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15 Apr 2020

Isle of Canna – a view from the harbour

Written by Donald Mackenzie, Harbourmaster
Several yachts in an island natural harbour on a sunny day.
Canna Harbour as it should be, full of yachts
With most of the world in lockdown with severe travel restrictions, how do we survive on a tiny island 19 miles from the mainland in the middle of the Sea of the Hebrides?

As the only Harbourmaster in the Trust, I have one of the best jobs in Scotland. For the last four years I have managed the harbour on Canna, ensuring safe navigation for the hundreds of vessels which visit every year as well as managing the port operations and the safe berthing of the CalMac ferry, Lochnevis. This is very much a vocation rather than a job and a complete career change from a previous life in business management and finance, and one I would not exchange for anything.

A man in a hi-vis jacket looks out to sea with binoculars while standing on a pier.
Checking for floating debris before the ferry arrives

The Isle of Canna is 4½ miles long and 1 mile wide and has a population of 16 permanent residents. As spring approaches we’re normally getting ready for the busy tourist season, which sees around 15,000 visitors descend on the island to enjoy the rich wildlife and wonderful scenery. Canna is a popular destination for yachts and cruise ships, with as many as 30 yachts in the bay at night and more than 80 cruise ships last year.

This year it’s different. After one of the stormiest winters locals can remember (30% of ferry sailings cancelled), we were looking forward to better weather and some breathing space before visitors started arriving. The coronavirus pandemic has changed all that.

Stormy skies over an island, with a small boat in a stormy sea.
Canna Bay during a winter storm

The ferry summer timetable has been postponed, so instead of six ferries a week we only have two. The harbour itself is closed to almost all traffic – even the fishing boats which sometimes overnight here have been denied access. No visitors are allowed and the ferry is now a lifeline service to bring food and other essential supplies to the island. The café has not opened. The guesthouse is closed, as is the campsite and holiday cottage.

Despite this, life on the island is continuing almost as usual. The farm is still operating normally and we’re in the middle of calving and lambing.

Residents recently returned from the mainland have self-isolated as a precaution and we’re all practising social distancing. Our daily lives are not governed by the normal days of the week, but rather whether it’s a ‘ferry’ day or not.

Maintaining food supplies is a major challenge. All our fresh food and groceries come from one small supermarket in Mallaig and are carried out to us by the Lochnevis ferry. Given the difficulties in the supply chain at the moment, we sometimes struggle to get everything we order. The supermarket does its best; however, it’s trying to supply all four of the Small Isles as well as the population of Mallaig.

Our annual maintenance programme has been put on hold as contractors cannot get out to the island. If anything breaks down we have to call on our own resources to get by. Fortunately, as a community we have a wide range of skills available and we work together to solve problems as they arise.

Essential pier infrastructure repairs are now on hold until the pandemic is over, but these need to be carried out before next winter’s inevitable storms. It’s critical to the island’s survival that the pier and harbour are in good condition, as they’re the only means of servicing the island.

Canna House is due major renovation works in preparation for its reopening to the public, which has had to be delayed under the current circumstances. This is a blow to the island but we’re confident that time will be caught up. Once completed, it will be a tremendous achievement and will showcase the work of folkorists John and Margaret Campbell, who left the island to the Trust. The collections are of international importance and richly deserve to be accessible to visitors and researchers in years to come.

Getting our rubbish off the island is proving a challenge. We rely on Highland Council to send new skips out to Canna and a mixture of weather-related ferry cancellations and travel restrictions have hampered this.

After such a bad winter our unmetalled road has suffered and we’re waiting for a good dry spell so that islander Murdo Jack and his mini-excavator can regrade the track. During the storms, tonnes of seaweed were washed up all over the road, which had to be removed by hand as a major community exercise. The pier also suffered, with a tonne of sand and gravel covering it.

Piles of seaweed covering a road, with a single-storey house in the background.
Seaweed blocking the road after Storm Brendan

In times like these we rely heavily on the internet as our main means of communication with the outside world, as we have no mobile phone coverage on the island. We’re lucky to have a local network that covers the Small Isles; if the connection is lost we’re all adept at replacing pieces of hardware with the support of Ian Bolas of Hebnet (based on Rum).

In the event of a medical emergency, we have to rely on the coastguard helicopter from Stornoway or the Mallaig lifeboat. The helicopter can get to Canna in around 30 minutes and have a casualty or patient in hospital in Fort William in under 15 minutes.

We get excellent support from the Trust management and staff from Balnain House in Inverness, who keep in regular contact with the community.

Despite everything, we’re carrying on our lives and work as usual and are a very resilient community. Work at the harbour goes on, with the slipway needing cleaned of algae and weed. My reporting to CalMac and the Trust also continues, as do all the usual maintenance checks.

The harbour still needs to be ready to respond to a marine emergency or unexpected event. Checking for rats is an ongoing responsibility for myself and the island rangers. Canna is the only one of the Small Isles which is rat-free after a major eradication exercise carried out by the Trust in 2006. But the risk of a single rat escaping from a visiting vessel is ever-present.

Naturally, we’re all looking forward to the end of this pandemic and getting our lives back to normal. Hopefully we’ll be able to welcome visitors to the island before the end of the season, as the income they provide is much needed by the island businesses and the Trust.

As the person who is usually the first point of contact for all visitors to Canna, I’m particularly looking forward to welcoming back our many repeat visitors. Especially the yachts that come back year after year to enjoy what is one of the best anchorages on the west coast and, of course, Canna’s unique and beautiful scenery.

Looking over Canna Bay on a sunny day.
Canna Bay

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