In 2000, Rosemary Stephenson, her husband Roger and their sons Ollie, seven, and Felix, five, gave up their comfortable home in Devon to move to the uninhabited Hebridean island of Taransay. Along with 31 other castaways, they had agreed to live there as a self-sufficient community for a year. This is Rosemary's story…
It was billed as a social experiment. The BBC’s plan was to create a new society for the new millennium: a diverse group of people spending 12 months on a remote island. Roger, who’s a GP, saw an advert in a medical magazine asking for doctors to take part. Before the children were born, we’d spent a year on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic and we were thinking about our next adventure, so the ad caught his eye.
I’d also just been to a conference on home education and it struck both of us that living somewhere without a school would give me the push I needed to home educate our boys.
Choosing the castawaysAfter talking to the production team on the phone, we went to Bristol for an interview and screen test. It was a laugh, but we never imagined we’d be chosen for the show.
Soon afterwards, we were asked to attend a chaotic-but-fun selection week in Wales, where we did all sorts of crazy things such as abseiling, cooking a meal from random ingredients and learning how to make a compost loo. A former SAS survival expert called Lofty Wiseman took us off into the woods and put us through hell. We had to build a shelter to sleep in and it rained all night so we were soaked through. We also had to kill and cook a chicken. By the end of the week I’d had enough. I just wanted to go home.
When we got the call to say we’d been chosen to spend a year on Taransay, we agonised for several months before deciding to go for it. The BBC needed to create a cross-section of society that included a doctor and families, and we provided both.
A disastrous New YearWhen we arrived on Taransay for the New Year start, the place was a building site. It was a disaster. The builders hadn’t even begun the ‘eco-pod’ homes we’d been promised and the only habitable place was the old school house, which comprised one room with a leaking roof. There was only one toilet on the island, shared between the 35 castaways and the 15 builders who were living in portakabins.
It was immediately evident we couldn’t live there, so 18 of us (four of the families with children, plus some other castaways who had flu) left the island on New Year’s Day to stay in a youth hostel on a nearby inhabited island.
Despite having assured us they’d put us in temporary alternative accommodation if necessary, this turn of events was a gift for the production team and they cleverly edited it into a saga for the TV series.
We were portrayed as awful peopleWe saw the first two programmes when we were living on the mainland waiting for our accommodation to be built and quickly realised we’d been stitched up. They portrayed us as the moaning doctor and his wife, who were so precious about their children they left the island, while the castaways who’d remained on Taransay were given a great press.
We were presented in the papers as awful people. We started getting letters from friends saying, you’ve no idea what’s happening. One friend wrote to Roger saying, 'You’re the most hated doctor in the UK after Harold Shipman.'
We hadn’t realised the extent to which the BBC would manipulate the story. I’ve worked as a journalist and when we were trying to decide whether to take part in Castaway I was worried about the possibility of events being sensationalised. I hadn’t realised how quickly we’d become the focus of attention, purely because we were willing to be articulate about what was going on.
We did wonder about leaving at this point but we kept giving it another week and we quickly formed strong bonds, especially with most of the other families. All the kids got on really well.
Moving to TaransayAfter four weeks, our accommodation was ready, but there weren't enough pods for everyone, so Roger, the boys and I opted to live in one room in an ancient, dilapidated farmhouse. (It was more cramped than the pods, so no-one else wanted to live there.) We couldn’t take many possessions to the island and each castaway had to cram everything into a crate measuring one cubic metre. We were also allowed one luxury item. I decided to take an armchair, which was a really good choice. Roger took a piano!
It’s hard to imagine now, but our lives quickly became very full as we worked to become as sustainable and self-sufficient as possible. From the start, I loved the simplicity of life on the island. Everything revolved around the basic necessities: keeping warm, having enough to eat and entertaining and educating the kids.
