Books and Travel, Part 4: Islay and Book Festivals

The Isle of Islay was our next stop. I noted right away that they have a book festival – The Islay Book Festival (!) at the end of August. Edinburgh is festival-central in August: The Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe Festival, and the Edinburgh International Literary Festival. In 2015 we attended a King’s Singers concert at the Cumnock Tryst, a music festival in Cumnock in East Ayrshire. The organizer of that, James MacMillan, was being celebrated at the Edinburgh Festival for his 60th birthday. And there’s another book festival each year in late September, early October in Dumfries and Galloway called the Wigtown Book Festival. It’s founded is Shaun Bythell, author of The Diary of a Bookseller. (I’ve not reviewed this, but I do recommend it.) And so it goes round. On seeing the advertisements for the Islay Book Festival I started thinking it would be fun to do a northern UK book festival – and other festivals – tour one year and go to all these events.

But we were in Islay to continue our history and whisky discoveries. Islay is particular noted for its peaty whiskies, like Laphroig. But there are many others, and we had some specifics to check out. We stayed in Bowmore, which has one of the oldest whisky distilleries in Scotland. But the whole island is also noted for its peat, that source of heat that warms and flavors whiskies throughout Scotland. One night we had dinner at the Peatzeria! It was good pizza, and we loved the name.

All through the north of Scotland there are lots and lots of neolithic remains and the very interesting history of the peoples of this place which goes back to 8000 BCE. On Islay we visited Finlaggan Castle, the ancient home of the Lord of the Isles. It was a fascinating look at all the connections, especially stretched across the north of Scotland to Norway and the Vikings. On Islay there was a battle for the Lord of the Isles title between the MacDonalds and the Campbells. The Campbells eventually won and were the rulers for many centuries. The title “Lord of the Isles” is held today by HRH the Prince of Wales. Not sure he gets up there very often!

Our visit to Finlaggan led us to another fascinating place: the castle of Dunyvaig. Conveniently placed right by the Laphroig and Lanavulin Distilleries, this is an active archaeological site that is a fairly recent discovery. We walked down among the University of Reading students working there and the head of the project came up to us. He spent 45 minutes telling us the history and what all they are doing and finding. It was a fascinating time.

In between all this history, we managed to squeeze in a few distilleries! The drive out to Bunnahabhain was gorgeous, going along the NE coast of Islay with wonderful views to Jura. (Here’s another book note: Jura is where George Orwell wrote 1984!) We stopped at Kilchoman, which is a newer distillery where they do everything at the same site: peat, barley, distilling. And we went to Bruichladdich where we didn’t taste scotch, but learned about their now famous gin, The Botanist. Our tour included learning how to make two cocktails, and it was a lot of fun!

We got in on some local history as well And while we were there everyone on the island, it seemed, went to a memorial service for a wealthy German landowner, Bruno Schroder who had live on Islay for a long time. He has a large estate there, and we learned he has always been very generous in the community. When I went into the church, a cool, round church (called The Round Church!) at the top of Bowmore’s main street, I found a copy of the bulletin on the organ. It had a lot of hymns (this is the Church of Scotland!) and I found one lovely text set to the tune of The Skye Boat Song. The refrain goes:

Spirit of God, unseen as the wind,
Gentle as is the dove.
Teach us the truth and help us believe,
Show us the Saviour’s love.
-Margaret Old, 1932-2001

But back to the Islay Book Festival. The main attraction this year is Ian Rankin. I had not yet read his very popular John Rebus novels, so I took this opportunity to start. Knots and Crosses is the first one, and it is very good indeed. I’ve begun the second, Hide and Seek, which has an interesting post-publication prologue from Rankin. I’ll review this all at a later date. His Wiki article notes that he lives in the same neighborhood in Edinburgh as Alexander McCall Smith, J.K. Rowling, and Kate Atkinson. Must be the water.

My favorite journal, Slightly Foxed, has a wonderful podcast each month. This month (August, 2019) they talked about book festivals. Do have a listen!

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