EACH of Scotland’s Small Isles are swept with unique personalities, but it’s tricky visiting them all by ferry on the same trip.

Handily, earlier this month, I joined a small Scottish cruise ship that returned me to all four. 

I had my concerns about the communities on Canna and Rum, and was relieved to find green shoots sprouting here in the spectacular Hebridean waters south of Skye.

“It’s a real privilege to visit these small communities,” beams James Fairbairns, skipper of the family-owned Lucy Mary, as we leave the thriving community-owned island of Eigg bound for Canna.

“Each island really is different and we offer across our three small ships an intimate way to visit and engage with the communities.

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"We encourage passengers to talk to people and spend some money too.”

I had my concerns about Canna. Last time I was here just before Covid hit there were worries about the community struggling to have more say under National Trust for Scotland ownership.

There were concerns too about how it was possible to stabilise, nevermind grow, the population in a sustainable way. 

“Until recently, younger people thought of heading for the mainland, or even across to Eigg for opportunities,” says Gareth Cole, who leases Café Canna from the NTS.

“Things are looking up with primary school age kids and a trio of new houses being built by NTS. 

“We’ve hopefully learned from mistakes on other islands and we’ll get young families with skills that can benefit the community.” 

Gareth describes a tight community and their wind and solar power projects.

He says it’s easy to see why you would want to live on Canna and it’s hard to disagree as we peer from his buzzing café across the finest natural harbour in the Small Isles, where the Lucy Mary is accompanied at anchor by half a dozen yachts. 

“We’ve got the community-run 24/7 honesty shop and now a real sense of resilience – we bake our own bread and even brew our own beer.,” he adds. “We forage for produce too and you cannot beat the local seafood, beef and lamb.”

I tuck into a chunky homemade sandwich for lunch, with a thick wedge of well-cooked Canna beef. If I wasn’t due back on the Lucy Mary I’d be tucking into the platter of local seafood, washed down, of course, with that Canna beer for dinner.

I am gutted to be missing dinner as it would have been with island-specialist architect Will Tunnell (below) and his wife Juliette Summers, who are on Canna checking out his latest project. Fresh from his impressive work on Eigg’s An Laimhrig community hub, Will is resurrecting a characterful old building that will “benefit both visitors and the local community”.

The National:

Will takes me to the project site, which ties into the traumatic history of the Small Isles. Like much of the Hebrides, they were decimated by the Clearances. It’s poignant that we are standing among the old homesteads of the souls who were spirited across the Atlantic, never to return to their beloved island home.

Poignant too that the building Tunnell is “breathing new life into” would have been well kent to the cleared. It’s a defiant, positive nod to Canna’s future.

I am much more nervous approaching Rum. I’ve heard the island shop (below) is up for sale, one of the families who moved in as part of the lockdown competition to attract people has already moved on and – most worryingly – of a bid to turn Kinloch Castle into a luxury playground.

The National:

Rum suffered disastrously during the Clearances, its 500 residents almost eradicated. In their place, Kinloch Castle was forged, a grotesque Edwardian spaceship plonked down in Arran sandstone, with alligators patrolling its ponds and nefarious goings-on staining its overblown interior. The poor gardeners were packed off to the trenches during the First World War.

My first stop is an old cleared township – there once were 40-50. Some of the old stone croft houses still lie in the forest en route to the otter hide built by NatureScot (which owns Rum), who have arguably been better at protecting Rum’s bountiful red deer and Manx shearwaters than the human inhabitants. 

Unsure what to do with the incongruous castle, NatureScot has it on the market for £1, though conservative estimates reckon it will cost £10 million to resurrect. I meet one of the islanders, who declines to be named.

They tell me: “The most recent takeover attempt by millionaire businessman Jeremy Hosking has fallen through and most of us are relieved. Whether or not you want the castle to be reborn, the last thing Rum needs is a return to the privileged excesses of old.”

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My own relief grows at the Isle of Rum General Store, the literal and spiritual hub of Rum life. New owner Stuart McKie has solved more than one of Rum’s problems. 

“My girlfriend and I are delighted to come to an island – we both love to run this shop – and also to be the proud new residents of the vacant house from the lockdown competition, bringing the population back up to 34,” he smiles. 

“Community is at the heart of everything in the Small Isles, as it should be on every Scottish island.”