It’s hard to get lost on Canna. At only five miles long and one mile wide, you can pretty much always see the sea, usually from the tops of tumbling cliffs. It’s a good thing because, especially at its western end, the island itself is fairly featureless moorland, a rising and falling strip of grassy undulations reaching out into the western ocean. And aside from a million rabbits, thousands of birds, and hundreds of sheep, it is empty once you leave the clutch of houses that cluster around the natural harbour.
Only three of us got off the good ship Loch Neibhis when it tied up briefly at the concrete jetty, and the other two disappeared into a waiting Land Rover almost immediately. They were the last people I would speak to until we were reunited on the 6.30pm boat back to Mallaig and the mainland. I’d come to research my second novel, The Cursing Stone, to smell the smells, feel the winds and absorb the light of this tiny island: I like at least to taste the air of a place before I write about it. Because Canna was going to help me construct the frankly made up island of Hinba, the setting for much of the novel’s action.
Not entirely made up. Because the island of Hinba is where St Columba established one of his first monasteries, back in the sixth century – it’s just that no-one knows where it is. Some believe that Hinba is Canna, and when a bullaun or cursing stone – the first in Scotland – was found on the island in 2012, it underlined the Columban connection. The Canna cursing stone also pulled together a set of ideas I’d been kicking into something like the shape of a novel.
Canna is the western-most of the quaintly named Small Isles. Its near neighbours – Rum and Eigg and Muck – are familiar names, but Canna is a little off the beaten track. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, its few inhabitants croft or raise sheep and a few cattle. The island boasts a post office, in a garden shed; there is also a community shop and tea room. But there is precious little else: just a clutch of houses, and a thin strip of green stretching off to the west, until a burnished sea swallows every solid thing.
The road from the jetty skirts the inlet that sits between Canna and its mini-me island of Sanday, passing the Rocket Church (just as bizarre in real life as its name suggests), until it arrives at the gates to Canna House. From there, a sign indicates straight on for Tarbet and Sanday, or right for A’Chill and its 1500 year old Celtic cross. Through a stand of conifers, past a newish grave among the trees, I came into clearing where the cross stands, along with a small slender standing stone (described as the ‘punishing stone’). There is a small ruined chapel nearby, its graveyard full to bursting with daffodils, as was every garden in the little village.
I planned to reach the far end of the island by lunchtime to eat my sandwich under the shadow of an ancient fort, so I left the houses and the graves behind and set out along the track: high cliffs to my right, the sea racing into the clusters of basalt columns to my left. Every so often a little beach was cut into the black rock, notches scored by fiercer seas: the sand bore no marks other than the footprints of oyster catchers fishing at the gently lapping water’s edge. Everywhere I looked inland, a flashing bob tail raced away.
More gates, more track, more blue sky. The road snaked around under a small cliff, from which white-tailed eagles launched themselves onto the wind, and then it dropped into a shallow valley that bisects the island from north to south: Tarbet. The stone walls and lines of wire that parcelled the flat land, the set of farm buildings, were all unexpected: the island had become wild already despite the closeness of everything.
The road, such as it is, stopped here. There were cows as well as sheep in the fields; and then I spotted the bull: a massive chestnut mountain of a beast, with horns that were visible from the best part of 150 metres distance. I scanned the greenery to trace the lines of wire and wall, to make sure that he was on the other side of something.
Past Tarbet and up over open moorland. The grass was longer, the ground wetter, spongier, and the terrain turned into a series of ever-climbing ridges. I stayed close to the south coast in as far as my haphazard route and the tricky terrain allowed – there were no paths and the need to weave through marshy patches and hummocks made sticking to a line difficult. There is a ruined convent at the bottom of the cliff, and to see it I needed to arrive at the cliff’s edge at just the right point. I took a back bearing from the church at Sanday, some 3 miles behind me, cross-referenced it with a stream and took an anxious final line to the cliff top: bingo, the convent of Sgorr nam Bàn Naomh was directly below me.
The archaeology came thick and fast after this, just as I had hoped. I passed the remains of an old settlement (perhaps the outlines of houses or maybe simply of sheep folds) and then just headed westwards, keeping my shadow on my right hand side. Across a line of rusted wire and then it was two, three ridges, a sodden foot, and I could see the end of the island.
I had not thought that the old Dun would be at the bottom of the cliff, some 100 metres below me. How had I missed the contour lines? The sun was still out (just) but the wind was fierce, so I took my lunch in the shelter of a little crag and looked out across the grass and the blue of the ocean. Aside from the blue-grey bulk of the Outer Hebrides there was not much to interrupt the horizon and I had the sense that I was at the edge of the world. It struck me that I hadn’t seen another person since passing the post office.
For my return, I decided to shadow the north coast, hoping the ground would be a little less marshy. It wasn’t. I skittered through the mossy clumps trying to pick higher, firmer ground; what appeared to be paths were nothing of the kind, simply peaty streams. Snipe launched out from under foot as I walked; the birds seemingly playing ‘chicken’, leaving their escape to the very last minute.
Above me I spotted a large collection of ruined buildings, an ancient township according to the map. I picked my way through the swampy ground to explore, then further up onto higher ground. The going got easier and the view down and along was spectacular. I reached the land’s northern edge once more and followed the cliff top until I reached Tarbet again. The bull watched me as I scuttled back onto the track I had left behind 3 hours before.
I had some time yet, before the CalMac ferry returned, so I walked on to the eastern end of the island. On a beach of large pebbles, under a rambling cliff, I scanned the serrated profile of Skye, the purple mass of Rum and the distant snowy peaks of the mainland. Terns screeched overhead, hanging on the wind. The walls of an ancient castle clung to a rocky stack at the south end: Coroghon Mor. Later I would read that it had become a prison and it would find its way into my story.
The green-doored farm up on the cliff overlooking the beach would become the home of Duncannon, and its shaggy buildings flowed into the character of the man who would wield the cursing stone. My cursing stone, not Canna’s. Because my book is not Canna; it is a fiction. But it’s a fiction born, at least in part, of the moors and myths of this Small Isle clinging to the edge of everything.