Get your free website from Spanglefish

Clanranald was placed unavoidably at the centre of these feuds. The clan’s hereditary interest in Canna resulted from the misappropriation of the dowry of the MacRuari lands of Garmoran by Ranald in the mid-fourteenth century. Ranald was the progenitor of Clanranald, and tutor to the four nephews who stood to benefit. By this arrangement he added an interest in one half of the lands of South Uist, and the isle of Canna for himself, to the allocation of land he had been granted of the other half of South Uist, Eigg, Rum, Morar and Arisaig. The hereditary interest of Clanranald in Canna results from this period, notwithstanding that the ownership of the island was vested in the Church, where it remained until 1627.    


The impregnable thirteenth century mainland fortress of Castle Tioram, Moidart, built by the MacRuaris, became the principal seat of Clanranald. It was strengthened in the sixteenth century when the walls were raised. On South Uist, Howmore became a centre of lordship and of learning of some importance which would have supported an extended kinship: the chieftain’s residence was at Howbeag, and was established at Ormicleit in the mid-seventeenth century. Notwithstanding the possibility that the date of the atrocity of 1577 may be in doubt, when it was claimed hundreds of followers of Clanranald on Eigg were suffocated in a cave by the Macleods of Dunvegan, it provides a stark reminder of the enmity that existed between the principal clans of the isles during the course of the sixteenth century. Clanranald was at war not just with the Macleods: the Macleans of Duart had invaded the Small Isles, including Canna, in 1588. Ranald, ninth chief of Clanranald, was captured on Mull by the Macleans in 1595, and was only released after a ransom had been paid. Feuding with the MacNeills of Barra was rife, and continued until at least 1610 when they had to be driven out of the south end of South Uist

Clanranald continued to suffer at the hands of the Macleods. In 1593 the grandsons assembled at Howmore upon the death of the eighth chief of Clanranald to discuss the succession, and were subject to a surprise raid. In the ensuing retaliatory attack on the Macleods the Clanranald heir, Iain Mor Moidartach, was slain, and his brother appointed clan chief. As the Macleods had failed to produce evidence of their title before the Lords of Exchequer, their lands were declared forfeit in 1598, but this failed to stem the feuding which engulfed the whole of the Hebrides until the Mackenzies subdued Lewis, overrunning the final bastion of Macleod defiance at Stornoway in 1613.


It is against this background of vengeful lawlessness that the building of the island fortress at Coroghon at the east end of Canna, overlooking the sea approaches and the expanse of water of the harbour, must be considered. It is clear from its form, and the distribution of the chambers within it, that it was never more than a defensive tower, in which the eyes and the armaments of the defenders would be trained upon the invading party. As Skene noted, sometime between 1577 and 1593, the stack upon which the tower stood, although well suited to being a place of refuge, was vulnerable for the fact that there was no available water supply in the case of a prolonged siege. He observed that it was:

….. well braid on the heicht thereof, that man may scairslie climb to the heid of the craig, and quhan the cuntrie is invaded the people gadderis thar wives and geir to theheid of the craig and defend thame selfis utherwayis the best thay may…..
It is significant that he made no mention of the castle having been built at that time. He also noted that the island had the capability of raising 20 men, and that it was by then in the possession of Clanranald.


Contemporary descriptions of Canna give an indication of its importance – and of the fact that it was an extremely valuable asset to have in one’s possession. Clanranald’s interest in the island is confirmed by a rental agreement of 1561. Dean Monro’s account of 1549 notes the existence of the parish church, and that the island was good for ‘corn, girsing (grass pasture) and fisching’, qualities that were echoed by Skene and by the cartographer Timothy Pont toward the end of the century. Macfarlane’s account of the 1590s referred to Canna as being ‘verie profitable and fertil both of corne and milk’. Tiends bound the occupants of the island to provide corn to Iona, in whose ownership the island remained. Martin Martin informs us (1695) that sailors from the island referred to when at sea as 'Tarsin', meaning 'lying across'.

