Sometimes, with a good forecast, it just has to be an island.
Canna is one of the four ‘Small Isles’, very close to Skye and sitting alone in the wild Atlantic and a 2.5 hr sail from Mallaig. But what a sail! People travel out to these little islands for the journey alone but it’s much more satisfying to explore on foot.
With Chris away on a 4 day trip, I had a bit of time to myself and the forecast was too good not to make best use of it.So one Friday in May at 1pm saw me head off to Mallaig under clear blue skies, with a plan to catch the super early 7.30am sailing to Canna the next day. Saturday is the only day it is possible to explore Canna on a day trip , with a return boat appearing at 6.15pm, giving perfect time for a walk or two.
For more photos of Canna/Rum and the sailing out there:
I will say now, on a sunny day, Canna struck me as an absolute idyll. I walked off the boat at 10am and felt I’d arrived in a tiny slice of paradise.The sail itself is worth doing just for the coastal scenery too.
Not sure whether it was because of short notice or just the time of year or the fact it was a weekend, but a quick check of B&B/hotel prices for my Friday night near Mallaig made my eyes water.No way was I paying £120 or 150 or even £90 for a bed , then having to high tail it to the harbour at silly o-clock, missing the cooked breakfast included in the price.Instead, as I have very occasionally done in the past, a night sleeping in the back of the car beckoned, more enjoyable, no cost and more fun than it might seem.
However, there was a lot of scenery to take in before the island trip itself.My tea stop was just over 2 hours drive from home – the Loch Leven hotel near Ballachulish in a gorgeous location which had me oohing and aahing and (almost) wishing I was staying there.It’s a whitewashed traditional hotel, separated from the big sea loch by rhododendron filled gardens and with a beautiful wooden deck overlooking the loch’s dark waters. After a quick tea ( no cake unfortunately, my only criticism) I just had to wander round the gardens and along by the shore, on a good path, not a soul around, through woodland where the views opened up to the Pap of Glencoe and the Glencoe peaks.
Had a quick look in the excellent Loch Leven Art Gallery next to the hotel, some lovely stuff – Highland scenes in oils and watercolours.Very impressive.
It was such a glorious afternoon that I stopped at Neptune’s Staircase, beyond Fort William, knowing that Ben Nevis was clear and some fine views would be had from the canal banks.
It’s quite suburban in feel here , with lovely houses lining the Caledonian Canal’s western bank but there are wonderful views of Britain’s highest peak. I spent a good 40 minutes wandering along the surprisingly quiet walkway , before heading down through an underpass/short tunnel which gave me access in a few minutes to the eastern side of the canal.
I popped into the adjacent Moorings Hotel, essentially to use their loo and if need be, buy a cuppa. But now I knew where everyone else was – in the hotel bar and restaurant! It was jumping, going like a fair. Made a quick escape and drove 15 minutes to the lovely and different class, Glenfinnan House Hotel where I planned to treat myself to a nice dinner, since I was saving dosh on accommodation.
It too was mobbed – lots of American voices in the small bar/restaurant – but I got a window table with gorgeous views across the lawns to the loch.
It’s a beautiful place, a nice traditional country hotel, cosy and friendly. Excellent meal of braised venison and creamy potatoes; followed by a very good home made triple chocolate brownie (served warm, though it came cold initially and I had to ask for it to be heated as promised on the menu) and whisky ice cream.
I got talking to a couple of ladies at the next table, both English, a little older than me , who had just come up on the overnight sleeper from London.They wanted to do the Loch Shiel boat trip next day but it was fully booked and they didn’t seem to know what else to do. I gave them some suggestions but with no transport of their own it wouldn’t be easy; I’m always surprised at how relatively disorganised people are despite coming such a long distance. They were hotel residents and it’s not a cheap place in summer; I hate the thought of visitors being disappointed in Scotland and wondered what they finally got up to during their 4 day visit.
Well fed, I set off towards Mallaig, now only 45 beautifully scenic minutes away along the Road to the Isles.
It took me much longer because the evening light (it was now around 7pm) was just stunning on the mountains and lochs.I stopped so often, particularly at the shores of Loch nan Uamh, the loch of the caves and a real favourite of mine – a sea loch where the ethereal outline of the Small Isles is suddenly revealed.
