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8 Apr 2020

Puppies, pussycats and ponies – the pets of Canna House

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Archivist, Canna House
A Cairn terrier puppy sits on a gate, with its ears pricked and looking towards the camera.
Patxu, the Cairn terrier puppy, sits on the gate to Canna House in 1977.
To celebrate National Pet Month, we’ve taken a look at the Animal Archive Collections of Canna House to see what they tell us about their owners.
A Siamese kitten perches on a white bench, next to a large single red rose in a glass vase. A pink rose bush is in flower in the background.
A Siamese piseag in the rose bushes, 1968

If people know anything about the families who’ve owned Canna, they’ll know about their love of cats. John and Margaret Campbell were the last owners of the island before it was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981. Their lives were governed by the various animals that populated the island, with the feline species ruling supreme over all!

Margaret was one of the first female photographers of the 20th century and took hundreds of images, both black and white and colour, of her favourite creatures. A breeder of Siamese kittens, she captured this little ‘piseag’ (Gaelic for kitten, pronounced ‘Pee-shack’) beside her favourite rosebush under the dining room window of Canna House, in 1968.

The bench that can be seen in the first image was a favourite prop for showing off the Campbell animals. When visitors arrived, be they an important priest or politician, musician, writer or crofter, they usually had a cat thrust at them and were told to sit down ‘for pictures’. The ironwork chair beside it was also a favourite resting perch for John and Margaret’s favourite Siamese, Pooni, the King of Canna House. He first came to Canna in August 1938 and presided over the household until the grand old age of 18, fathering many generations of Siamese kittens.

In her earlier life as a folklore and song collector on South Uist in the 1930s, Margaret also took many images of the animals on the croft at North Glendale, both domestic and farm animals. She learned how to milk Dora the cow and feed the pet lambs on the croft belonging to her landladies, Peigi and Màiri MacRae. Here she captured Peigi milking Dora outside their little croft house called Taigh Màiri Anndra. Peigi herself captured Margaret and Màiri taking tea and sandwiches outside the house, watched closely by Dora and the croft collie!

A colour photograph of a man holding a very fleecy lamb in his arms. He stands outside a thatched croft house. He wears a tartan shirt and a flat cap.

Margaret captured Màiri’s son, Donald, in later years, looking after one of the pet lambs on the croft. If you look closely behind Donald, you can see how the thatched roof of a cottage was traditionally secured, using rope made from heather, held down by a large stone.

A black and white photograph of a man holding a black cat, so that it looks over his shoulder. In his other hand he holds his hat. He stands beside a fence before a large field, where a house is just visible in the distance.

Margaret was particularly fond of taking pictures of her South Uist friends with their favourite domestic animals, dispelling the notion that rural folk only care about farm animals. Here is the postman from Stilligarry, Finlay Campbell, in 1930, with his favourite puss.

The Canna Photographic Collections also include that of the Thom family. Robert Thom, a shipbuilder from Greenock, was the owner of Canna before the Campbells, and lived there for over 50 years. Thom’s photographic collection leaves us some delightful images of the animals with which the family shared their lives on Canna in the Edwardian era. The fashion is almost as interesting as the animals! Here is Louie Thom with her pooch and her pony, outside the building which is now Café Canna.

Minnie, Mable and their friends take time out with their various furry and feathered friends. Puppies feature prominently in the Thom photo collection. And it’s that bench again ...

Canna House contains many thousands of photos of animals over the years, but it also celebrates animals in many other forms, including ornaments, tea towels and posters! Almost every corner is filled with a representation of the many animals that the people of Canna House cared for.

Living in a place like the Isle of Canna means that people are closely connected to the land, weather and, above all, the animals that provide companionship, a livelihood and even entertainment. And we’re grateful for the wealth of stories too. Even the cat basket belonging to puppy Paxtu in 1977 is still in use today – it holds the statue to Pepa, the last of the Canna Cats, who died in 2016 aged 22.

Stories about French cats, magnificent cockerel ornaments, cat tea towels, cat posters, owl lamps, butterfly displays and cat-shaped kitchen hooks ... Canna House has them all!

A black and white photograph of a small cat, sitting indoors on a window sill and facing sideways so it is almost silhouetted. An oil lamp and baking tray stand beside it.

We finish with a classic image taken by Margaret, of prize puss Wicked William (or ‘Uilleam Dhona’ in Gaelic) in the window of Taigh Màiri Anndra beside the old oil lamp, in 1931. This photograph really does tell a story of a thousand words!

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