ONLY THE WHALE WAS AWAY

~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, May 7th 2013

The Captain of the "Lord of the Isles" apologised for the absence of the whale. For some weeks, it seemed, this majestic creature had accompanied the ferry from Oban to the Hebridean island of Colonsay, but now it had moved off in search of waters new. Instead, the Captain offered the writers travelling to the second Colonsay Book Festival other delights: unlimited whisky and beer, fishy canapés, and a visit to the bridge to consult his sea charts.

While some literary festivals grow annually more bloated and less satisfying, Colonsay’s demonstrates that small is beautiful. Held over the last weekend in April, it’s timed to catch spring as it bursts—cuckoos calling across the island, hedgerows studded with violets and primroses, trees bearded with the kind of lichen that grows only in the purest air. It offers just eight events, and most of the 130-odd islanders—from Andrew Abrahams who harvests oysters and honey on a remote headland, to the five pupils at the primary schoolcome to every one. And (rare indeed) the writers listen to each other too.

Here were some highlights:

- Ian Rankin, on his 53rd birthday, reflecting on the difference between a crime novel and a thriller (thrillers demand "an erotica of detail" that has never turned him on); revealing that, in writing, he always gets stuck at page 65, and that he'd really rather have been a rock star.

- The children’s writer Mairi Hedderwick, creator of the "Katie Morag" series, discussing with the Colonsay children the stories they had written for the festival competition—"That was a funny idea, James: to have the Minister turn into a frog!". 

- Candia McWilliam making us cry with laughter as she described the succession of quacks she visited in search of a cure for her blindness, then holding us spellbound with a story written specially for the festival.

- The poet Angus Peter Campbell reading partly in English, partly in Gaelica language so seductive (guttural but gentle, precise but lilting) that the entire audience was left rooting for its survival. 

They had to be good, because the views from the windows of Colonsay’s village hall were like a siren call to us all to leave our seats and hurry outside: hills dotted with tumble-dried lambs; the sky deep blue and cloudless; the sea gleaming. And out there somewhere, gliding through the brightness, that elusive whale.

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life and director of the Royal Society of Literature. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Stevie G, Stevie G, Oooooh Stevie G and How Edward VII lost his mistresses