Isle of Canna: 2005

In New York I could not find a single tea towel with images of New York and its tourist attractions. Yet when I visited Canna, the most westerly of the Small Isles, off the west coast of Scotland, with a population of 19, I found three!

I first visited Canna when I went on  a National Trust cruise round the islands of Scotland. We spent a day on Canna; not that many people left the ship because it was only a small island – quick cup of tea and back on board. When I saw Canna from the boat, I fell in love with the place. There was a new pier at the entrance to a sheltered bay where many small yachts used to harbour (and use the tea room facilities). Canna is just over four miles long and less than a mile across. There are no cars on Canna; there are no roads, just tracks. It’s a farming community so the main source of transport is a tractor, quad bike and the odd Landrover. A lot of the island (islands actually, since it is attached to Sanday by a small bridge), is very difficult to access because of the hills that rise sharply from the sea and the cliffs.

Canna was owned by John Lorne Campbell, collector of Gaelic works. When he died he left the islands, and Canna House collection of Gaelic materials, to the National Trust; it is the greatest collection of Gaelic in the whole of the United Kingdom and you could view it free of charge, if you are a National Trust member, with the help of the extremely knowledgeable curator.

Known as the ‘Garden of the Hebrides’, Canna has fertile soils, green meadows and an abundance of bird life; it has been recognised as a bird sanctuary since 1938 and supports more than 20,000 breeding sea birds including puffins, razorbills and guillemots.

While Canna has no roads, pubs or shops, not even a post office it did, at that time, have a tea room, sustained by the yachting community and the odd day trippers who arrive either by cruise liner or ferry. The tea room was lovely; on that first trip I had the best smoked salmon sandwich I’ve ever had. I can still see it now, thick slabs of smoked salmon, thick white bread that was homemade and salad on the side, not dripping in mayonnaise or stuffed with salad, the smoked salmon stood on its own.  Having had a good walk along the beach, watched the young lambs gambolling in the fields, visited the little church that is in regular use and stood on the bridge between Canna and Sanday and watched the ocean crash against the rocks, we returned for a big slice of homemade chocolate cake and a pot of tea. Then I saw the tea towel; it had to be mine.  The cruise was fantastic and we visited places that I never thought I would get to visit, like St Kilda but I would have to say that Canna was by far my favourite and I vowed I would return. When I look at the tea towel over the washing up I remember my first glimpse of Canna in the bright sunshine and I yearn to return

In fact, it wasn’t until 2008 that I returned, on yet another boat trip, this time with only eight passengers, cruising around the Inner Hebrides for a week. Canna was still the same, exactly as I remembered it. Again it was sunny. This time we walked along the cliff tops but the tea room was open but not serving smoked salmon sandwiches but it did have another tea towel. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was designed by the school children, I assume as a fundraiser, a sketch in green ink of the school building. However this is so pale that it does not show up in a photograph. You just have to take my word for it that it is cute.

I went back in 2009, as I promised myself, to stay a week in a National Trust cottage, with a wood burning stove, a picnic bench outside the front door on the waters edge. Staying on Canna requires good organisational skills. Because there is no shop and because the boat doesn’t call every day and because the boat sails from Mallaig which is 4 hours away and doesn’t do a round trip each day and because you can’t take a car, you have to order your food from the Co-op and they send it packaged up on the boat so it is delivered to your door. The cottage is about a mile from the pier so you don’t want to be carrying a week’s shopping up the road. You have to think of all the meals you want to eat over the next week – breakfast, lunch, dinner and all those holiday ‘treats’. There’s no popping up the road for a bag of chips. I had hoped that the tearoom would be open some of the time but it had closed and was awaiting a new ‘owner’. However, Winnie, who looked after the cottage brought some warm scones one day which was a delight. I did go back again in 2012, had exactly the same amazing time and the same scones. This time the tea room was a bistro two evenings a week. It was good, but not as good as the smoked salmon sandwiches! But, believe it or not, there was another tea towel (the one at the bottom of the Blog).  How many tea towels can an island the size of Canna produce?  At least three; the more the merrier for me!

The tea towel with the map of Canna brings back so many happy memories. I remember the white sandy beaches near the pier on glorious sunny days and there are a lot of warm, sunny days because the Gulf Stream surrounds Canna although the weather can change fast. You can watch the clouds trundle by at a rate of knots – one minute blue skies rapidly followed by big black thunder clouds, rapidly followed by the most amazing rainbows. Some of my best photos are of the rainbows over Sanday. The map on the tea towel shows seals around the island and I remember spending hours sitting on the edge of the beach watching seals at play or walking the cliffs and watching buzzards. The map marks the Celtic Cross I walked up to (and nearly missed) and the Viking Graves on the far side of the island. It also shows the lighthouse but not the old church on Sanday that was being restored when I was last there. The drawings of the gannets remind me of the times I watched a single gannet diving for food.

The third tea towel, at the bottom of the page, came to the top of the airing cupboard pile today; a very different style of tea towel: a black and white sketch showing the bridge that links Sanday and the main island, with birds circling above it and a lone cottage.  Just so beautiful.

However, I have never been to Canna during the puffin season and that is something I really want to do. I have no memories of really cold days (really wet ones but not freezing cold). The Visitors Book did have messages from people who had to stay extra days because the boat wasn’t able to sail. They rarely have snow on Canna but I have fantasised about spending Christmas there.  Sitting here in Leicester, writing about Canna, looking at the tea towel, I can see it in my mind’s eye so clearly. It is the one place in the world I really want to go back to.


Click below to return to the Virtual Tea Towel Museum


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