An unexplained glitch in the occupation of the island at a time of change appears to have occurred in 1626 when the name of a John McLeod is mentioned, but by 1627/8 the feudal superiority passed from the Bishop of the Isles (who, in the Post-Reformation years was entrusted with the Iona’s landholdings), to the Earl of Argyll. The title implied that it was a land of plenty, in much the same terms as the early chroniclers, with mention made of houses and mills (suggesting that there could have been more than one mill). Clanranald’s right to occupy and farm Canna was confirmed by a charter granted by Argyll in 1672. As to whether the chief of Clanranald, or members of his family, ever lived on the island at this time is a matter of conjecture, but there is a reference to two brothers of the 11th chief, Ranald and John, both dying on Canna in the same year, 1636. It was the 13th chief, Donald, who is most closely associated with the island. He died on Canna, in 1686, and if he had chosen to live on the island, the conditions could have been likely to have been primitive. Donald’s exploits became the stuff of legend, and they led to the defensive tower at Coroghon being given with the title of the ‘prison’, by which name it has always been referred to by the residents of the island.


Donald, after having served with the Royalist forces at Worcester in 1651, acquired a degree of notoriety. He possessed a gun, the retort of which led to the name he was given of ‘Black Donald of the Cuckoo’. A first marriage in 1655 had been annulled on account of his involvement with the English Civil War, and a second marriage, in 1666, to Mor (or Marion) MacLeod of Dunvegan proved disastrous to the extent that Donald was seeking a divorce by 1680 for her adultery. Whatever the circumstances, her name became involved with having been incarcerated on Canna, and a century or so later the islanders would recount to the Welshman Thomas Pennant in 1772 that the chief had imprisoned her in the gaunt tower at Coroghon, unlikely now that may seem for the same reasons that the site could never have been provisioned easily. Accordingly Pennant noted in his diary:

Go on shore at the nearest point, and visit a lofty slender rock, that juts into the sea: on one side is a little tower, at a vast height above us, accessible by a narrow and horrible path; it seems so small as scarce to be able to contain half a dozen people. Tradition says that it was built by some jealous regulus, to confine a handsome wife in.


Whatever the accuracies of the story, it was repeated at will. By the end of the century the details had already been embellished. It was immortalised in Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lord of the Isles, composed after a tour on the Lighthouse Commissioners’ yacht in 1814.

By the end of the seventeenth century it had become apparent that the Small Isles were not to be spared from continuing harassment from sea raids. These had assumed a new dimension which might best be described as ‘gunboat diplomacy’. The first hint of this had come from a campaign waged on those areas showing Jacobite sympathy against the writ of William and Mary. The frigate Dartmouth set sail from Greenock in 1690 with the instructions to ‘burn the boats and birlinns’ of all sympathisers. They harried Islay, Rum, Canna and Eigg before descending on Skye.  


Equally Canna was not immune from the depredations that accompanied the Jacobite Rising of the ’45, and the aftermath of Culloden in the following year. The story is told by Alexander MacDonald, or Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, at one time Baillie of Canna who John Lorne Campbell considered ‘far the best-known personality connected with Canna historically’. He lived on Eilean a’Bhàird, the islet at the western extremity of the harbour, of which the foundation remains of the house are visible on the south west slope of the island. The involvement of the Canna men in the Rebellion is a confused story, but the strong suspicions that they had come out in support of Macdonald of Laig were sufficient for a man of war, the Baltimore, to descend on the island in April 1746, and extract revenge by destroying the possessions of the islanders. They were followed within the matter of a few weeks by the Commodore, the officers and the accompanying Hanoverian troops who were on board the vessel showed no mercy to the islanders. Alexander relayed the accounts of the atrocities to Bishop Robert Forbes for inclusion in the papers which were published eventually as The Lyon in Mourning. Alexander’s reputation was earned however, first and foremost as a Jacobite poet, with a selection of poems published in 1751 burned in Edinburgh by the public hangman for their alleged sedition. Among his most stirring compositions at around the time he was on Canna was The Birlinn of Clanranald, considered to be a poignant epitaph for the lost world of the Gaels.            

