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19 May 2020

From quiet homes and first beginnings

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna Archivist and House Manager
A hand holds up a mortice key in front of Canna House. A gravel path crosses a lawn and reaches a large wooden front door.
Fiona takes delivery of the keys to Canna House in May 2015.
Fiona Mackenzie is celebrating her first five years working and living on the Isle of Canna and describes the challenges, the delights, the expectations and the reality of that time.

The title quote of this article is taken from the visitors’ book for Canna House in 1958, and it perfectly sums up my own thoughts and feelings on the fifth anniversary of me taking up the post of Archivist and Manager for Canna House. The complete quote, by writer and historian Hilaire Belloc, was written down by Lauchlin Daniel Currie, a Canadian judge from Nova Scotia, appropriately enough on 19 May 1958:

From quiet homes and first beginning, Out to the undiscovered ends, There’s nothing worth the wear of winning, But laughter and the love of friends.’

And that’s basically the story of my first five years here, looking after Canna House, its material collections, its incredible library (I am a qualified librarian) and its priceless archive of Gaelic folklore and song. I entered a ‘quiet home’ with a new ‘beginning’ in a place which I had yet to discover. I’ve worked in a house filled with echoes of laughter and music, voices of friends past and present, and the love of story.

A black and white photograph of two elderly, smiling women. They are sitting outdoors on a boulder and a stool, and the lady on the right holds a large book open on her lap.
Margaret Fay Shaw took this image of Peigi and Mairi Macrae at the launch of her book ‘Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist’ in 1955.

My love affair with Canna House began 25 years ago when, as a Gaelic singer, I began studying the songs in the Canna Collections after singing them for the first time in South Uist at the Ceòlas  summer school. Margaret Fay Shaw’s seminal volume of Gaelic song, Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist, immediately became my Gaelic song ‘bible’, with its vivid descriptions of a lifestyle which no longer exists, the haunting songs of the Uist people and the images of people who still live there today. I studied her work in tandem with the precious volumes of Hebridean Folksongs published by her husband John Lorne Campbell, frantically trying to buy up copies of the out-of-print books from all over the world! They became my ‘Holy Grail’ of Gaelic song.

Had you said to me in 1995 that, in 2020, I would be working in Canna House and in charge of the day-to-day care and research of the original manuscripts for Hebridean Folksongs and Folksongs and Folklore, I’d have laughed and said ‘Ach, dinna be daft! That would be a dream!’

A montage of two photos. Inset on the left is the front cover of Hebridean Folksongs. The main photo on the right shows two older men holding a book between them. They are standing in a garden outside a house. Both are smartly dressed in suits.
John Lorne Campbell and co-author Francis Collinson at the book launch of ‘Hebridean Folksongs’ in 1969

The songs of the Canna Collections continued to form the basis of my professional Gaelic singing repertoire ... and then my break came in 2011, when I was given the post of Gaelic Associate Artist for the National Theatre of Scotland. As part of this, I was asked if I would like to create a ‘show’ on a topic of my choosing. I said yes, of course, to creating a show based on the life of Margaret Fay Shaw. This show involved me spending extended time researching in Canna House, alongside the Canna archivist Magda Sagarzazu, who became a firm friend and still is today. The show ended up touring Scotland, including a performance on Canna itself.

A colour montage image. On the left is the front cover of the supplement to Scotland on Sunday newspaper in 2013, featuring Fiona standing on a rock on Canna. To the right is a photograph of 5 people standing outside a chapel on Canna; Fiona is in the middle.
‘Eun Bhean Chanaigh’ (‘Little Bird of Canna’) toured Scotland and was performed in St Edward’s Church on Canna. The band is pictured here with Fiona.

My husband Donald remembers when I came home after visiting Canna for the first time and said ‘You have to come visit Canna – it’s incredible’. Little were we to know …

In 2015, Magda retired, and so I applied for and (much to my surprise and delight) was given the job of Archivist and House Manager, working for the National Trust for Scotland. Coming to Canna in May 2015 was not just ‘starting a new job’ but starting a whole new life. We had to move lock, stock and barrel to Canna, collies included. On my first full day on the island, I was handed a large, heavy key by Magda and told to ‘get on with it’.