Mallaig itself is a tiny fishing and ferry port, workaday at best but I like it.The promise of Skye and the smaller islands lies just across the sea, the gulls are wheeling and crying, big Atlantic Grey seals swim languorously in the harbour and there’s always the buzz of people in transit, shopping for supplies , having coffee or a meal, or waiting for the Jacobite Steam train to transport them back to Fort William.
What I needed to do now at 8.30pm was to find somewhere isolated to park overnight and enjoy some quiet space and maybe, a good view too.I picked up some supplies in the Co-op then spent the next half an hour fruitlessly looking for a private-ish area to spend the night, not overlooked by houses. No joy, but I’d spied a spot on the way in to the village, off a side road where there was a rough pull in area, sheltered by bushes, no view but quiet and I wouldn’t be bothering anyone.
I made myself a last cup of tea from the hot water flask I had, had a couple of chocolate mints (a terrible addiction😊)then got my sleeping bag and pillow sorted out in the back seat and settled down for the night by 10pm.
Of course it wasn’t the most comfortable night ever but it was ok,I was cosy and slept reasonably, a bit on and off, but I’ve had that in a comfy, expensive hotel bed so on balance – not bad.
It was a glorious morning, not warm but cloudless blue skies. A small queue of 10 people were soon waiting behind me to purchase tickets and then we were marching down the skipway onto the ferry.In all there were finally around 20 people on board I’d say.
It was a stunning sail. Firstly, 1.5 hours to mountainous Rum, with around 30 porpoise sightings en route. Skye’s Black Cuillin looked amazing, rearing up from the emerald green southern end of the island, dotted with whitewashed crofts. I could hardly take my eyes off that scene of mountain and ocean.
Rum itself is fascinating too, a wild island of savage cliffs and bays of shell sand and rugged hills.The only residents are Scottish Natural Heritage staff around the Kinloch Castle area, the rest of the island is uninhabited.I wild camped on Rum with a friend many moons ago and we walked to beautiful Kilmory Bay and back.So much more to explore on the island, some of it needing much longer than one day or overnight and much of it incredibly remote.
Another hour took us along Rum’s wild empty coastline, to tiny Canna , all 5miles by 1 mile of it.
The seabirds had been very plentiful so far – gannets diving, rafts of shearwaters, guillemot, razorbills, great northern divers and the odd puffin.Marauding great skuas patrolled over all, aggressive seabirds which will drown other birds to gain the meal they have captured.
Entering the sheltered bay of Canna itself was like arriving in a softer, gentler world of emerald green fields, a turquoise bay, little oak woodlands, sheep grazing quietly and the lilac haze of bluebells. Peace perfect peace.
Café Canna was unfortunately still closed at 10am so I set off along the shore road, then over the little bridge to Sanday, a neighbouring island and which offered an easy walk out to the stacks and cliffs which in season, are full of nesting seabirds including puffins. About 7 miles in total with no ascent as such.
The cliffs attracted me because I was always intrigued at the mountain backdrop of Rum from Sanday which in photos had looked amazing. I was lucky in that we’d had very dry weather for weeks so the going underfoot was very solid but that walk could get boggy in places normally. Past a field of black cattle, watching me as cattle always do when anyone passes them, very curious beasts. Then out to the cliff edge and a minute or two to find the best view over the stacks fr a seat and some lunch.It so happened that a family of four had found the same spot! They had, they said, been pointing out the puffins to their two wee girls but to be honest, I couldn’t see any at all; just guillemots and razorbills mostly, way down below bobbing on the ocean ( the girl at the cafe later told me she didn’t think the puffins had started nesting yet.)
No matter it was a wonderful spot to be and my cheese, lettuce and mayo sandwiches that I’d made up earlier were excellent, washed down with some fizzy water.
I was keen to see the Lighthouse too so soon left the family in peace and headed off to explore that little corner. Skuas were on patrol and I had to fend a few off with my walking pole, as they come in to attack if you stray into their territory. Scary birds! One only gave itself away when I saw its shadow loom up behind my head and I just dodged it in time.But a quick lift of a stick and they veer off quickly.
Very nice spot at the Lighthouse, not a soul around and the sound of larks singing overhead, melodious and clear.
