The Isle of Canna is a small island off the west coast of Scotland, but what it lacks in size or tourist attractions, it makes up for with its diverse wildlife, rugged landscapes, fascinating history and a welcoming community. Read on for my Isle of Canna travel guide to help you plan a trip to this westernmost of the Small Isles.
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The Small Isles south of Skye are very dear to my heart. After all, the Isle of Rum was one of the first Scottish isles I ever visited. Little did I know back then, that it would be its neighbour Canna who would seal the seal for me.
Mostly free from traffic and home to a tiny community of just 16 people, that is unsurprisingly vastly outnumbered by the sheep on the island, Canna feels – at least at first glance – like a remote island paradise. And a paradise it is – but “remote”, not so much.
In fact, if you decide to sail around the Scottish isles, you couldn’t find a more central place than Canna.
I spent 4 days exploring the Isle of Canna. I walked to several of the highlights on the island and met many of its inhabitants. Even though there is not much to see, in the strictest sense of sightseeing, there is a lot to experience on Canna.
My travel guide invites you to look beyond the rugged landscape of this island, and dive into all the amazing places and people that make Canna so special. Read on for:
- A brief FAQ answering some of the most common questions about Canna
- A list of things to do on Canna to make the most of your stay
- And a travel guide with ferry information, tips for places to stay & eat, local transport options and more
Listen to my podcast story about the Isle of Canna: Of Stacks & Stones!
Where is the Isle of Canna?
The Isle of Canna is the westernmost of the four Small Isles that lie just south of Skye. The others are Rum, Eigg and Muck.
Canna lies about halfway between the mainland and the Outer Hebrides. It is surrounded by islands – Rum, Skye, Soay, Eigg, Muck, South Uist and Coll are all just a stone’s throw away.
You might also like: How to choose which Scottish isles to visit?
Who owns the Isle of Canna?
Since 1981, the Isle of Canna belongs to the National Trust for Scotland. Its previous owner John Lorne Campbell gifted the island to the trust and lived there until his death in 1996. His wife Margaret Fay Shaw remained on the island until she passed away in 2004.
Along with the island, the National Trust for Scotland owns Canna House, which houses the archives collected by Campbell and Shaw, Tighard House, which is used as a guest house, and most of the other houses which are leased out to tenants.
However, much of the day-to-day running of the farm and several community projects are run by the Isle of Canna Community Development Trust and therefore the locals who call the island their home.
How many people live on Canna?
As on writing this guide in 2022, the Isle of Canna has a population of 16 people. It is the smallest community on the Small Isles. Eigg has around 100 inhabitants, Muck has around 30 and Rum has around 40.
Do people speak Gaelic on Canna?
While maybe not everybody who lives on Canna speaks fluently Gaelic, many of the islands locals do.
How many days should you spend on Canna?
During the summer, you can theoretically do a day trip from Mallaig to Canna twice a week. Check the ferry timetable to find out more. However, that would barely allow you to scratch the surface and the time between ferries would not be enough to see the puffins or go for a longer walk around the island.
I recommend spending at least 3 nights on Canna. That said, I wish I had more time in order to spend more time with the puffins, see more of the island and get a better sense for life on Canna. You could easily fill a week on Canna.
Looking for an island getaway with more traditional things to do? Check out the Isle of Mull!
Is there internet on Canna?
Yes of course – but your mobile reception might be a bit patchy. Free WiFi is provided at Canna Cafe and the Canna Community Shop. I also had patches of Wifi at the campsite, but it was fairly unreliable.
Things to do on Canna
Visit the Black Beach and Coroghan Castle
The iconic ruin of Coroghan Castle hangs on to the side of a steep rock stack. The fortified stack sits on the eastern end of Canna and looks out towards Skye. It was built during the 16th century and possibly used as a prison for Marion Macleod in the late 17th century.
The stack overlooks a peaceful bay with black sand – also known as the black beach by locals.
The steep path up to the ruin is badly eroded and it us not safe to climb up it. The best view, in my opinion, is from the ruin of Coroghan Barn high above the bay.
Go for a swim at Traigh Bhàn
The black beach on Canna is often battered by the waves rolling in from the Minch. The white beach on Sanday, on the other hand, is a lot more sheltered and therefore a better spot for a swim in the sea.
Traigh Bhàn, which means “white beach” in Scottish Gaelic, is a sandy bay on the tidal island of Sanday. It faces north west and is therefore sheltered by Canna. On a sandy day, the water here looks almost like mouthwash – it’s so clear and blue.
To get here, cross the bridge to Sanday and follow a small sandy path behind a little shrine on the right. There are no facilities on the beach, so bring what you need and leave no trace.
