Prospects were few on the island. But then opportunities galore washed up

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There has been no shipwrecked cargo, no illicit haul of Scotch to warm the spirits of the islanders, but it may be the best they will get.

In Alexander Mackendrick's 1949 film Whisky Galore, a community of Scottish islanders were buoyed - albeit temporarily - by a freak blow-in that ran helplessly aground, presenting them with easy pickings. More than 50 years on, the real-life residents of Harris, on the remote Outer Hebrides, are finding short-term salvation from another cargo that has washed up on their shores.

It has come in the form of Castaway 2000, the BBC's "social experiment for the new millennium" which has involved depositing 35 adults and children on the island of Taransay, a mile off Harris's south coast.

The castaways have not been entirely dumped. While they alone make the decisions about what they do and how best to go about forging a disparate group of strangers into a community, they have received some help. They were built residential pods, they were built a communal cooking area, they were built toilets and showers, and they were told they could have weekly deliveries of food and supplies.

And that is where the locals were able to step in. Harris, like much of the Western Isles of Scotland, is one of Britain's poorest areas: unemployment hovers just below 10 per cent, and despite the efforts of local authorities there is a continuing, and potentially fatal, depopulation. "It is particularly difficult for the young people, said Morag Munro, who represents Harris on the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, or Western Isles Council.

"There is not the breadth of opportunity for them. We export a lot of our intellectuals. There is also the problem of long-term unemployment."

In this context, the arrival on Harris of production teams from the BBC and Lion TV - with a budget of around £2m to transform an island uninhabited since 1974 into the location for one of the most ambitious "doco-dramas" to hit out screens - was a blessing.

In Stornoway, the town that serves as the capital of Harris and Lewis, all manner of tradesmen were recruited to put up the buildings on Taransay. Shortly before New Year, with the deadline for completion rapidly approaching, there was barely a workman who was not involved. One joiner is said to have had his business saved because of the work.

But it is not just tradesmen; the Castaway effect has been widespread and the locals - benignly bewildered by the project - have been pleased to benefit. Hotels have been busier, restaurants fuller; the grocer who provides the castaways with their weekly supplies has been busier and even the local taxi company has seen benefits.

"When someone leaves the island or when something else happens we get lots of journalists turning up on the rank," said Kenneth Macleod, manager of Sally's Taxis.

These benefits are short term - the islanders know that the project is only to last 12 months. But there is optimism the project will have a long term benefit for the tourism industry.

"After the first episode of the programme, the council switchboard was flooded with inquiries from holiday-makers," said Roderick Murray, the council's deputy leader. "I think the programme can only be a good thing from the tourism point of view."

The interest has already been such that the council last week voted to appoint a part-time tourism officer. "Once they start screening the series again then I am sure it will advertise the place and it will increase the number of visitors that we get," said Angus Macleod, manager of the Macleod Motel. "I am pleased that this project is so close to Harris because it certainly puts us on the map."

And what about the people ultimately responsible for this gratefully received, if unintentional, boost for the people of Harris?

Yesterday, in a glorious publicity stunt for the next episodes of the programme, the cast spoke for the first time about life on the weather-battered outcrop of gneiss and granite that has become their home.

Sitting in the converted barn that serves as their communal area, the "community" claimed that everything was going remarkably well.

Sure, there had been the fiasco of Ray Bowyer, the bearded Lancashire builder who stormed off the island last month and was the subject of a farcical tabloid buy-up battle.

Sure he had drunk rather too much of his home brew on Burns Night and had a bit of a set-to with everybody else, but Ray was a "complex guy with a set of complex issues". Yeah, they'd love to have him back. Honest.

Likewise, the suggestion in the first episodes of Castaway 2000 that the community was divided, had been rather overplayed. Yes, there had been an initial disagreement when half the group refused to stay on Taransay until their pods were finished while the others huddled together in a leaky cottage. But that split had now been "healed" and they had "grown stronger" from it. They were "enjoying their differences".

No one really believes any of this of course, and yesterday as the self-selected volunteers chatted to the media, it was clear that there were tensions simmering.

While Trevor Kearon, the chirpy scouser from central casting, joked about what a great time he and the others were having, Gordon Carey - the Seventh Day Adventist who disapproves of drinking alcohol - sat looking on, his face sullen and heavy.

At another table, Ron Copsey, the trainee psychotherapist from Twickenham, west London, looked equally forlorn. "I have been told by Lion TV that I'm not to speak to the press," he explained.

But one would be amazed if this thrown-together group did get on all the time.

When the sun shines, Taransay is a beautiful place, surrounded by white sands and a springy machair on which the children run and play. There are ruins dating back 4,000 years and the island has its own herd of red deer.

But on a cold, wet winter's day, when the dark clouds blow in behind the towering Ben Raah, it must be a different story. While the castaways each have their own rooms in the residential pods, the walls are thin and there can be a lack of privacy. The toilets are equally basic; sawdust and the composting effect of worms replace ball-cock and flush.

"I don't really miss any possessions," said Peter Jowers, who has filled his pod with books, a personal CD player and supplies of fresh coffee. "I miss my daughters, the fortnightly letters drop becomes increasingly important. I am never bored - there are not enough hours in the day." Mr Jowers, 50, a university lecturer from Westbury-upon-Severn, appears to be one of the better adjusted of the group: others seem less at ease.

Philly Page, 24, a student from Manchester, appeared wearing a pair of wings.("I am an angel," she said by way of explanation.).

Patricia Prater said she had seen ghosts - possibly, she suggested, from one of the two graveyards on the island which regularly release human bones that break through the turf.

"I was sleeping in bed with the kids. I saw a white figure," she said." It was a woman in a dress - a wedding dress or a night dress. She came towards me and went straight through me. I felt a shiver then I went back to sleep."

Meanwhile, Ben Fogle, the blond superman who receives fan mail from schoolchildren on Harris, spent his time trying - unconvincingly - to deny that the island had fuelled romance.

None of this matters to the locals who have benefited from the group. While by December, many of the castaways will be glad to get home, the real residents of Harris may wish they would stay forever.