Press release: Ian Rankin to headline Islay Book Festival in boost for booming whisky island

Image: Hamish Brown

Image: Hamish Brown

It is a trip Ian Rankin’s most famous creation, Inspector John Rebus, would love to be making!

The bestselling master of crime fiction, well known for his love of single malt, is headed to Scotland’s whisky island this summer for the 2019 Islay Book Festival.

Currently on a US book tour and having a break from novel writing, Rankin said the trip would be “a bit of a pilgrimage”. It is also a major coup for the island event, which runs August 29-September 1, and for Islay’s fast-growing tourism and whisky-anchored economy.

Other literary stars bound for the Hebrides include Scotland’s Makar, or poet laureate, Jackie Kay, and novelist Karen Campbell, who will be presenting one of 2019’s most keenly-awaited releases, The Sound of the Hours, a World War II drama set around Barga, the Tuscan town to which many Scots Italians can trace their roots.

Popular children’s author Philip Reeve, creator of the widely acclaimed Mortal Engines series that Peter Jackson helped adapt into a 2018 blockbuster film, will be accompanied to Islay by his long-time collaborator, award-winning author-illustrator Sarah McIntyre.

Eminent historian Sir Tom Devine has agreed to discuss his major new work The Scottish Clearances on an island that has been profoundly marked by depopulation and emigration, and former Masterchef winner Sue Lawrence will be demonstrating her cookery skills, as well as discussing her upcoming historical thriller Down to the Sea.

For Rankin, the trip will mean walking in the footsteps of his late friend and fellow writer Iain Banks, who spent time on Islay while researching his acclaimed whisky travelogue Raw Spirit.

“I’ve been a long-term fan of (Islay malt) whiskies like Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Caol Ila,” Rankin told

“With Rebus it depends on who’s buying. If someone else is buying he’ll go for an expensive malt but if he is buying himself he tends to go for the cheaper stuff. But he has always got a couple of good bottles at home and last thing at night he does that thing that I do as well after a hard day’s writing, which is have a whisky or two and relax.

“Bowmore was my dad’s favourite whisky. He is no longer with us, alas, but I used to get him a bottle for his birthday. So there’s definitely going to be a bit of a whisky pilgrimage going on when I go over to Islay.

“If you are a Scottish writer who likes whisky, you know that wherever you go, Iain Banks got there first when he was writing Raw Spirit. He basically got to drive round all the distilleries and a lot of us were kicking ourselves wondering, ‘Why didn’t we think of that first?’”

Islay Book Festival is a volunteer-run community event that emerged from a local book club in Port Ellen. First staged in 2006, it was relaunched by a new team in 2017.

This year the festival has been moved from the end of September to the end of August to capitalise on the busy summer season. Organisers are hoping that the new dates will tempt Edinburgh Festival goers to tack on a trip to Islay following the introduction (in March 2019) of direct Loganair flights from the capital.

Loganair’s move was a vote of confidence in tourism and business on Islay following recent expansion of the island’s top-end accommodation and the ongoing boom in single malt production.

Islay is home to eight working distilleries, all of which have substantially increased production in recent years, and the total could rise to 12 over coming years.

A ninth producer, Ardnahoe, has already been built and planning approval is being sought by Diageo for a new distillery at Port Ellen, on the site of one closed in the 1980s, and by Elixir distillers for another one called Farkin, just outside the village. Another boutique distillery has been approved at Gartbreck near Bowmore, but that project is currently stalled.

The Machrie Hotel reopened in 2018 as a luxury golf resort after a multi-million pound investment in the previously dilapidated building and famous links by Gavyn Davies, the former governor of the BBC, and his wife Baroness Sue Nye, Gordon Brown’s former political secretary. The hotel is operated by Campbell Gray Hotels, an international boutique chain run by Scot Gordon Campbell Gray. 

Islay House, the historic mansion where Margaret Thatcher stayed on visits to Islay, and the Islay Hotel in Port Ellen have undergone similar reincarnations.

Islay House’s conversion from private home to luxury hotel was completed in 2016 and the Islay Hotel, a burnt-out shell a decade ago, has been catering for well-heeled visitors since 2011.

At the 2018 Islay Book Festival, headlined by author Bernard MacLaverty, more than 830 attendees heard from 19 authors at 11 venues ranging from pubs to care homes.

Key goals of the charity include fostering a love of reading among children, providing a platform for Islay’s Gaelic culture and heritage and giving islanders of all ages access to inspirational storytellers and their work.

Anyone wishing to come to Islay for the festival will be able to book event tickets in advance at The island is a 2-hour Caledonian MacBrayne ferry journey from Kennacraig in Kintyre, which is a 2.5-hour drive from Glasgow. There are direct flights from Glasgow with Loganair, which is introducing a direct Edinburgh-Islay service in March.

Press enquiries: Angus MacKinnon 01496 300444 or 07871084808