PS: There is another sandy beach at the end of the road on Canna, towards the abandoned farm at Tarbert.
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Visit A’Chill and the Celtic Cross
A’Chill is the site of the earliest settlements on Canna. Little remains of it today, but the site is also home to an early Christian cross dating to the 7th to 9th century. An info board here explains a little more about the decorations on the cross and its history.
Along the way, you’ll come past the grave of John Lorne Campbell, a previous owner of the island. He died in Italy and was buried near Florence. But after 10 years, his remains were exhumed – as it is customary in Italy – and moved to this grave site on the Isle of Canna.
The tall meadows around this site are also a great place to listen for corncrakes. The bird is easy to identify due to its rough, mechanic sounding mating call. Corncrakes have become very rare on the mainland, but here on Canna you can hear several males calling for mates each summer.
To get here, follow the signposts from St Columba’s Chapel.
Visit Canna House Gardens
Canna House is the former home of John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw. Both were researchers with a passion for Gaelic songs and language. Over the years, they amassed a spectacular archive of recordings, lyrics and annotations, which is still kept at Canna House.
The House is currently undergoing important renovations and is not accessible to the public until further notice.
You can however, visit the peaceful gardens surrounding the house.
Join a ranger-led walk on the island
The National Trust for Scotland employs a seasonal ranger on the Isle of Canna who offers regular guides walks around the island.
I joined a walk to Coroghan Castle and the black beach and learnt so much about the history of the island, wildlife spotting and sustainable farming practices that protect rare bird species on the island.
Other walks include a guided hike out to the puffin colony on Sanday. More on that below.
Tour the churches
There are three churches on the Isle of Canna, which may sound a bit like overkill for such a small island – but hey.
The first you’ll notice is Rhu Church near the ferry pier (also known as St Columba’s Church). It was the first protestant church on the island and mostly served some of its previous owners – most of the locals were Catholic. Due to its oddly shaped tower, it’s sometimes referred to as Rocket Church.
The next church is St Columba’s Chapel, a Catholic chapel near the farm.
And finally, there is St Edward’s Chapel, which you will undoubtedly spot from the ferry. It’s located at the end of the road on Sanday and owned by the National Trust for Scotland. It was restored with the plans to open a study centre for Gaelic on the island, but continued water ingress makes it impossible to use the building to this day. It’s not accessible to the public, but it’s a beautiful building to take a closer look at. To get there, follow the road to Sanday until the very end.
Climb Compass Hill
Compass Hill is the iconic rocky hill high above the village on the eastern end of Canna. The rocks at the top are magnet, apparently so much so that they can shift the needle of a ship’s compass. Hence the name.
There is a faint path up the hill from the field behind the black beach. It takes about 30-45 minutes to reach the top. Aim for the radio mast and swing left to reach the top. Alternatively, stay to the right of the hill and follow the sheep trails long the cliff edge with great care. You can then swing round the right and reach the top from the other side.
From the top of Compass Hill, you can see the village and Sanday below, the Isle of Skye to the east and the Outer Hebrides faintly out west.
Explore the rugged north coast
If climbing Compass Hill wasn’t enough, continue to explore the north coast of the island.
The north coast of Canna is rugged and the foot path sometimes seemingly disappears. But as long as you keep the cliffs on your right and the hills on your left, there’s not much you can do wrong. Take great care as you cross the streams though and stay away from anything that looks like an overhang.
I considered hiking the complete coastal circuit of Canna, but quickly abandoned the idea. I covered about one mile in an hour and was absolutely knackered by the end of it. The views from the coast were magnificent tough.
Hike to the top of Canna
Instead of continuing along the coast, I actually climbed to the highest point on Canna instead. Càrn a’Ghaill is marked by a trig point and offers sweeping views of Canna and the surrounding islands.
From here, I dropped down along a faint path towards Canna Campsite, completing a loop of the easternmost part of the island.
Discover the Canna Souterrains
Had I pushed on to about halfway along the north coast, I could have visited the Canna Souterrains on the flanks of Beinn Tighe. The souterrains are two small underground chambers, dating back around 2,000 years. It is not entirely clear what purpose they served, but most likely they were used for food storage.
To get here, you don’t necessarily have to walk along the north coast. You can also follow the main road on Canna towards the farm. Take the track that leads to the campsite and continue along it until just before Tarbert. There is a vague grassy path that leads to the souterrains, but it can be boggy at times. Click here for a detailed route description.
Walk to the the puffins on Sanday
My favourite walk on the Isle of Canna is the trail that leads to the puffin colony on Sanday. This walk was what made me want to visit Canna in the first place.
