Literary stars to deliver online tonic for troubled times

Angus MacKinnon previews this month’s online Islay Book Festival.

Scots Makar Jackie Kay has agreed to open this month’s Islay Book Festival in a welcome filip for the event, which is being held online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alexander McCall Smith, the bestselling author famed for his uplifting storytelling and optimistic view of the world, will also help deliver a literary tonic for troubled times.

The big names’ support was described as ‘fabulous news’ by festival chair Isla Rosser-Owen. ‘Alexander McCall Smith is a global bestseller and Jackie always has something insightful and interesting to say. We’re really looking forward to hosting them and of course all the other writers taking part in our first digital festival.’

Real-time poetry writing with Kornel Kossuth, a children’s ‘How to Draw a Dragon’ session with Kate Leiper, and music from Islay Sessions regular Gráinne Brady and The Bookshop Band are also on the menu for the 27–30 August event.

McCall Smith, who has penned more than 100 books in a prolific 40-year writing career, had been pencilled in for a night at the Ramsay Hall before COVID forced the festival committee to rip up their plans. Until boat trouble thwarted his plans, if he could do so safely as the lockdown eased, the Zimbabwean-born author had been hoping to sail himself into Port Ellen to record an interview on his latest works and his love of the Scottish islands.

McCall Smith is probably best known for his ‘No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series, which has sold over 20 million copies in English alone. He has also written many children’s and non-fiction books as well as academic works about medical law.

August sees the publication of Tiny Tales, a new venture described as a joyous collection of cartoon-strip stories created in collaboration with illustrator Iain McIntosh.

Speaking of his new work and summing up his glass half-full approach, the writer said recently, ‘The tone will be upbeat, because, quite frankly, have any of us any desire to wallow in the sombre side of life at present? We must continue to be able to smile, even when things are dire.’

Organising the festival online for the first time has been challenging, but has had some benefits, notably by creating an opportunity for international engagement.

Trinidad-based Nicholas Laughlin, the editor of So Many Islands, an anthology of new writing from islands in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans, will lead some of the contributors to the collection in a discussion of how COVID has reshaped island life.

The digital format has also helped increase the accessibility of the festival’s growing Gaelic language element, given the option of subtitling on-screen events.

Award-winning bard Aonghas MacNeacail will be reading a selection of his works in both Gaelic and English while Bradan Press editor Emily McEwan and translator Mòrag Anna NicNèill will talk about their translation of children’s classic Anne of Green Gables into Anna Ruadh.

Donald S. Murray and Catriona Black, veterans of the 2018 book festival, return with a Gaelic discussion of their respective works inspired by the 1919 sinking off Lewis of the HMY Iolaire, which claimed the lives of 201 men returning from World War I to their island homes.

The still-raw tragedy inspired Murray’s award-winning novel As the Women Lay Dreaming, while Black was responsible for the hand-drawn animation Tha thu air Aigeann m’ Inntinn (You Are at the Bottom of My Mind), which will be shown after the discussion.

Truth, witchcraft and the redemptive power of words are among the subjects aired in a chat between author Jenni Fagan and our own Charlene Busalli ahead of Fagan’s upcoming publication of her third novel, Luckenbooth.

In other highlights, historian Jim Hunter will be talking about his new book Insurrection, which explains what happened when potato blight arrived in Scotland in 1846, creating the conditions for a famine winter in the Highlands and Islands, and serious civil unrest in coastal communities in the northeast of the country.

Dr Malcolm Alexander will read from and discuss his popular memoir of life as an Orkney doctor, Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. A favourite with customers at The Celtic House in Bowmore, Alexander’s book might easily have been set on Islay, he reveals.

As a frustrated young doctor working in the Glasgow suburbs, it was an advert for the then vacant GP post in Port Ellen that spurred him into doing something about his mounting sense of dissatisfaction.

As things turned out, he lost out to a certain Dr Jean Knowles for the Islay job, but he got the next one he applied for, on the tiny Orcadian island of Eday, where his book is set.

Local writer and filmmaker Les Wilson will be talking to broadcaster and author Sally Magnusson about her latest novel, The Ninth Child, and there will be two opportunities to hear from Gerda Stevenson.

The poet and singer will showcase the second edition of Quines: Poems in Tribute to Women of Scotland, as well as helping musician Freeland Barbour introduce his new biography of Carolina Oliphant. Also known as Lady Nairne, Oliphant was an aristocratic contemporary of Robert Burns who wrote some of Scotland’s most famous songs including Charlie is My Darling and The Rowan Tree, but died in anonymity.

Stay tuned to and the @islaybookfest social media feeds for more details on when and how to access the online sessions, all of which will be free-to-view with a possibility to make a donation to support the festival.

A version of this article was published in The Ileach on 18 July 2020.

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