Getting enough wood to keep the fires going was very time-consuming. As Taransay is the first landfall from the Atlantic, every beach is covered in driftwood. The island had been uninhabited since the 60s, so nobody had picked up any of the wood and we spent the summer gathering it up. We also dug peat to burn. We weren’t supposed to but fuel and money were in short supply and Roger suggested we collect it to fuel our second winter.
Caring for the animalsWe were given chickens, sheep, cows and pigs. I was on the chicken ‘team’, which meant being part of a rota to clean out their houses, feed them and collect the eggs. There was also a cow team who did the milking twice a day and a pig team in charge of feeding the pigs. The sheep looked after themselves, but some people learnt how to shear them in the summer.
We also had the slaughtering team, led by Colin the butcher. I forced myself to witness a pig being slaughtered, which was quite distressing. I had expected living so closely with the animals I ate would turn me into a vegetarian. But I actually felt better about eating meat that came from our own animals, which I knew had been well cared for, humanely killed and where nothing went to waste.
Feeding 35 on a budgetWe’d been given £60,000 to spend on food, fuel and everything else we needed for the whole year. Every fortnight we’d order what we needed to be brought over on a boat from Glasgow. If the weather was bad, which it often was, the food delivery was delayed, which could be quite hairy.
We cooked in teams, so once a week you’d spend a whole day cooking. Growing the vegetables was very satisfying: after a few months we became self-sufficient in fresh produce. We’d go out and pick masses of veg and make a huge soup or pasta bake.
I loved working in the kitchen and the process of producing loads of food. I’d make eight loaves of bread before nine o’clock in the morning without thinking about it.
As a community, food was one of the things we succeeded at: we ate very well. I loved the fact that I could cook for 35 and not bat an eyelid. I’d never done that before and haven’t since coming home.
An island educationIt was a unique environment: there were only eight children and we had to home educate them, so the parents created a little school. It was fairly shambolic, but it worked.
I found it hard to create and keep some sort of structure. It was very laid-back. We’d wander in at 10 o’clock and start doing stuff with the kids. If it was a sunny day, we’d go for a walk or play on the beach just outside the school house.
It was interesting seeing the children create their own entertainment. They complained less about being bored on Taransay than they ever have before or since. Somehow they just became more contented. They could wander around and there was always somebody to talk to and something going on. They became more resourceful, built a lot of dens and enjoyed just fiddling around.
I really stepped outside my comfort zone: I’d never, ever have attempted to home educate the children if I hadn’t done it on Taransay. It gave me the confidence to try, but it didn’t work as well when we came home to Devon. Without the community, when it was just two of us, it was much more difficult.
Challenges of Castaway lifeLiving on Taransay was like camping for a year, but worse. It’s amazing how you adapt to challenging living conditions.
The purpose-built pods in which most of the castaways lived were beautiful semi-circular structures, with turf roofs and large windows, but very basic inside – just a bare wooden space, with a mezzanine sleeping floor. They had little wood burners and electricity supplied by wind/hydro power, but no running water.
The compost loos, wash basins and showers were in a communal block, 100 metres away, so going to the loo on a windy night was a challenge. People tended to use bottles in their pods or literally piss into the wind! Like most of the physical discomforts, I quickly got used to using the compost loos. The tricky thing for the girls was that you had to wee and poo into different containers (too much urine spoils the composting process). The only thing I never got used to was the task of ‘stirring’ the massive pile of poo, which you had to do with a very long stick when on cleaning duty. It was grim, but essential for the composting process.
Although it was small, our room in the old farmhouse had the advantage of a flushing loo (which was popular with the other castaways) and (cold) running water. Privacy wasn’t a problem for our family, but there was a lack of space to be on your own. Particularly in the winter, when there was nowhere to go to be alone that was warm. We couldn’t keep our bedroom warm all day because there wasn’t enough fuel. The only place where there was always a fire was the communal room.
It’s not that cold on the island, but it is damp and extremely windy. We wore thermals all the time, with loads of layers on top.
You couldn’t wash very often. Getting hot water involved first getting the fire going and heating the water. Having a shower became an event. You’d have to think, tomorrow, we’re going to light a fire in the morning and do some washing; then we can have a shower.
