Arguably the most remote of all the Inner Hebrides, Canna and Sanday feel like a reward for those who take the time to travel there. Joined by a bridge, the two islands share a community and are most often referred to as a single entity, Canna.
Unspoilt and impossibly beautiful, Canna is structured like a tiered wedding cake with bands of basalt columns separating plateaus where the sheep and cows graze. These lush, green fields run down to the coastline, where there are towering sea stacks and secluded coves.
At low tide it is possible to walk across the sand between the two islands, but there has been some form of connecting bridge since the late 19th century. Canna is the larger of the two islands and currently houses more of the population, although this has not always been the case.
Peace, wildlife and scenery are many people’s reasons for coming to the Hebrides and it’s hard to find anywhere better than Canna for these things. The lime-based basalt columns form many of Canna’s towering cliffs and rocky protrusions. Healthy white cheviot and unusually tall, brown zwartble sheep graze on remarkably green grass along with two types of cow: Aberdeen Angus and the visitors’ favourite Highland cattle. Excluding rabbits, of which there are plenty, wild land mammal species are limited. There are, however, otters and several colonies of grey seals.
Between June and September, enormous basking sharks can sometimes be seen from the shore and the very luckiest of people might spot porpoise, dolphin and even occasionally killer whale. More (seasonally) reliable are the seabirds, particularly puffins, kittiwakes, shags, guillemots and razorbills, all of which nest on the islands. There is also a nesting pair of golden eagles and a pair of sea eagles, as well as peregrine, long-eared owls and numerous other species.
What to see and do
With sailing boats bobbing on the water and views across to Sanday, and backed by two churches (and a third across the water), Canna Harbour must be one of the most picturesque in Scotland, and a wander around it is an inevitable part of any visit.
The harbour’s first landmark is the rounded, brown-stone Rhu Church, built in the early 20th century as a memorial to the previous owner of the island, Robert Thom, and aptly known as the Rocket for its cylindrical, pointed spire.
Following the road north and then west around the harbour, you’ll first pass the shop and Canna Café, before seeing a gate leading to Canna House. Canna’s obvious ‘Big House’ was built around 1863 by Donald Macneill and was later home to Canna’s last private owners, the historian and folklore scholar John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret. The house is currently closed to the public, but visitors are welcome to explore the gardens (free).
A further 550yds past here is the small, white Change House, built in the late 18th century and still inhabited today; here you’ll also find the island’s phone box and post office. Another 220yds west will take you to the old mill stone and St Columba’s Chapel; the latter had a short interlude as the post office before being returned to a religious building.
At just 0.71 square miles, Sanday is only a sixth of the size of Canna, with much of the western end of the island designated as crofting land. Even if you only have time for a flying visit, the beautiful sandy beach, Traigh Bhàn, makes a trip across the bridge worthwhile. The beach is hidden behind the sand dunes and rocks just a couple of hundred metres to the west of the bridge. In spring, the hill behind the beach is colourful with wildflowers.
The east side of Sanday is accessed by the coastal road, to your left after you cross the bridge, which runs as far as St Edward’s Church. This Roman Catholic church was built in 1890, after the Clearances on Canna, when there was a much larger Catholic community on Sanday. It was also used by visiting fishermen from Barra and Eriskay, but has always had problems with damp and has now fallen into disrepair.
Heading southeast along the stone wall from the church will take you to the southern coast. This is the quiet end of the island and a wonderful place to see seals among the skerries and wading birds, such as lapwings with their slow irregular flight and wailing call. Rùm dominates the views from here.
From here, follow the coast anticlockwise until you reach the spectacular grassy, flat-topped sea stacks of Dùn Mor and Dùn Beag. From the end of April to July there are puffins nesting here, but other seabirds such as guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills and shags can also be seen.
Following the coastline north and then west, you’ll pass the small lighthouse and then a couple of secluded coves. Don’t forget to look out to sea, as there are good chances of seeing basking sharks during the summer months.