In the Land of Canna

Published: June 24, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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I rarely comment about ethical lapses that happen outside the United States, but this one’s unique.

The small island of Canna, off the coast of Scotland in the Hebrides, is a stunningly beautiful and tranquil place with a population of just 19 adults and four children. It is also a place that faced its first case of dishonesty in 50 years.


Britain’s Telegraph writes (June 16), that “a thief made off with £200 (approximately $318) of goods from the village shop, including six hand-knitted bobble hats… The esoteric haul, which included biscuits, batteries and toiletries but not money, was taken overnight from the only shop on the island, which is owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

“The shop is often left open overnight to allow sailors and fishermen to use internet facilities and make themselves a cup of tea. Visitors can purchase goods at any time, making a note of what they have taken and leaving their payment in an honesty box. Islanders said there had been no thefts since the 1960s, when a carved wooden plate was stolen from the church. Bill Clark, the island’s councilor, blamed the theft on tourists but the police have not ruled out islanders.”

With a total population of 23, how difficult could it be to find out the identity of the thief, if in fact, it was an islander?

“Either way, the culprit could hardly have made a speedy exit. There are no flights to the island while the ferry to the mainland takes two and a half hours and only runs twice a week.

“Only one family – the MacKinnons – has lived on Canna for several generations. The current generation owns crofts, or smallholdings, on the island and farms the land owned by the National Trust. Other residents run the guest house or work for the trust as harbor masters, estate workers and tour guides. When a new family moved to the four mile-long island last year, the school was reopened and a teacher recruited to take lessons for the four children.

“But the population temporarily swells during the summer months as up to 400 tourists at a time call on cruise liners and yachts line the harbor.

“There were 17 yachts and a fishing boat at the pier before the theft on Friday night, and police want to speak to anyone with information about the boats.

“Julie McCabe, who runs the shop, said she was ‘absolutely floored’ by the robbery, which could force the shop to close.

“ ‘We are thinking about putting CCTV (closed-circuit TV) in, but we don’t want to do that because it goes against the whole honesty idea,’ she said. ‘When you live on a small island like this you have to trust your neighbor and everybody round about.’

“The island was given to the National Trust by its then owner, John Lorne Campbell, a collector of Gaelic literature, in 1981.

“Steve Callaghan, the trust’s assistant director for countryside and islands, said the theft would dishearten a ‘fragile community.’

“ ‘It is horrendous,’ he said. ‘I admire the community for the endeavor of creating that shop at the harbor with an honesty box system and a good range of produce. It is shocking that an individual chose to abuse it in that way.

“ ‘Anything between two or three dozen yachts moor off Canna on a regular basis – it would be quite difficult to identify a culprit. It was just an opportunist.’ ”

While most of us strive to act out of our highest aspirations, there will always be people who lie, cheat, steal, terrorize, murder and bring about war. It’s a sad part of humanity’s history. But we should never use those acts to justify our own disobedience or cynicism.

South African leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu said, “hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

My hope is that the 23 permanent residents of Canna will continue to act out the Golden Rule, believing in the best we can be.


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