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Leading writers have hailed Islay Book Festival as a wonderful experience ‘that opens Islay up to the world’ after record attendances made this year’s event the biggest yet.
Locals and visitors alike squeezed into 11 venues across the whisky island and neighbouring Jura to hear from 19 different authors.
The Thursday-Sunday sessions ranged from sea-themed storytelling and singing in the cosy confines of An-Tigh Seinnse, a fishing village pub in Portnahaven, to a discussion of forensics in fiction at the Bowmore Gaelic College featuring top crime writer Lin Anderson and real-life soil expert Professor Lorna Dawson.
‘This year’s event was exceptionally big due to additional events we put on for the First World War centenary commemorations but what was really cheering was that average turnout across the sessions was up by about a third on last year,’ said Isla Rosser Owen, chairwoman of the volunteer-run festival’s organising committee. ‘There were a few places where we had to scramble to find extra seats but that is a nice problem to have.’
Prominent poet and writer Donald S. Murray led tributes to the 12th edition of a festival that has grown from modest roots in a Port Ellen book club.
‘It has been a wonderful experience,’ Murray told the Oban Times. ‘I loved the variety of venues and the fact it was not just fixed in one place, because I think that means you involve more people. The more the world operates in ripples the better.’
Murray, who was presenting his latest work, The Dark Stuff: Stories from the Peatlands, underlined the importance of having festivals such as the Islay Book Festival across the Highlands and Islands.
He added: ‘It enables people to discuss their own issues, it allows debate, it allows people to understand things that are happening to them. The world opens up to Islay and Islay opens up to the world.’
Ciara MacLaverty, a poet who was one of eight authors who visited six schools during the festival, described on her blog the joys of wandering around Portnahaven ‘as moonlight fell on sugar-cube houses, and seals coughed and cavorted in the velvet dark of the bay’.
MacLaverty lived on Islay as a teenager in the 1980s, when her father, the acclaimed writer Bernard MacLaverty, was a teacher at Islay High School. Fondly remembered, their return to the school and a father-daughter conversation in Bowmore’s famous Round Church were among the highlights of this year’s event.
More than 100 people packed the pews to hear MacLaverty senior recount how he embarked on full-time writing after he was refused a sabbatical from teaching to allow him to finish his novel Cal.
‘It was a gamble,’ MacLaverty recalled, ‘I had to look into the future and ask “can you put cornflakes on the table for the next four or five years?”‘
The gamble paid off with Cal quickly being adapted into a successful film of the same name starring Helen Mirren, with Bernard’s soon-to-be wife Madeline having to borrow a dress to fly from Islay to attend the Cannes film festival. Three decades later, the writer returned to Bowmore on the back of rave reviews and a string of awards for his latest novel, Midwinter Break. ‘It is 32 years since we left and the wonderful thing is Islay people still say to you, “oh, you’re home for a while”,’ he said.