To borrow the words of one of our guest authors, Chitra Ramaswamy, “what a beautiful, warm, and genuine community book festival” it was!
We kicked off on Thursday 7 September with Lari Don, who visited all of Islay and Jura primary schools with two virtual storytelling sessions for P1-P3 and P4-P7. Lari, who couldn’t visit in person due to long Covid, made these sessions wonderfully interactive, even inspiring some of the pupils to write their own tale!
In the afternoon, renowned palaeontologist and primary school teacher Steve and Anne Brusatte delivered an exciting after-school session at MYCOS, Port Ellen, around the picture book they wrote together, Dugie the Dinosaur. On Friday morning, they brought Dugie to Keills Primary School, joined for the occasion by the pupils from Jura’s Small Isles, before continuing to Port Charlotte in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve had their own grand tour, visiting first Islay High School for a joint art/English session with a world-building theme inspired by Philip’s Utterly Dark series, before presenting the Adventuremice books they write and illustrate together at Bowmore Primary, and to Port Ellen pupils later on.
Friday was a super busy day, as both Alan Warner and Coinneach MacLeod, aka The Hebridean Baker, also visited the high school to chat about becoming a successful author after leaving school in Oban at 16 and the influence of Gaelic on their work respectively.
As for Marie C. NicAmhlaigh, she visited the Gaelic Medium Unit at Bowmore Primary for some Gaelic storytelling, skilfully using props to retain the wee ones’ attention and teach them new words.
In the evening, we had a full house for the opening event of our general programme at the Gaelic College with the Hebridean Baker. Còisir Ghàidhlig Ìle impressed the audience with a puirt à beul, followed by a beautiful rendition of Sìne Bhàn.
Martine Nouet’s questions brought forth some very entertaining answers from the now globally-famous, Lewis-born baker, and Fraser Rathbone from Jura Distillery offered both a dram and a cocktail demonstration to everyone present.
Islay bakers showed their own fantastic talents, Islay Cocoa’s Emma Goudie winning first prize in our competition with her chocolate-dipped shortbread with salted caramel, and the Islay High School students successfully raising money for their Iceland trip with delicious home bakes. A great time was had by all!
On Saturday morning, soft-spoken, mesmerising Kapka Kassabova brought tears to people’s eyes in her talk about her latest book, Elixir, when evoking the bond between the land and people, that we’re losing at our own peril. The discussion delved into foraging and herbalism, and was aptly sponsored by The Botanist, with a gin miniature offered to all participants.
Kapka was followed by Angus Peter Campbell who, as a professional actor as well as author, delivered an entertaining session around his latest novel in English, Electricity, and his translation of Orwell’s Animal Farm into Gaelic, Tuathanas nan Creutairean. Angus also talked about the need to perpetuate Gaelic culture and language in all their richness, the loss of which would be devastating for whole communities.
Gerda Stevenson, who’d delighted Gortanvogie residents in the morning with poems and songs in English, Scots and Gaelic, gave an incredible reading from her latest poetry collection, Tomorrow’s Feast. Gerda literally had the audience in stitches and teary-eyed from one minute to the next.
Laughter was definitely on the menu with Jenny Colgan, who was presenting her latest romantic comedy, The Summer Skies.
Marisa Haetzman, aka Ambrose Parry, and Sarah Smith took to the stage to discuss their respective historical noir fictions, Voices of the Dead and Hear No Evil – the latter featuring an Islay protagonist – just as the golden hour was in full glory over Loch Indaal.
On Sunday, Alan Warner answered Les Wilson’s questions about Nothing Left to Fear From Hell, his masterful book about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape via the Hebrides. The discussion about characterisation, the evocation of landscape and the use of sounds in writing was absolutely fascinating.
Chitra Ramaswamy gave an extremely moving talk about Homelands, sharing the beautiful aspects of her friendship with now 99-year-old Holocaust survivor Henry Wuga, as well as the story of her own family.
In the afternoon, Steve Brusatte gave us a quick but riveting course in deep time history while chatting about his Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs and Rise and Reign of the Mammals. Steve is a highly renowned name in his field, even working as an advisor for Jurassic World films, so it was a massive honour to have him in our midst. His event was followed by our grand raffle draw.
Meanwhile, generous Gerda Stevenson delivered an excellent poetry workshop at Ardbeg Distillery, while Philip Reeve held a session about his Utterly Dark series at the Mactaggart Leisure Centre, with the support of friend illustrator Sarah McIntyre.
The atmosphere over the four days was one of joy, enthusiasm, and bonding over the love of words and stories, which is exactly what we had hoped for. So a massive thanks to our sponsors, guest authors, chairs, volunteers, teachers and all the various people who helped us make the Islay Book Festival 2023 the fantastic event that it was. And thanks to YOU, the wonderful community who gave such a warm welcome to our authors that all of them, without exception, expressed their desire to come back to Islay before they had even left the island. We hope you very much enjoy reading their books over the next few months. See you next year!
Photo credit: Rhianna Jones