A view from the very front of a ferry as it approaches the harbour on the island of Canna. The chapel can be seen standing on the headland. The sea and sky are bright blue.
The ‘Loch Nevis’ ferry heads into Canna harbour

As the only member of staff in Canna House, it was up to me to keep the house presentable, clean, condition-monitored and alive. The house was closed to the public while preparations for an extensive renovation project were worked upon, and so I had to develop ways of taking the archives out to visitors  and researchers, raising the profile of the significance of the collections. It’s important to say that this could not have been carried out without the core of hard work and commitment undertaken by Magda over the previous 20 years. As a close friend and companion of John and Margaret Campbell, she is indeed ‘the Keeper of the Flame’.

A woman and man in conversation, standing in front of several National Trust for Scotland banners and a leaflet display. Both are smartly dressed.
Magda being presented with the George Waterston Award by Simon Skinner, CEO of the National Trust for Scotland

Whilst I have been working on the awareness programme, continuing the archive work and answering research enquiries, conservation and reparation work has been continuing in Canna House. Wallpaper conservation, structural surveys, garden work, new plumbing and interpretation plans have been developed. New windows and sills have been installed in the west wing, solving longstanding damp ingress.

A conservatory-type structure, attached to the main house, is surrounded by scaffolding and ladders.
Structural works taking place on Canna House

A new heating boiler was installed, which in turn has meant an improvement in environmental conditions. The archives themselves are housed in a specially converted bedroom with a Hanwell EMS (environmental monitoring system) to alert us to any change in conditions that may be detrimental, particularly to paper collections. The ‘Butterfly Room’ which houses John’s precious Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) collection is similarly controlled, due to the fragile nature of the specimens there. John began collecting butterflies when he was 14, on his father’s estate in Argyll, and never lost his love for them, notating meticulously the environmental conditions when the specimens were collected. 

IT has also been improved and we now run on the same internet provision as the rest of the island, with local support based on the island of Rum.

Three rows of butterflies are pinned to a display board, accompanied by labels describing where they were collected.
Part of John Lorne Campbell’s Lepidoptera collection

Extensive work has also been carried out on the roof, routing out and repairing water ingress points, re-slating and downpipe works. External drainage works have further reduced water ingress to the foundations of the house and allowed troublesome ‘pooling’ to disperse for the first time in 20 years.

Living on Canna has meant that I’ve had to develop a whole new skillset which I never anticipated ... I have become an expert in cleaning ‘photo cells’ of boilers. I’ve also had to learn fast about how to deal with errant baby bats who find their way into the house from the attic, as well as learn how to ‘power down the Procurve, reset the Cisco and renew the Nano station’!

The beautiful Steinway piano has been brought back to life with extensive tuning work and, crucially, the playing by several wonderful musicians. These included Yvonne Lyon of Glasgow who played for us during our mini garden party in 2019, when the music wafted out the windows to the ‘audiences’ playing croquet and eating ice cream in the garden! It was a lovely day and people commented how wonderful it was to hear music coming out of Canna House again.

The next stages of the major Canna House renovation programme would have seen the house being reopened to the public in 2021, but these have unfortunately been delayed because of COVID-19. We will hopefully get back on track in the near future.

A lady sits at a piano, with its lid propped up. Sheets of music and a Debussy book rest on the piano. The piano is next to an open window, through which a lady can be seen in the garden.
Yvonne Lyon playing the Steinway

I’ve also been able to publish the first book of Margaret Fay Shaw’s heritage photography, entitled Eilean, which was a project that I personally found much pleasure in working on. In addition, I use the images from the earlier Thom collections in presentations for visitors, so they can see Canna at an earlier stage. The Thom family owned Canna between 1881–1938. A film festival was also planned for this summer but has now been postponed until next spring.

