Lucy Irvine is best known as author of the best-seller Castaway, based on her extraordinary experiences on a remote tropical island. The book was made into the film Castaway in 1986 directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe. Now in her sixties, after a tumultuous career, she’s settled down to work she loves: helping animals in need, in rural Bulgaria.
Born 1956 in London to a conventional English mother and unconventional Scottish father, Lucy attended school only occasionally after aged 11 and left full time education aged 13. She began to earn at 14, her first jobs including cleaning, pet and childcare. After contacting author of The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris, she found work in a zoo as a monkey keeper, a job which piqued her interest in observing both animal and human behaviours.
At 16, Lucy spent 6 months hitch-hiking abroad, usually alone. During these travels she experienced sharp contrasts of treatment: she was raped in Greece, but kindly taken in by strangers, to recover. In Israel she sold blood to cover lack of funds and worked in a soldiers’ outpost village for bed and board.
Back in London, Lucy’s family was in the throes of divorce.
To counter her minimal education, Lucy read constantly and joined Mensa. She moved to Scotland where her father had ‘escaped the rat race’ to pursue self-sufficiency, rearing cows, goats, pigs and sheep and growing produce, to serve what became an exclusive hotel.
Lucy ran a café adjacent to the hotel, living in a caravan between magnificent mountains and a rugged seashore. She found joy in the companionship of her dog and a sturdy Highland pony, who carried her bareback to lochs where she fished alone.
Lucy was back on the road after a couple of years, taking up work wherever she found it – as a gravestone engraver’s assistant, an artists’ life model, caretaker of a remote French property, boat painter.
1981 found her in a bed-sit near Kew Gardens, where she walked at night. She was earning her living at that time as a clerk for the Inland Revenue by day, and a topless waitress by night. Restless, she sought a personally challenging experience and found it when she spotted an advert stating:
Lucy’s year on tiny Tuin island, in the Torres Strait near Papua New Guinea, was, she says, the most educational experience of her life. To get there, she had to marry a man she hardly knew, and the pair could have died due to lack of water, if indigenous people from other islands had not helped them. But Lucy also loved Tuin and its life lessons. She taught herself to dry shark, sea-fished to survive and gathered native plums, turtle eggs, edible shells and passion fruit.
She also learned much about a human culture dramatically different to her own.
The full story is told in Castaway which shot Lucy, a very private person, to unexpected fame. She toured the US, Australia, South Africa and Europe, appearing on TV and radio. Schools sought her out and she spoke at the Royal Geographical Society. Lucy’s second book, Runaway, describing the years which led up to her castaway experience, was also a bestseller, but by now expecting her first baby, Lucy sought a quiet life in a Scottish Highland cottage.
The years of raising 3 boys, by two fathers, were both magical and difficult as Lucy, ever the loner, resisted sharing equal care and struggled to continue writing. She was granted a prestigious Fellowship to finish a novel but in the mid 90’s her writing career went on hold. Further troubled times followed, when a spinal injury requiring surgery incapacitated her for almost a year.
Her life then took a dramatic upturn when an Englishwoman who had lived on a remote coral island for forty years, asked Lucy to write her story. Supported by a spinal brace, Lucy learned to paddle a kayak in chilly Scottish waters and was soon packing for the far Outer Solomon Islands, where she was to stay for over a year with two of her sons, paying her way as weekly diarist for the Sunday Times Magazine.
On her return to Britain Lucy rented a cottage on a small Scottish island, from which her younger children commuted to school by boat. Once their schooling was complete, Lucy sought a piece of land to call her own where she could finally settle. She found it in Bulgaria.
A conventional expatriate life, with a renovated house in a peach orchard, ended less than 2 years later, when her home burned down while she was walking her dogs one morning.
While camping in the ruins she came into contact with the local Roma community – and with the thin, overworked horses they drove into her yard to carry away scrap iron and debris from the fire. They brought mange-ridden dogs, too, and kittens with injured eyes, which Lucy learned to treat.
Thus her work with the Roma and their animals began, gradually expanding to include a purpose-built haven for horses.
Her house remains a ruin, and today she lives in a caravan filled with rescued cats and surrounded by rescued dogs and horses. The Lucy Irvine Foundation Europe, LIFE, is the culmination of her work.
Great Lives. BBC Radio 4 July 2019
Lucy Irvine, whose year spent on a desert island with the writer Gerald Kingsland inspired the film Castaway, nominates Robinson Crusoe, seconded by the journalist Martin Popplewell, who has also experienced life on a desert island. As much as it is about the fictional Crusoe (and his creator, Daniel Defoe), this edition of Great Lives is also about the experiences of Irvine, who is calling from a caravan in rural Bulgaria “surrounded by rescued horses”, and Popplewell, who was inspired to sample island life by the film The Blue Lagoon. Both agree that the 28 years Crusoe spent on the island would have made them insane. Matthew Parris presents.