It seems odd now to think of only showering once or twice a week, but it soon became normal. We didn’t notice how other people smelt at all. Halfway through the year, my sister came to visit. Diplomatically, she commented on how dirty – but well – the kids were looking. I hadn’t realised how grubby they were: their faces and necks were ingrained with dirt.
Learning to live togetherFor me, living on Taransay was an emotional and psychological challenge rather than a physical one. It was physically uncomfortable – you had to live in one room and it was cold – but you get used to that very quickly.
Relationships were difficult. People were always falling out. We argued about everything from whether we should buy butter or margarine to who was or wasn’t doing enough work. The greatest source of conflict was over the ethos of the project: what we should or should not be allowed to do as castaways. For example, opinion was divided on whether we should be able to procure 'contraband' such as alcohol and cigarettes from locals on the mainland. I had no problem with people doing this, as it was just part of castaway life: using your initiative to get what you need.
Of course, everyone was there for a different reason, with their own personal agendas – ranging from simply having a gap year, to genuinely wanting to discover a new way of life, to starting a new career on television. You had to negotiate your way through the arguments and try to stay sane in a very intense environment, which was made much more intense by the fact that you were being filmed. In that environment, you really discover your inner resources. Those who could maintain a sense of humour found it much easier to survive.
I feel very nostalgic about our year on the island. I tend to blot out the bad parts and just remember the best bits. It was an amazing experience for our family because we were together all the time.
Coming homeSome people had become so attached to Taransay and our way of life, they found leaving the island very hard. We were really pleased to come home, though. By the end, I’d had enough.
It was wonderful to have my kitchen to myself again after a year. That was the worst thing about communal living: sharing a kitchen and the constant chaos. I loved having control of my own space again.
One of the best things about coming back was being able to go somewhere on my own and be comfortable… and warm! It was fantastic.
It’s hard to say whether the experience has had a lasting effect on the boys. A few years after Castaway, Ollie’s geography teacher said to me, "You can tell he’s lived in a wild landscape." I think that must be because of his understanding of different geographical features. When you live on a very small island, you spend an awful lot of time walking around it. The kids got to know the island so well. Every rock had a name. They also became really in tune with the weather as our lives were dictated by it – not just whether it was good enough to play on the beach but whether there was enough rain for our crops and wind to make electricity.
Beyond CastawayLiving on Taransay for a year is the most extraordinary thing I’ve done in my life and I don’t think I’ll ever do anything as incredible again.
We’re still in regular contact with about half the castaways. There’s an unspoken bond between us. We’re all very different, but we have an understanding that is very interesting. We all know that when we meet up, even in 10 years’ time, we’ll still have a connection. It’s very powerful, there’s nothing like it. Because we’re the only ones who really know what that year was like.
Update...We’ve had two reunions so far. A few of us met up on Taransay in 2003. Our son Jamie was conceived on the island, so he’s our Taransay baby.
When people ask me whether Castaway changed my life, I say, well, I had another baby, which I wouldn’t have done if I’d been living in the real world. On Taransay, I had the time to think, I’m nearly 40, do I want another baby or not; it’s now or never. Being slightly detached from reality made it a lot easier to make the decision.
More recently, in 2010, 30 of us went back, with new partners and children who’d been born since the programme. This picture is of our youngest, Jamie, with Felix and Ollie on Taransay. We recreated the best bits, but there were no cameras. We did a lot of reminiscing; it was an amazing week. Even Ben came for 24 hours, although he was on his mobile phone for a lot of the time.
Going back felt like going home. The feel of walking on the spongy machair grass, which is indigenous to the Hebrides, was so familiar. We even recognised certain rocks and stones, because we knew the island so well. I expect we’ll have another reunion in 2020.
Some of these photos are Rosemary's. Many thanks also to castaway and photographer/film producer, Philiy Page, for her stunning shots. See more of her work here.
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