Flipping that question on its head, what’s your least favourite thing about owning the island?
The charms of being remote and inaccessible has an obvious flip-side encapsulated in one word: logistics. And that translates into expense. Every material has to be taken over, and refuse has to be taken off. Boats are always susceptible to wear and tear. And the Atlantic weather system can mean you start a project, but then cannot get across to complete it as planned. So we make-do as well as we can, and always remain humble about the weather and the ocean.
With 2020 turning out the way it did, was it reassuring to know you had an island to escape to in the form of Taransay?
It was always good to have this in the back of the mind.
We are London-based, so when the pandemic hit, we did consider de-camping to Taransay, to live on venison and lobster! But in the end, we decided that we did not want to put any further pressure on the services of the outer islands and our neighbours in the community there.
“When you are over there, the pandemic seems very distant, and so you can have a bit of a mental reset”
We felt that to go would be irresponsible, and so we decided to stay put in the south. We did make it up during summer, when the lockdown relaxed, and did enjoy some very genuine self-isolation on Taransay. And it must be said, when you are over there, the pandemic seems very distant, and so you can have a bit of a mental reset.
When you are in the middle of the biggest city in the UK in the middle of a global pandemic, the thought of one day getting back to Taransay is certainly something that has kept us going.
Can you tell us about the rewilding project and what that involves?
Our long-standing tenant farmer decided to take off his sheep in late 2019, and so this compelled us to look closely at what our vision was for Taransay.
It is Britain’s largest uninhabited island, but has only four mature trees on it, after years of overgrazing by sheep and deer. So we sought the advice of various ecologists and wildlife experts, and decided to see how we could restore the island’s flora and fauna.
“It is Britain’s largest uninhabited island, but has only four mature trees on it”
We want to get trees established, to reduce the size of the deer herd, and to see what other herbivores we can introduce to do some grazing. We have real interest in birds, and Taransay already has several pairs of Golden and Sea Eagles, so it is already quite spectacular. The wonderful thing is that this is a contained ecosystem, with no adjoining properties, so I suppose the aim is to let Mother Nature get on with it, with some help along the way.
With Scotland known for its legalised wild camping, have you had to deal with any backlash over the years for your decision to buy the island? What’s your response?
We agree with the principles of the right to roam – under which people in Scotland can wild camp and can access private land for their own personal enjoyment – as long as they respect certain simple rules.
We are not of the ‘get orrff my land’ school of landowners, and it would be mean-spirited (as well as illegal) to attempt to forbid access. Our only real request is that people respect the environment and don’t leave a mess for us to clean up, and it has to be said that those intrepid enough to get over to Taransay, by yacht or kayak, tend to be respectful of the great outdoors and leave a very small footprint.
“Our only real request is that people respect the environment and don’t leave a mess for us to clean up”
So the straight answer is, no, we haven’t had any trouble over this at all, either actually or philosophically, and we support the right to roam. In fact, we do have plans to start offering day trips to Taransay next summer with reduced rates for local people, so this will be a way that people can easily get across to see the place for themselves.
I will say that private ownership comes also with responsibility and, sometimes great, expense in terms of caring for the land, its wildlife and its history. So as well as the privilege of what we see as our stewardship of Taransay, there also comes the harder parts of that responsibility.
How important is tourism to this part of Scotland? Do you see UK travel making a comeback this year, as things start to open up?
It is a big source of revenue, and Harris has significantly changed in recent years, with the growth of tourism, as word has gotten about that it is such a wonderful landscape.
There has been a real and obvious leaning towards wanting to holiday in remote and unspoilt areas (especially so in the pandemic) and this has benefited Harris economically, though of course the pandemic has hit the tourism sector hard to date.
It has meant the growth of a self-catering sector in particular, and a rise in real estate prices, which has caused some friction amongst those of the community who are not getting direct benefit. It has made home ownership more difficult for local people, especially those without a stake in the tourism sector.
“There are so many examples of landscapes lost to development, and given that Harris is one of the most pristine places left in Europe, we should guard against this”
Many things have improved generally, and my view is that we should look closely at the form of tourism we need on Harris, and maybe consider high income/low-impact models that have succeeded elsewhere, and see if we can make these work alongside the very real local considerations.
There are so many examples of landscapes lost to development, and given that Harris is one of the most pristine places left in Europe, we should guard against this to protect the islands and the islanders so that all future generations can also benefit, as well as enjoy.
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