Caught by the River

A Postcard From the Outer Hebrides: TV Detective

John Maher | 24th February 2018

A tale of various shenanigans brought about by an old black and white TV.

In 2012 I visited an abandoned house on the Isle of Scalpay. Inside, I discovered the scene above. A year later I returned to photograph the exterior of the house for my Nobody’s Home series.

It was raining when I got there, so while I was waiting for the shower to pass by, I revisited the interior. The TV set had gone.

A few months later, I was walking through Tarbert, the main town on the Isle of Harris. Dumped on the pavement outside the Harris Hotel was an old television. At the time it didn’t occur to me it might be the same one I’d photographed the previous year. Seemed a shame to leave it by the roadside, especially as the screen was still intact. I loaded it into the back of my van. Maybe it’d come in handy for something one day?

A couple of days later I dug out the photos I’d taken back in 2012. It didn’t take long to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that the TV I’d photographed in Scalpay and the one I’d rescued were one and the same. Why would someone go to the trouble of taking an old TV from a derelict house, transport it across the Scalpay Bridge (officially opened by Tony Blair in 1998), and abandon it outside the Harris Hotel?

I didn’t give it another thought until the summer of 2015, when a researcher from the BBC got in touch. They were putting together a documentary about corrugated tin houses. She asked if I’d photographed any houses that fitted the bill? With its front and rear walls of rusting corrugated tin, the little house in Scalpay was a perfect match. While I was describing the house, I also told her the story of the TV; half-jokingly suggesting this could be an opportunity for me to return the old television to its rightful home. And that’s exactly what we did! The programme was aired as part of BBC Alba’s Trusadh series in October 2015.

Fast forward to January 2017: I get a call from a Daily Mirror journalist: could I put him in touch with anyone on the island who still watched a black and white TV set? He went on to explain the TV Licensing Authority had recently issued a report stating that more than 9,000 homes in the UK still have black and white TVs, and more importantly (from his point of view), the Outer Hebrides had the highest proportion of households with monochrome sets. I declined; mainly because I couldn’t think of anyone with a working black and white set, but also in anticipation of a clichéd tabloid article featuring island folk huddled around ancient TV sets and quoting snooker commentator Ted Lowe (“and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green”). But the Mirror man’s enquiry prompted me to do a little investigative journalism of my own.

The report states 0.16% of households in the Outer Hebrides have a black and white TV licence. I looked up info from the 2011 census. There are 12,579 households in the Outer Hebrides. 0.16% makes for a grand total of 20 black and white TV licences. The annual colour TV licence currently costs £147.00. Black and white is £49.50.

Back in the day when TV detector vans roamed the streets seeking out licence dodgers, trips to the more remote parts of the UK were rare, but not unknown. When they made the effort, the local bush telegraph quickly went into action.

As soon as a TV detector van set sail for the Hebrides, everyone who needed to know was aware of its imminent arrival long before the driver had downed his first pint in the ship’s bar. Islanders 20-0 Detector Van.

The final episode in this TV series of events features an unexpected plot twist…

Last summer I was introduced to the nephew of the woman who lived in the little corrugated tin house in Scalpay. He didn’t know his auntie’s house had appeared in the BBC documentary. I told him the story about the old TV set – how it had been rescued and reunited after finding it on the pavement in Tarbert etc.

“That’s odd”, he said.

“My auntie never had a television. The house had no electricity”.

Islanders 1-0 Misty-eyed Mancunian.