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January 10, 2018

NTS off the pace

Ten years ago, The National Trust for Scotland which owns the tiny island of Canna, tried and failed to regenerate life on the island. Its attempt to attract new residents ended in bitter acrimony with accusations of dysfunctional management and broken promises on the part of NTS. NTS now claim the days of paternalistic management are over (was it ever appropriate?) and accept that the community should take control. But only up to a point. NTS continue to claim they must own the island in accordance with the terms of the original bequest. Time for a smart lawyer perhaps?


Severin Carrell, Scotland editor, Guardian

Moving to a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland may sound like an idyllic new start, but despite a worldwide competition attracting the interest of hundreds of people, the population of Canna is still stuck at 15.

Now the people living on one of the smallest inhabited islands in the Hebrides have been handed control of the efforts to attract new residents, with the hope that a new approach will finally start to boost the numbers.

More than a decade ago the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which owns the tiny island south of Skye, launched a global recruitment campaign to find new families to settle on Canna, the most westerly of the Small Isles, a cluster of islands south-west of Skye best known for the memorably named Eigg, Rum and Muck. Canna measures 4.5 miles (7.25km) long by a mile (1.6km) wide.

That appeal made headlines across the world, and 350 people applied, but the initiative has been dogged by repeated rows. Many of the families and couples attracted there quit the island, complaining of poor, dysfunctional management and broken promises by NTS.

The latest row flared up in early November after one couple, whose four children were the only pupils in Canna’s primary school, left for the mainland and threatened legal action. That again left its population hovering at about 15.

Confronted by yet another defeat to a strategy conceived at their base in Edinburgh, NTS officials have told the Guardian they have now abandoned that approach entirely. “We have to move beyond a paternalistic model,” said Dominic Driver, head of natural heritage at NTS. “We need to support the local community to develop itself.”

They have handed control of Canna’s regeneration to a development trust run by residents, many of whom are Gaels who trace their history on the island to ancestors who settled there during the Jacobite rebellion nearly 300 years ago.

In a deliberate break from the NTS approach, the Isle of Canna Community Development Trust will no longer prioritise keeping open the island’s tiny single-room school, which is now mothballed, and has not set a target for exact numbers of new residents.

Armed with £100,000 in funding, their objectives are more pragmatic and mirror the highly successful switch to an off-grid green energy system pioneered by the neighbouring island of Eigg.

They are erecting a wind turbine and solar panels to end the island’s round-the-clock reliance on inefficient and polluting diesel generators, in a £100,000 project jointly funded by the NTS. A tidal causeway that links Canna with its tiny sister island of Sanday will be upgraded to make it accessible all day.

A development officer will be employed, said Geraldine Mackinnon, the development trust chair and a member of the Gaelic-speaking family with the deepest roots on Canna, to help implement a new strategy focused on upgrading the island’s housing, improving visitor facilities and creating new job opportunities.

In an interview by email, Mackinnon said the trust’s long-term aim was to have “a stable, increased and vibrant population. [A] small development trust such as ours can only achieve so much and we need to be aware of not facing ourselves with too many projects”.

She added: “Although it would be good to have the primary school open, it is not a priority at the moment. There are no pre-school children on Canna.”

Despite its difficulties, NTS insists the island’s facilities are secure: a couple are moving to Canna in the new year to take over its guesthouse; the seasonal gift shop and cafe are still being run, as is a small community shop; and two other people are moving in early 2018 to work as NTS rangers in a job share.

For many incomers, Canna’s isolation – it has no doctor and only three ferries a week during winter, and the long, stormy winters are challenging in themselves. Many Scottish islands wrestle with depopulation but critics say Canna’s difficulties are exacerbated by strict property ownership rules on the island.

Although a few crofts are owned by its original inhabitants, incomers are not allowed to own land or build houses on Canna, and tenancy agreements are capped at 20 years. Some families who quit say those restrictions made it far harder to commit to the island.

Camille Dressler, chair of the Small Isles community council, who lives on Eigg, said NTS had often behaved with great insensitivity to its residents. “This change is coming at the right time,” she said. “If had not changed, Canna’s population would dwindled hopelessly.”

NTS insists it is legally bound by the bequest from its former owner John Lorne Campbell, a Gaelic folklorist and historian whose house on Canna is home to a remarkable Gaelic cultural archive. Land reformers say that situation could be remedied if the desire was there. There are concerns, however, that allowing newcomers to own and build homes could lead to speculative investments in seasonal holiday homes, which would undermine attempts at repopulation.

Mackinnon said the disputes between NTS and previous residents had been distressing. “Negative press coverage is not pleasant or fair on the community and has a detrimental effect on attracting new residents, but we must look forward and concentrate on all the good and positive things that are happening in our community here on Canna,” she said.