Islay Folk

I’ve been so busy writing for my course, haven’t had enough time to take stock. But this weekend I got the chance to take a trip to Islay in the Southern Hebrides, partly to research the backstory for a character, partly to go to the Islay Sessions in Port Charlotte and partly to hang out with my friends and their family who live on the island.

This was my first time on Islay. We arrived by ferry, ushered in by wind, spray and rainbows and headed for Port Charlotte. We had a weekend ticket for The Islay Sessions which kicked off on Friday evening. It’s a music festival in microcosm and proves that size is definitely not everything. I was blown away by the variety and quality of the musicians we saw, not only at each concert but in the bar of the Port Charlotte Hotel well into the early hours each night. I want to go back next year so that I can stay and see the Sunday evening performance too.

While the rest of our party were checking on sheep or practising their fiddle-playing at the workshop, I headed to the Museum of Islay Life to do a bit of research. The central character of the novel I’m writing as part of my MLitt course is a woman charged with murder in Glasgow in 1816. Her backstory is that she was born in Islay in 1785 and left in 1810. I’ve done a lot of research remotely and the museum’s website is great but, I still had lots of questions. The staff of the museum were good enough to open up specially for me on a Saturday morning. I spent a couple of hours there with one of the trustees who was able to show me archive material and explain the practicalities of life on the island at the end of the C18th and beginning of the C19th. The converted church is packed full of interesting exhibits showing the development of Islay from ancient times up until the 20th Century.

In between music and museums, I explored a few other places on Islay. We spent a bit of time in Bowmore, which was laid out in the late 18th Century and, as well as a handy Co-op, has a round church, built that way so that the devil couldn’t find any corners to hide in. And Finlaggan, the home of the Lords of the Isles,  has a small visitors centre and crumbled ruins in the most out of the way, windswept landscape. One of the stories I heard on the island was about the two WW1 shipwrecks of British craft transporting American soldiers aboard the Tuscania and Otranto.  Hundreds of lives were lost and the  museum details both those stories and the impact it had on the island. On Sunday morning we ventured to the American cemetery at Kilchoman to see the memorial to those lost.

A magical weekend full of music, history, soup, scones and scenery. Can’t wait to go back.

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