Islay Voices - The Peoples History of Islay

Islay Voices, an anthology of writing about Islay, is published this month and has been launched at the Celtic House in Bowmore on Monday 12 December. Illustrated with archive photographs from the Museum of Islay Life, it is edited by Jenni Minto and Les Wilson from Port Charlotte. Here is an exclusive extract from the book:

For thousands of years the island of Islay has drawn migrants, invaders and inquisitive wanderers to its shores. They have often come as lonesome travellers, but sometimes in great numbers like migrating geese. For many, their visits were inspired by innate human curiosity, while others came seeking a land that would sustain them. A few were washed up, half dead, on Islay’s shores. Once such saved soul, seventeenyear-old Private David Roberts of the US Army, wrote to his mother of the ‘Scots lads’ who had dragged him ashore and to miraculous safety after his troopship sank off Islay in a terrible storm in 1918.

Among the most revealing accounts of journeys to Islay are those of the Skye-born traveller and writer, Martin Martin; the Edinburgh-born naturalist and clergyman, John Walker; the Welsh naturalist and antiquarian, Thomas Pennant; and the distinguished English scientist, Joseph Banks. These serious-minded and perceptive men subjected Islay to the same kind of scrutiny as Banks had employed when he visited Tahiti with Captain Cook. Viewed from London or Edinburgh, 18th century Islay seemed almost as exotic as Tahiti. Continue reading....

The people of Islay – the Ileachs – too have written of the place. Islay has made an enormous contribution to Gaelic literature and song through the work of its bards, including William Livingston, the brothers Charles and Duncan MacNiven, and Duncan Johnson.

John Francis Campbell – known as Iain Òg Ìle (Young John of Islay) – was a renowned folklorist and Celtic scholar whose bilingual work, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, revealed the richness of Gaelic tradition to an international audience. Folklorists, many from Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, have continued to draw from Islay’s deep well of tradition, and local enthusiast, Peggy Earl, was a zealous recorder of stories.

John Murdoch, the campaigning journalist and passionate agitator for crofters’ rights never forgot that he was ‘an Islay man’. His testimony to the 1884 Napier Commission into the plight of poor Highland cottars and crofters reveals the hardscabbble lives led by most Ileachs in these times. Murdoch’s accounts of landlordism, clearance and emigration make compelling reading.

A sense of medieval Islay can be gained from a unique land charter signed by a Lord of the Isles, a member of the Beaton medical dynasty left us good advice on health and welfare, and local clergymen penned revealing descriptions of island life for Scotland’s first Statistical Account, compiled between 1791 and ’99. The ‘tacksmen and gentlemen’ of the Stent Committee, Islay’s 18 century (strictly undemocratic) ‘parliament’, left records of their endeavours. Landowners and law officers too had their say.

The late 19 and early 20 centuries saw the arrival of a new species on Islay – the tourist. The growing demand for lively and illuminating guide books to the island was met by some highly gifted and well informed local writers, including the Rev. John G. MacNeil and the Port Ellen born, future Member of Parliament and biographer of Ramsay MacDonald, Lachlan MacNeil Weir.

Last, but not least, were the ‘nonprofessional’ writers of Islay – the men and women whose diaries and letters shed an intensely personal light on island life and contribute immensely to understanding the ‘peoples’ history’ of Islay. Gossip about a mutual friend with a fondness for ‘mountain dew’ and an eye for the ladies, the business of planting crops and raising chickens, the trauma of shipwreck, and the experience of men fighting in two world wars are all to be found in letters preserved in the Museum of Islay Life.

While much of the material is organised chronologically, this is no history book. We have fleshed out the bare bones of history by plunging deeply into the well of myth, legend, superstition, fiction, poetry and song that Islay has inspired. The writing about – and from – Islay is rich and rewarding. This anthology is, necessarily, brim-full of omissions, and could have been much longer. Our attempt to distil the essence of Islay is simply a very personal selection. We’ve chosen material that vividly describes, for us, the fascinating island that we love. The tone of the writing varies from the profound to the downright quirky, but we believe that all of it is revealing about aspects of Islay and its people, past and present. The illustrations contained in this book are all from the collection of the Museum of Islay Life, and we are indebted to the museum’s trustees for permission to reproduce them.

In Islay Gaelic ‘thank you’ is expressed neither as Tapadh leat, nor as Moran Taing, but as Gun robh math agad. A heartfelt Gun robh math agad is due to to all the quoted writers that have committed their experiences of Islay, and their thoughts and feelings about it, to print.

This must have book is available in the Celtic House in Bowmore, price is £20.

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