A black and white photograph of two teenage girls standing outside a decorative building, in a gravelled courtyard. Both hold a kitten in their arms. The girls wear long black coats and boater-style hats.
Thom family members outside what is now the Canna House Billiard Room

I am fortunate that I can combine my performing abilities with my archive promotion work, and consequently I’ve been able to undertake many presentations, song lectures, concerts and gallery presentations, all using both the visual and aural archives. I have presented in the US, Canada, Ireland and Lithuania, and was due to present again in the US this summer. All of these activities have been funded through externally sought funding programmes so they do not place a burden on National Trust for Scotland resources.

But the Trust on Canna is not just about Canna House. Engaging with our community is an important part of the work the Trust does on the island. As well as working on creating partnerships with the Isle of Canna Community Development Trust for island infrastructure projects, we have delivered several practical projects that the whole community have enjoyed as well as visitors. 

A row of 12 brightly painted cat sculptures stand alongside the edge of a path, with Canna bay in the background.
The Cats Gu Leor trail, ready to go

This includes the Fuaim na Mara art and sound exhibition in the Waiting Room at the pier, and the Cats Gu Leor trail, based on the Siamese cats of Canna House! The animals of Canna are obviously an important part of island life and the Canna farm is run by the Trust, with Geraldine Mackinnon as the very hard-working farm manager. The Highland cattle and the Zwartbles sheep gang are always popular with visitors; in normal times, the shearing at the beginning of July is a popular activity for visitors to watch.

Two sheep stand in a grass field, with the blue sea in the background. They have thick, brown fleecy coats, and a black head with a wide white stripe down their nose.
Zwartbles sheep on Canna

One outcome of my new role that I had not expected was that my husband would change careers drastically! In late 2016, he took up the post of Canna Harbourmaster. Always happy ‘messing about with boats’, Donald was able to bring his business and management experience to developing and implementing the first-ever Canna Marine Safety Management System, which covers all aspects of harbour health and safety, ensuring the safe navigation of the harbour by the hundreds of yachts, landing craft, fishing boats, cruise ships and of course CalMac ferries that visit our little island every year. He also works with the Canna Ranger Service on the National Trust for Scotland Biodiversity project, monitoring the island for any signs of returning rodent colonies. Canna has been rat-free since the 2006 project to eradicate rats from the island, protecting the populations of nesting seabirds.

A view of Canna Bay from a hillside. Yachts are moored in the bright blue water, and the steep cliffs can be seen on the opposite side.
Canna Bay and the harbour on a glorious day

They say that learning to live on Canna takes three years. In the first year, newcomers fall in love with the island and its charms – everything is new and exciting. In the second year, people get ‘down to it’, learn to cope with the weather and ferries, with all the normal island ways of life. The third year is often the year people find most challenging – when the realities hit home of living away from friends and family, shopping difficulties, of healthcare challenges, dealing with travel disruption at Christmas, of what to do when your satellite dish stops working, when the water runs out, when your dog gets ill and requires a vet. It takes a special kind of person to live and work here, but the opportunity to do so is one which has been an incredible gift as well as a challenge.

From a personal point of view, it feels like I have lived my whole life on Canna. It has been a steep learning curve, not just in managing a property but in living in a challenging environment, year round. It’s an honour to look after the Campbell collections and I love to write about them, sing about them and tell people about them. Producing CDs, books, films,  DVDs and BBC documentaries about the Campbells’ work really is the ‘dream job’, one for which I will ever be thankful. There’s a great Gaelic proverb which is my mantra, and I like to think it’s one of which John and Margaret Campbell would approve: ‘Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is ceòl’ (The end of the world may come, but love and music will endure).

And so I like to think that Canna and its treasures will too.

A woman sits on a low bench, with her black and white collie standing in front of her. Canna Bay can be seen behind her, and mountains in the distance.
Fiona and Brahan the collie on Canna

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