The puffins nest every year on the cliffs and the sea stacks on the south coast of Sanday. To get there, follow the road to Sanday until you reach St Edward’s Chapel, and then pick up a faint grassy path to reach the cliffs. There are orange way markers pointing the way.
When you reach the cliffs, take great care as there is no barrier and a deep drop to the sea. These days, the puffins mostly nest over on the large sea stack, but if you’re lucky, they’ll come hang out with you on the cliffs. Keep your distance and leave nothing but foorprints.
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Get to know the locals
While it was the landscape and wildlife that brought me to the Isle of Canna initially, I wouldn’t have lost my heart to the island, if it wasn’t for the people.
During my stay, I met many of the people who call Canna their home. From Isebail who runs the campsite and Aileen who recently took over the guest house, to a group of artists who held a felting workshop for visitors. I met Fiona, who looks after the archive at Canna House, Catriona, the NTS ranger and the folks who run and work at Cafe Canna.
The Isle of Canna is the perfect place to strike up a conversation with just about anyone you meet.
Canna Travel Guide
Getting to the Isle of Canna
The ferry for Canna leaves from Mallaig. To get to Mallaig, first drive to Fort William and then follow the Road to the Isles out west.
You can also take the train on the West Highland Line from Fort William to Mallaig, but you most likely have to spend a night in Mallaig before your ferry, since the boat tends to leave in the morning.
Reading the time table for the Small Isles ferry is a little confusing to read – to say the least – because the ferry alternates between islands and sometimes stops at different islands along the way. Depending on these stops, it takes between 2.5 and 3.5 hours to get from Mallaig to Canna.
Please note that only locals are allowed to bring cars across to the Small Isles. There is free / donation-based parking near the ferry terminal in Mallaig. Bicycles travel for free.
On rare occasions, the big ferry gets called away and a smaller boat replaces the ferry. These smaller boats are more at the mercy of big waves and swell, so I recommend packing extra seasickness pills or remedies.
You might also like: A full guide for taking ferries in Scotland
Getting around the island
As noted above, only locals are allowed to bring cars to Canna, which makes the island virtually car-free. There are no paved roads, but a wide vehicle tracks connect the village on Canna with its tidal neighbour Sanday.
Bikes travel for free on the ferry and many visitors bring their bicycle across to get around Canna.
It’s also easy to get around Canna on foot, just make sure you pack comfortable walking shoes.
Where to stay on Canna
There are several places to stay on Canna, each offering a different type of accommodation:
Canna Campsite is – as the name suggests – a sheltered campsite on the southern slopes of Canna. There are multiple areas to pitch your tent, a modern toilet and shower block (with cold water only) and a cooking shed. The views from the campsite are impossible to beat.
There are also three glamping pods at the campsite which offer additional comfort if you prefer not to camp. Each pod also has a fire pit and a picnic table. I stayed in the puffin pod which was absolutely perfect. Breakfast baskets and sacks of firewood are available upon request. A con-operated, hot shower is available at the farm.
Canna Self-Catering offers three comfortable cottages on Sanday, a tidal island connected to Canna via a bridge. They sleep four to six people and come with fully equipped kitchens.
Tighard Guest House is a lovely B&B located in the old house of previous owners of Canna. There are three guest rooms, a speacious lounge and a bright breakfast rooms with views towards Sanday.
If you arrive on Canna by sailboat, you can moor in the harbour. For more info click here. A con-operated, hot shower is available at the farm.
Where to eat on Canna
There is only one restaurant on the Isle of Canna – but the food is amazing, you won’t mind eating there multiple times!
Café Canna lies on the shore of the beautiful island. The menu focuses on local produce as much as possible. Beef and lamb reared on the islands, fish and seafood caught in the harbour, seaweed from the shore and veggies from the poly tunnel behind Canna House. There are also vegan options.
The cafe is open during the day for lunch and light snacks, and full evening meals at night.
There are just a handful of tables inside and a few picnic tables outside. Booking in advance for evening meals is highly advised.
For anything else, head to the Canna Community Shop to stock up on staples for the food cupboard, some fresh veg & fruit and also snacks and sweeties. There is a coffee and tea station, and some shelves stocked with local art and handmade gifts. Everything is run on an honesty system. You write down what you’ve taken in the book and leave the cash in the box. You can also pay by card.
Finally, for fresh bread and homemade jams and chutneys, walk past the honesty shop by Canna Kitchen near St Columba’s Chapel.
With this detailed travel guide for the Isle of Canna nothing stands between you and an island getaway to the Small Isles.
Have you been to Canna before? Tell me about your trip and your favourite experiences below!
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