The wind had got up a bit , a cold easterly, the unusual pattern of wind we’d had for weeks now as a south westerly is more common in Scotland. Some snow still on the higher mainland mountains. Passed the lovely nest of what looked like a female eider which I accidentally flushed while walking back.Just hoped the Skuas didn’t see that but none of them flew over once I’d left the nest behind.I stopped for barely a second to take a photo then quickly moved on.
It was an easy, delightful walk back over the fields, with some fine views of Skye’s Black Cuillin.
I had a closer look at St Edwards Church now, a very handsome building though it was locked and awaiting restoration.
A small white shrine near the Sanday/Canna bridge marked the short path to a beautiful white sand beach, lapped by jade waters. It was incredibly beautiful, especially with the machair at the back of it covered in lemon-yellow primroses.Their scent is soft but exquisite.I just sat and contemplated it all.Scotland is in so many places, so achingly beautiful it is impossible to put into words.
I was however, desperate for tea by now so headed back round to Café Canna, a delightful little place with outside tables.Tea and a piece of carrot cake never tasted so good! Quite a few other people were around now, enjoying the sunny afternoon.Several sounded as if they were staying for a few days or longer, return visitors from the sound of many. Yachtie types also had landed, as the sheltered bay is a haven from the wilder seas beyond (though today, they were very benign.)
John Lorne Campbell, a Gaelic scholar and, as Chris says, a pukka Campbell, was the well known and respected owner of Canna.With his American wife Margaret Fay Shaw , they lived in lovely Canna House, a stone villa surrounded by fine gardens.Both were renowned for being collectors of traditional Gaelic songs and spent much of their life working to protect and safeguard this aspect and more of Gaelic culture. Lorne Campbell granted Canna to the National Trust for Scotland in the 1960s.
The house is undergoing restoration but the gardens were open so I strolled up through the grounds, and what an oasis of beauty and peace they were. I sat on a bench just drinking it all in, determined to bring Chris out here sometime soon, knowing he would love it all. The OS map had suggested that there was an access path outside the garden which looked as if it would lead me to Canna’s very interesting ancient site of A’Chill.Here once was a monastery, the outline of its walls visible and the remains of a Celtic cross with fine carvings.
I pushed open a side door of the garden and sure enough, a little path wound its way into the oak woodlands and the ferns, cool and damp but lined with a profusion of wild garlic and bluebells.It was gorgeous.I’m not a huge fan of the scent of wild garlic – or Ransoms – but the sight of thousands of their starry white flowers against swathes of lilac blue is one of the glories of early summer.
Across a field then though another little woodland copse, where I passed the fine cairn marking John Lorne Campbell’s grave.It’s simple inscription said ‘Fear Chanaidh’ – Man of Canna. What an utterly peaceful final resting place, amongst the wildflowers.
A ‘ Chill was certainly worth visiting. There isn’t much left of the 7th -9th century cross though carvings on one side were clear and it still had great beauty. Close by was the ‘punishment stone’, a standing stone with a small hole through it, in which the finger of a miscreant was wedged for as long as was deemed to fit the crime!
I really didn’t do justice to the huge number of ancient sites which are dotted throughout Canna – the ‘King of Norway’s Grave’ , a large stone built enclosure; two Souterrains, ancient burial sites or perhaps used 2,000 year ago for storage? Another visit required!
With another hour or so to spare before the ferry, there was time for a stroll to see beautiful Rhu Church , built as recently as 1911, quite Irish in design.
Just time too, to walk over to the volcanic sand beach below Prison Rock where, incredibly, there are the remains of a well built stone castle or prison still visible at the top of the stack. Legend has it that the wife of a Macleod was imprisoned here in the 17th century for infidelity!
Cafe Canna was now going like a fair and their full evening menu was on the go; they wrapped up a very good Lobster Macaroni Cheese for me to takeaway and I demolished it as I walked the 10 mins back to the small harbour.
In the pretty little waiting room, decorated with glass fishing floats and fishing nets, a lovely video on Canna playing in the background, I spoke to a young couple from Hungary, on a tour of Scotland.The chap himself had been thrilled with their day.
‘Why does everyone go to Loch Ness, or those other busy places – why don’t they come here? Canna is amazing.’
On that cool sunny day of clear blue skies, I couldn’t agree more…..