Pennant’s account of the island in 1772 – a fascinating mixture of fact, fiction and legend - is unusually detailed as a direct consequence of being confined to Canna harbour due to inclement weather. Nevertheless it left a lasting impression upon him, and the published account of his tour included an etching of Coroghon Castle by his accomplice, Moses Griffiths. He records the islands at a time of transition when tacksmen still lived there, just before improvements were to be instructed upon the arrival of Hector MacNeill. Pennant began with the customary account of an island covered with verdure, and with grazing black cattle (and horses) to behold the eye. He was not prepared for what he was to discover that the inhabitants were enduring great poverty, with the crops of corn and potatoes having failed in the previous year. The mills had gone, and grinding corn was now only possible with the laborious use of quern stones. With perception he noted the risks to their welfare from satisfying the ‘demands of a landlord, or the oppressions of an agent’ who would demand the right of servitude. Even the bounty of the sea was not available to them due to a shortage of fish hooks, but of this he realised that to attempt a fishery would require very considerable investment, not least to acquire costly fishing vessels of 20 tons, fishing tackle and paid crewhands. This was ‘past the ability of these poor people’. In 1764 Walker, in his Report on the Hebrides, had come to a similar conclusion, noting that ‘There are several Cod Banks within reach of the Island, but the Inhabitants never fish but to supply themselves’. A further deterrent which prevented the fishermen from curing fish were the punitive salt laws, which required fishermen to travel considerable distances across dangerous open water to a custom house, a problem noted by the parish minister in 1794. Salt duties were not eased until 1817, too late for the island fishermen to benefit as they possessed no capital for boatbuilding.


Pennant also noted that the manufacture of kelp was carried out on the island. Introduced to North Uist in 1735, it became a valuable source of alkali for the bleaching, soap and glass-manufacturing industries. It was a highly labour intensive activity, and was never popular among the island populations. With unscrupulous agents or lairds there would be a strong desire to encourage the population to remain on the islands, and not emigrate, in order to gather and burn the seaweed on the shore. Children, as well as the elderly, would be engaged in this miserable task. The small tenants would no longer be encouraged to manure the land with seaware, as this would compete with kelp-burning. It had the inevitable consequence that the quality of the soil, and its ability to support crops, would suffer over time. Edward Daniel Clarke in 1797 noted that ‘The lands lie neglected, and without manure….’. The manufacture of kelp would have been a primary consideration when the first land clearance took place at the township of Coroghon at the end of the eighteenth century, when the tenants were encouraged to live on Sanday. 

As early as 1786, John Knox was able to see the extent to which a captive island labour force was being exploited. The market value of kelp rose from the 1760s onwards from the interference to shipping from successive wars in Europe, from which the landowners and the tacksmen stood to make handsome profits. During the Napoleonic Wars these profits went skyward after which the bottom fell out of the market. Knox was certain to be referring to the greed of Clanranald, noting that his estates had produced 900 tons of the material in 1784, when he wrote perceptively and without fear of reprisal:


As the value of its natural produce, by sea and land, is almost wholly absorbed by the great landowners, and by many of them spent at Edinburgh, London, Bath and elsewhere; as the people are thus left more or less at the mercy of the stewards and tacksmen, the natural resources of the country, instead of a benefit, become a serious misfortune to many improveable districts.

In essence he was preparing the way for the involvement of the British Fisheries Society in Canna.

The gross profligacy of the young chieftain, Reginald George Macdonald, 18th of Clanranald, who inherited the estates in 1794 at the age of six, so constrained him that he was forced to sell large parts of his inheritance around the time of his first marriage in 1812. With the title to Canna having been secured at last in 1805, and with the price of kelp having collapsed in the 1820s, he instructed agents to place the islands of Canna and Eigg on the market at the end of 1825, the year before his second marriage took place in 1826. There is a sad irony in an article which appeared in the Inverness Journal of 15 September 1809, in which representatives of the isle of Canna attended the celebration held at Arisaig for the majority of their chief. It suggests that, despite the deteriorating circumstances of the tenants in the aftermath of Culloden, the bonds of filial affection towards the clan chief still remained strong:


At the inn, the young Chief’s health was repeatedly drank with the strongest marks of attachment to his family and person by all present…….. At six o’clock all the ladies in that part of the country assembled in the tea-rooms, and at seven the dancing commenced, which continued with great spirit (with the interval of a cold collation) till seven o’clock next morning, after spending the night with the greatest harmony, and with one voice and mutual consent agreeing to meet annually at the same place to celebrate the birth-day of the best of the Chiefs, the birth-day of Clanrannald.     

Between 1808 and 1810, around the time of these celebrations, Clanranald had earned no less than £42,000 from the manufacture of kelp from his estates. In 1799 Sarah Murray identified the causes underlying the land clearances and the forced emigration of what she termed the ‘poor tenants’. She commented astutely that ‘This is the one of the millions of mischievous works performed by luxury’

The Canna Local History Group would like to thank  ANDREW PK WRIGHT; OBE, BArch, RIBA, PPRIAS, FRSA, FSAScot.
Chartered Architect & Heritage Consultant

for his contribution to this text.

sitemap | cookie policy | privacy policy | accessibility statement