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6 Aug 2019

John Lorne Campbell’s Canna Diaries

Written by Ian Riches and Fiona Mackenzie
An extract from John Lorne Campbell’s Canna Farm diary, February 1951
An extract from John Lorne Campbell’s Canna Farm diary, February 1951
Diaries can afford wonderful insights into people’s lives. As examples of primary source material, they can provide an illuminating snapshot into past events, particularly when coupled with other sources such as photographs. Some of the images in this article are from the Margaret Fay Shaw photograph collection.

This article will explore some of the contents of two sets of diaries kept by John Lorne Campbell during his time living and working on Canna. The first is a succession of desk diaries, dating between 1939 and 1991 and known as the Canna Farm diaries. These are the records kept by Campbell and ostensibly are accounts of the workings of Canna’s farms, noting at various intervals the census of animals on the island and the varied farming activities throughout the calendar year.

The second set relates to Campbell’s interest in Lepidoptera, the order of insects covering butterflies and moths. These diaries date from 1951 to 1995 (although there are a few earlier diaries prior to John and his wife Margaret moving to Canna in 1938) and principally record the species of moth and butterfly seen by Campbell, mainly in the Canna House garden.

A black and white photograph of a man walking through a flower meadow by the sea, holding a large butterfly net.
John Lorne Campbell ‘butterflying’ on Barra in 1935, before the Campbells moved to Canna

The two series cover a similar period in time and also both contain information not just relating to their primary topics. In addition to farming and insects, the subjects covered in each set are wide-ranging. They include the recording of day-to-day life on the island, in particular the prevailing weather conditions; the many visitors to the Campbells’ house; the family pets; and the impact of World War II on Canna.

Within each set there are days when nothing is recorded, but quite often gaps within one set of diaries may be filled in the other, or indeed in the separate set of personal diaries also kept by John. It may well be that Campbell moved from diary to diary when recording events and that conflating the various diaries for a particular year would give a complete picture of John’s interests and island life.

As a typical example of the information recorded, we can look at both the Lepidoptera diary and the Farm diary from early 1951 in which the main topic is the weather! The extract from the Farm diary shows that Campbell had made a visit to the Scottish mainland. Whilst travelling from Glasgow to Fort William, his train was stranded by a blizzard and, along with his fellow passengers, he had to spend the night in the dining car. It wasn’t until late on the following day that they were able to get away.

The wintry weather from this period also affected life on Canna. Although John, in his entry for 5 April 1951 in the Lepidoptera diary, describes the ‘first day of summer …’, Canna was hit by ‘snow squalls’ (note that he was using a 1962 diary for 1951 so this must have been written retrospectively).

A pattern emerges when looking through the Lepidoptera diaries, where most of the entries, quite naturally, occur in the spring and summer months when moths and butterflies are more prevalent on Canna. The Farm diary entries, however, tend to be spread more evenly throughout the year – this is mainly due to the year-round agricultural requirements but also because, as mentioned above, Campbell used these diaries to document supplementary activities.

A typical Lepidoptera entry is shown below. In the summer of 1952, John records the fact that Margaret has left for London; he describes the weather to this point; he refers to farming activities in ‘driving out sheep’; and he also documents the moths that were in the moth traps.

Extract from the Canna ‘Lepidoptera’ diary, July 1952
Extract from the Canna ‘Lepidoptera’ diary, July 1952

Similarly, a standard entry from the Farm diary series is shown below, from June 1954. It documents the annual census of farm workers, cereals and farm animals on Canna. These are valuable insights into the workings of the Canna farm(s), and a more in-depth study into similar entries over a longer period of time would be able to draw conclusions as to the fluctuations of stock and crops on Canna. A similar analysis of the butterflies and moths recorded by John Lorne Campbell would likewise afford scholars in this field fascinating insights into the study of Lepidoptera.

However, such studies are beyond the scope of this article and, as mentioned above, it’s in the entries not devoted to farming and insects that we find an additional layer of fascination. One thing that the Campbells were particularly noted for was their love of animals, and they had a number of pets – mainly cats and dogs – that graced Canna House for many years. In the Farm diary entry below, John notes the passing of a favourite dog, Mr Smith, in April 1943. John describes how Smith – ‘a pleasant and cheerful dog and a great enemy to rats and rabbits’ – had been missing for almost two weeks and feared that he may have met his end in a rabbit hole.

Perhaps an even more cherished pet, Pooni the Siamese cat passed away in April 1956. An entry in the Lepidoptera diary from a few days prior to his passing described how Pooni was very ill but ‘revived remarkably’ later that day. Sadly though, this respite was to last just a week. Pooni had been with the Campbells since 1938 and was adored as a ‘faithful friend and a cat of greater character than we have ever known.’ Despite using up some of his nine lives, his nature and character meant that several poems and stories were written about him. He also made a guest appearance on one of John’s sound recordings currently available on the Tobar an Dualchais website, entitled ‘Pooni the cat shares some wisdom’. 

Another of John Lorne Campbell’s interests was bee-keeping. Two entries from the 1939 and 1940 Farm diaries highlight this, as well as the hazards of being an apiarist. The first extract from August 1939 describes how Campbell got stung and spent the next day in bed because of it. The second entry from May 1940 describes the bees swarming for the first time and is also accompanied by a photo taken by Margaret on the same day.

An interesting note from the 1939 entry is the line ‘very bad news overnight’, referring to the German invasion of Poland which triggered the declaration of war on 3 September. World War II was to directly affect the Campbells and Canna. John described, in his Farm diary entry for 6 March 1941, a mine floating into Canna Harbour and the various attempts to blow it up. This was followed by an entry the next day stating that Margaret went on board the minesweeper and managed to come away with 500 cigarettes!

Extract from the Canna Farm diary, March 1941
Extract from the Canna Farm diary, March 1941

In October 1940, Campbell records how eight members of the crew of the salvage vessel SS Attendant had spent five hours in their lifeboat after their boat had been washed ashore. The men had been brought to Canna House ‘by lorry’ where they, no doubt, felt the warmth of the Campbells’ hospitality. Margaret’s photograph of the men outside Canna House shows them happy and smiling and with one of the Campbells’ pets, probably Mr Smith.

These extracts are a brief taster of just one part of the marvellous archival material held at Canna House. Even the shortest of entries in the Farm and Lepidoptera diaries can tell us so much. John’s Lepidoptera diaries could be a basis for potential future study of butterflies and moths, and the farm diaries provide material for the analysis of agricultural life on a Hebridean island.

But it’s the supplementary entries that provide so much additional interest and fascination. Along with the photos, films and sound recordings, the Canna House archive is a rich seam of primary sources, affording us a window into the lives of the Campbells and their time on Canna.

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