is a steady succession of RIBs and tourist day boats from Skye, Mallaig, Arisaig, South Uist, Knoydart, Tiree and many other places. Managing the traffic within the harbour can be challenging at times.

Late evenings can also be busy with fishing boats arriving to berth overnight at the pier. I often find myself down at the harbour to check that they have tied up safely. Sometimes this can be as late as 11pm or midnight.

When the cruise ships visit, I’m kept on the slipway for up to four hours at a time, as the larger ones send a succession of tenders to the pier with their guests onboard. Everyone is welcomed to Canna and the National Trust for Scotland.

Quote
“It’s always good to meet such a variety of interesting people and to be on hand to answer questions and provide information.”
Donald Mackenzie
Canna harbourmaster

Aside from the management of vessels using the harbour, there is the ongoing maintenance of the harbour. This includes keeping the slipway clear of algae and seaweed, and clearing the pier of sand and gravel after high tides and storms.

Because the National Trust for Scotland is the harbour authority, there are a host of regulations that have to be enforced. We operate a complex Marine Safety Management System, which is audited externally every year. The harbour also has to comply with Port Security Regulations and periodically can be inspected by the Department for Transport. Even the role of harbourmaster has more than enough paperwork to be kept up to date!

In addition to my role with the harbour, I am also the Station Officer for HM Coastguard. We have a small team of volunteers who are trained in water rescue, search techniques and first aid. Fortunately, we do not have too many call-outs but from time to time we do have accidents on the island that require medical evacuation. Our team will prepare landing sites for the Coastguard helicopter from Stornoway or Inverness.

Two people in yellow high-vis jackets stand in the doorway of a red and white Coastguard helicopter, resting in a grassy field.
Training with the Coastguard

After a day’s work is completed, I like nothing better than to go out in a small boat to hopefully collect a lobster or two from my creels or simply just to have a quiet paddle around the bay in my kayak.

It’s a privilege to be able to live and work on such a beautiful island, and I hope to carry on in this role for many years to come.


The Isle of Canna can be visited all year round. Canna House is currently closed, about to undergo renovation works, but visitors can still enjoy the walled garden and the beautiful walks on the island.

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