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Issue 94 - Return to Castaway Island

Scotland Magazine Issue 94
September 2017

 

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Return to Castaway Island

Visiting the isle of Taransay in the Outer Hebrides

A legacy of celebrity still surrounds the idyllic small island of Taransay, which is situated in a bay between North Harris and South Harris. This uninhabited isle was, 17 years ago, the backdrop for the popular BBC television series Castaway 2000, a programme that launched the broadcasting career of the writer Ben Fogle. So enamored of his exile was Fogle, that he and his wife Marina spent their honeymoon there. When the island came up for sale in 2011, he even tried to buy it but was pipped to the post by the current New Zealand-born owner of the Borve Estate on the Harris mainland.

In the year-long reality television series, Fogle joined a group of 36 men, women and children who were tasked with building a community on a remote Scottish island. The castaways therefore reared their own cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens, built a wind turbine and hydro-electric dam, introduced a school, erected polytunnels to grow vegetables, and lived in turf-covered eco-pods. When the series ended, in 2001, Taransay was once again depopulated. Devoid of humans, it returned to the state of tranquility for which it had been chosen in the first place. However, it had not always been so tranquil.

Evidence suggests that as early as AD300, well before Christianity arrived in the Hebrides, Taransay was inhabited by Celtic pagans. Viking invaders arrived and departed, but not much is known about what went on until 1544, when the Morrisons from Ness, on Lewis, invaded and massacred the incumbent MacLeods of Harris. Retaliation was swift from the Macleod occupants of Berneray, the nearest island off North Uist, and the surviving Morrisons were driven back into the sea.

With its crofting population in steady decline, Taransay was abandoned four centuries later. Under the ownership of the MacKay family, who by then were the owners of Harris, the isle was then tenanted between 1961 and 1974 by a family of five. Today, regular day trips depart from Horgabost Beach on Harris.

Situated in the Sound of Taransay and overlooking the beautiful sandy bay of Luskintyre, on the western coast of Harris, Taransay actually comprises two islands connected by a narrow isthmus. There are rugged cliff faces, heather covered moorlands, machair and no shortage of brilliantly white, unspoiled sandy beaches.

Once there were three settlements: Raa, Uidh and Paible. Paible had two medieval chapels, one of which was dedicated to St Taran. The other was named after Saint Keith. The cemetery at Saint Taran's Chapel was reserved exclusively for women and the burial ground at Saint Keith's for men, presumably to prevent any unseemly shenanigans after death. Mythology asserts that should this practice ever be disrespected, the deceased would rise up to re-inter themselves in the correct location.