We’re heading into the Celtic festival of Samhain, the beginning of the ‘darker half’ of the year, and in Lewis that means it’s time for Faclan, The Hebridean Book Festival.
Taking place in Stornoway every year around the time the clocks go back, Faclan is special in that it’s the only literary festival in the country, as far as I’m aware, to have a distinct theme.
Featuring film, the visual arts, talks and music as well as books, and bringing in writers and artists from far and wide including our own Kevin MacNeil, Faclan is on at An Lanntair from November 2 to 5 and this year’s theme is the North Atlantic, or An Cuan Siar (The Western Sea) in Gaelic.
I can’t think of a more appropriate theme for our book festival – expertly programmed by Roddy Murray, Head of Visual Arts and Literature at An Lanntair — than this one.
You can begin to describe the effect the sea has on islanders — it’s the root of some psychological edges as well as physical ones — but you will never quite get there, so profound is the power of its energy, beauty and incredible expansiveness. Look out to sea from somewhere like Cliff or Mangersta, Dalbeg or Dalmore, and you cannot fail to be inspired and restored.
The main feature picture here was taken at Ness by photographer Magz Macleod at Impact Imagz. As she says, you get wild waves there at the turn of the tide following a storm.
The sea resonates as deeply within the Hebridean — seafarers and travellers for centuries — as his or her own heartbeat.
In talking about this year’s Faclan, Roddy Murray said the North Atlantic “defines the islands and signifies vastness and isolation”.
That reveals something of his thinking behind the programme, which includes films and books on the desolation of drinking as well as the more obvious aspects such as seafaring and folklore.
There are many events I fancy, from Dr Finlay Macleod’s talk on North Rona to Amy Liptrot on her debut novel, The Outrun, about returning to her native Orkney to recover from alcoholism. The event I am most looking forward to the most, though, is Lewis writer Kevin MacNeil’s talk on the Thursday night.
I’m a big fan. How could I not be? We’re from the same town. We’re the same generation (X — it’s not all about the millennials). And he’s a slam-dunk brilliant writer. He goes before and lights the way.
Kevin’s talk, which has the added prestige of being sponsored by the Royal Literary Fund, is part of the North Atlantic Cabaret #1 and will be followed by talks with Iain Stephen, also from Lewis, and Mallachy Tallack from Shetland. On from 7 till 10pm, this is a one-ticket event with music.
Iain will be reading from his poetry anthology, Maritime, and Mallachy will be talking about his new book, The Undiscovered Islands. All islanders. And for Kevin — a Stornoway cove as well as a multi-award winning poet, novelist, screenwriter, playwright and editor — that runs deep.
“Stornoway is, and always will be, home,” said Kevin, who will also be appearing on the last night alongside Willie Campbell and Colin Macleod as part of new group Akutagawa. Hear them here… It’s a beautiful sound and I think their Faclan gig will be amazing.
With a touch of East meets West — inspired by the father of the Japanese short story and in Gaelic – Akutagawa is “about as indie as it gets” according to Willie, while Kevin described it as “just the most exciting thing”. Willie also said, and this will probably embarrass Kevin, that “he’s a bit of a genius; I think he’s incredible. I think we should be really proud of him.”
As he’s heading home, I was interested in getting some thoughts from Kevin ahead of time, on where he thinks we’re at.
“I believe we’re entering a golden age for Scottish island literature,” he said. “I edited a book a few years ago called These Islands, We Sing, which was an anthology of poems from the islands. At the time I predicted a resurgence in island prose — and that is indeed happening, with the recent success of books by Amy Liptrot (Orkney) and Malachy Tallack (Shetland) being good examples.”
He added: “I feel truly honoured to be delivering the Royal Literary Fund talk. The RLF was founded in 1790 and has offered all kinds of assistance to writers and their families, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Joyce, and the widow of Robert Burns.
“At a time when literature can seem devalued in society it is terrific that an organisation like the RLF provides humane and practical support.”
Centuries after it was set up, the Royal Literary Fund is still important today because, let’s face it, writers don’t make a whole lot of money. Unless they’re JK Rowling and even she had a hard time getting a publishing deal.
The RLF chose to give financial support to Kevin’s talk out of all the events on the Faclan programme because they were familiar with his work and “very impressed” by it.
Because it is so difficult for writers, that makes it so all the more important to celebrate them. I’m not going to try to name everyone, in case I miss anyone out, but a quick nod has to go to DS Murray — one of my old teachers — whose latest book has been published by Bloomsbury and Malcolm Mackay, who’s gone stellar in the world of crime fiction.
