Until Graham came to tell us he was leaving, I’d never heard of Canna. My husband kept saying ‘but this is the busiest time of year’ and ‘it takes time to get to know a garden’ in a voice I recognised as angry-calm. I took on the role of mediator. In my experience, when the head gardener tells you he’s found another job, he’s already left.
Before the sun had set, I’d Googled ‘Canna in Scotland’ and learned the following. Gaelic for ‘porpoise island’, Canna is the westernmost of the Small Isles archipelago, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. Barely five miles long and one mile wide, the island was left to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) back in 1981 by its owner, the Gaelic folklorist John Lorne Campbell.
The ferry that links Canna to the mainland port of Mallaig, a journey of 2½ hours, comes three times a week. Electricity is provided by a diesel generator and there’s no mobile-phone coverage, although broadband access now (mostly) exists. The roads on Canna aren’t ‘metalled’ whatever that means-so the four vintage Land Rovers don’t require road tax.
In 2010, a proposal to establish a fish farm off Canna was rejected in a residents’ ballot-eight votes to seven-in an early example of localism as well as proof that even a tiny, isolated community in which everyone depends on each other can be as deeply divided as voters in the UK, France and the USA. Since that vote, the population of Canna has dwindled to a mere 11 souls. When Graham and his wife, Olivia, arrive on the island on Monday, moving into Canna Housewhere he will be Head and Only Gardener, continuing the restoration of the garden the population will expand to 13.
When someone in your small community announces that they are forsaking the utopianism of your vineyard/woodlands/sheep/turkeys/peacocks/old roses and morning breaks that include cappuccinos, it’s easy to take it personally. My husband did, and so did Lucy, Graham’s assistant in the garden. Not me. I became obsessed with Canna instead, having a little wander on the internet each evening.
I was enchanted by the story of how the island got rid of the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), which was threatening the island’s precious sea-bird colonies and killing off one of its smallest and rarest inhabitants, the Canna mouse. The mice were removed to Edinburgh Zoo, then a team from New Zealand laid deadly bait at 4,200 locations on the island. Some 10,000 brown-rat carcasses were found and removed in February 2006 and, two years and £600,000 later, the adorable Canna mouse was returned to the island, where it now thrives.
I loved that story. A few nights later, I found the sequel. Canna has now been invaded by rabbits. It seems the rats kept the rabbit numbers down, and without an enemy, they are flourishing, burrowing into the Stone Age huts and dykes from the Clearances. The island’s single restaurant is serving rabbit a dozen mouthwatering ways, but I worry for Graham’s vegetable garden.
I’m now an expert on the families who left their old lives behind-the world of video games, reality television, fast food, Primark, gridlock-and moved to Canna with dreams of another life. I’ve read their blogs about gales that blew down masts and NTS rules that prohibit satellite dishes. Tempting as it is to believe that you have the genius of solitude as well as the inner and physical resourcefulness to live on an island where your closest neighbours are sea eagles and puffins, the truth is few do. But I’d put my money on Graham, who’s visited the island 50 times and who understands wildness, to make a life there.
Now, as my husband studies CVs of potential head gardeners, I’m reading Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room. By my bed sits Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water. No woman is an island, but the temptation is always there.
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