Giving away an island

It is a romantic thought - having an island - though what precisely makes an island especially romantic is a complex notion - a defined space, bounded yet open to the sea, a getaway into seclusion yet within your control, with a community shared both human and natural, present carrying histories.

Islands, however, are real places and though they can and do have romance to them, their real stories carry a great deal more complexity - after the romance, the hard, patient work of marriage comes, and, like marriage, can often fail.

John Lorne Campbell's possession of (and by) the Scottish island's of Canna in the Inner Hebrides, purchased in the 1930s and surrendered into the hands of the National Trust for Scotland in the 1980s, was such a complex affair.

I heard of the Lorne Campbell's first through the poet, Kathleen Raine, a regular guest at Canna House, of whom several of her poems are dedicated to the place and the couple. The House was obviously a place of considerable, sometimes eccentric, hospitality. Then via a school friend (who had introduced me to Raine's work), who spent all his holidays on neighbouring Eigg and Rhum (and whose father had written the Shell Guide to the Inner Hebrides). Seeing Ray Perman's biography of John, 'The Man who gave away His Island' in Waterstone's in Oban recently gave me an opportunity of reacquaintance.

John and his wife, Margaret Fay Shaw, became distinguished scholars of Gaelic culture and pioneers of recording, preserving and nurturing its oral traditions (against much academic resistance to perceiving the oral as valuable - a circumstance that seems hauntingly strange now - though reminds us to think of what are its contemporary equivalents).

When they arrived, John had a theoretical knowledge of farming, a scholarly, warm appreciation of the island's culture and history but was wanting in practical sense, hampered too by a sometimes crippling shyness; and, mired in debt, which made making much needed investments a far slower process than ideally needed. He was also hampered by the broad external indifference he found to the economy, welfare and culture of the islands themselves. In a world devoted to 'progress' small farms in 'out of the way places' are of little consequence neither being 'modern' nor 'efficient' and 'culture' is not an inhabitant of specific places as much as a virtue of an elite which always belongs, fundamentally, elsewhere, usually in a city.

Margaret more outgoing and with a practical exposure to crofting (on the isle of Barra) carried a significant early burden, especially when John's health (and confidence) broke down. But slowly, they made a go of it though never a go that did not want for the subsidy provident on John's inheritance from his wealthy maternal American family. His 'wealthy' Scottish family, he discovered on his father's death, had been effectively bankrupted by his grandfather's venture into high class printing machines that turned out, possibly fraudulently, not to have been, a happenstance that might have stepped out of a Dickens' novel!

The story as it unfolds (and as brought up to date (2011) in a postscript) is an object lesson both in if at first you do n't succeed try, try again and in recognising the flip side of this that in whatever imperfections continuously remain, remember the weather tomorrow will change. Even in its ownership by an institution (as distinct from an individual), continuity is wholly uninsured as institutions themselves change personnel and lack memory.

It is, also, reminds you that even if the culture at present is exceeding fragile, hidden within is resilience, and new possibilities are always, potentially, emerging; for example, now in the opportunities of communities (as on neighbouring Eigg) to buy their own places and set, collaboratively, their own futures.

But most movingly is a testament to how much can be achieved with dogged love seasoned with lashings of forbearance whilst anything utopian belongs nowhere except in the ideal pursued.


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