Roddy Murray said: “It’s interesting to look back and see that these writers achieved their status without any real infrastructure or support other than independently, off their own bats. What quite often kills a writer is that they have no outlet.
“It’s a tough game to be in and I think anyone who makes anything that passes for a career needs to be applauded for their commitment as much as anything else.
“Every generation or every writer will be influenced by the writers before. The kids who are writing today will be the people who read The Stornoway Way, for instance. In a way, every writer who achieves something is like a mountaineer who scales the peaks and shows what can be done.”
Kevin commented: “We’re all part of a continuum. It is very heartening that island writers are increasingly gaining recognition from the wider literary world. I was inspired by the likes of Iain Crichton Smith to believe I had a chance of being a writer and similarly I love inspiring others. I enjoy passing on writing skills to people of all ages and backgrounds.
“With regard to island writers I like to encourage them to push against the inbuilt cultural cringe that can so often hold us back. That others have consciously or unconsciously marginalised us doesn’t mean we have to feel less relevant. In fact, excessive humility can be a form of egotism.
“Other than that, I urge aspiring writers to remember that the fact we dream means we are inherently creative beings, even when we’re not actively trying. Having an artistic pursuit — whether writing, painting, playing an instrument or whatever — is healthy.
“In my work I’m encouraging people to light up corners of their heart and mind. I’m adamant that novels and plays and films should have something to say.”
The Faclan programme is extensive, with Scotland’s poet laureate Jackie Kay delivering what will be seen as the ‘flagship’ event on the Saturday at 7.30pm. Obviously, that’s a draw, but there are a good many other highlights, not least Wellcome Book Prize winner Marion Coutts, with The Iceberg, just before Jackie Kay.
First up, on the Wednesday, is DS Murray presenting the Islands Book Trust’s launch of Alex C Maclean’s ‘No Shame in Fear’, a first-hand account of the WW2 Atlantic convoys.
Following him is the event on North Rona, with Dr Finlay and guests, and hosted by Acair Books. This talk on the now-uninhabited island 44 miles north of the Butt of Lewis is the big event on Wednesday evening. As Roddy said: “Dr Finlay is an absolute colossus in Hebridean, Gaelic and island culture.”
Day three, the Friday, is North Atlantic Cabaret #2 and focuses on Philip Hoare, his film The Hunt for Moby-Dick and his commentary on the whale and its place in history, culture and imagination. The evening finishes with a conversation between himself and sculptor Julie Brook, who specialises in large-scale works out in the open space.
Whaling is a subject of much interest and relevance to the Hebrides as so many menfolk headed to South Georgia after WW2 and there is still to this day the remains of the whaling station at Bunavoneader in Harris. The 12-minute silent film, To Rona on a Whaler, being shown at 2pm, is an appropriate start to the day.
Saturday is Faclan’s big day with events on from 9.30am — earlier talks include a drink and a breakfast roll — and beginning with the launch of Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by former Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting.
Madeleine is followed by Amy Liptrot who has made a massive impact with The Outrun. This book — which I’m reading just now — is brutally honest as a memoir and beautifully attuned as a piece of nature writing.
It has won The Wainwright Prize for that genre and has been in The Sunday Times bestsellers list for weeks. It’s truly remarkable. If you haven’t read it, do.
My next tick will be Peter Urpeth’s piano accompaniment to Nanook of the North in the afternoon.
Peter is being accompanied on guitar by Mark Hewins, a member of Bob Geldof’s band, and this will be his fourth An Lanntair silent film commission, following Nosferatu, Vampyr and The Passion of Joan of Arc — described by Iain Stephen as “one of the most amazing arts events” he had ever attended.
It also took so much out of Peter, artistically, that he didn’t play piano again for a year.
Nanook of the North, made in 1922 and documenting the life of an Inuit, is the first official documentary ever made. And, like another film on at Faclan, The Lost Weekend with Billy Wilder, was selected for the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
In The Brilliant & Forever, Kevin MacNeil created a satire around three best friends, one of them an alpaca, taking part in an X-Factor style literary competition on an island. With all these ‘entries’ included, there were many stories within the story.
It’s a fitting metaphor for Faclan, with its many moments inside an epic tale. “You just try and make it sing,” said Roddy. “You have all these different ingredients and you put them into a narrative. You employ light and shade and bring it all to a resolution and a finale.”
To browse the full programme, go to faclan.org or pick up a brochure from An Lanntair. Alternatively, you can call the Box Office on 01851 708480.
Sponsored content: This blog post has been supported by An Lanntair. All views and opinions are entirely my own.