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Festival of the Sea 2012

Islay’s second Festival of the Sea took place in and around Port Ellen from the 5th to the 8th of July. A good time was had by all, despite the somewhat uncooperative weather conditions on the Saturday.

The event had a unique attraction in the week leading up to the Festival of the Sea with a live boat building demonstration by Irish Currach builder Donal MacPolan. The traditional Irish Currach is a boat design dating back many centuries and constructed from locally foraged hazel sticks covered in Kevlar (synthetic seal skin) and tar, it could well be similar to the boat used by St Columba when he made the journey from Ireland to Islay. It is an impressive feat of engineering and artistry the likes of which have not been seen on Islay in living memory. It was a pleasure to watch the boat take shape under the skilled craftsmanship of Donal, Jim McFarlane and friends. For many who assisted and watched the boat grow and triumphantly take to the water in Leodamus Bay on Saturday evening,  it was the realisation of a lifelong dream and for others I have no doubt it is the beginning of a lifelong interest. Donal is also a talented artist and author and gave a fascinating talk on Thursday evening on the history of traditional Irish boats and how his passion for currach building began. Donal has gifted the completed currach to the people of Islay, an incredible legacy from an incredible man.

This year the Festival of the Sea was also blessed to have yet another celebrated boat builder presenting a talk to the Festival goers. Justin Ruthven-Tyers gave a fascinating account of his book “Phoenix from the ashes” on Friday evening. The book isn’t just about the story of a couple whose lives change dramatically when their home burns down and how they then embark on a journey to build and live on their own boat but it is a story about the people who they meet upon their way and who help them realise their dream.  It may be because it is about people that when you hear Justin himself talk about it you feel a real connection to what they went through, the times of adversity and when they were at their lowest ebb right through to the moments of triumph and what they ultimately achieved in building their magnificent boat.  They called the boat CAOL ILA, not because they were, at that time, such bit fans  of the whisky but because they liked the sound of the name and when they decided to come visit the place that is the boats namesake they have found it impossible to leave.  Justin’s honest approach is part of the great appeal of this story and to have him with us to tell us his tale was a great treat for everyone who came along, thank you Justin and we hope you fix your engine soon!

During the day the St Columba Hall hosted the Secrets of the Deep exhibition in the large hall, with artefacts from Gus Newman and Jim McFarlane, artwork from Donal MacPolan, Photos from ‘Old Islay’ facebook page – a chance for those unacquainted with facebook to see some of the wonderful old images of Islay life. Many thanks to all who contributed their photos and allowed them to be shared in the exhibition. There were also a range of photos contributed by Florrie MacAllister to compliment the Old Islay theme and a display of snaps from the Colmcille Challenge which took place during last year’s Festival of the Sea and was an incredible achievement for all those involved.

In the small hall St Johns church delighted customers with a characteristically impressive array of home-baking, homemade soup and filled rolls. Hungry Festival goers were spoilt for choice on the green as well with a hog roast on offer from Braveheart catering, sandwiches and snacks from the Islay High School Venezuela trip fundraisers, fresh offerings from the Seafood Shack, popcorn from Jackie Ross, scrumptious, spicy, fishy dishes from the Maharani and the impromptu but delicious efforts of the ‘Smoking Sands’ delivering locally caught mackerel smoked in the traditional style using a whisky cask, a fire of chopped staves and (in the absence of the hessian sacks ebay failed to deliver on time) a blanket which I fear someone’s better half will probably still be looking for!

Islay has a wonderful abundance of seafood and it is possible to go and pick or catch  an evening meal from the rocks or with a fishing rod. The Festival of the Sea Food Fair highlighted the fresh and available produce that the shores of South Islay have to offer. Under canvas (there is definitely something romantic about being in a tent) and with gas BBQs and a makeshift kitchen there were a few vibrant demonstrations on Friday and Saturday. Calum Murray provided an amusing light hearted commentary for all the demos.
Martine Nouet, whisky writer, exceptional cook and generally fine lady prepared and made an Islay shellfish risotto with lobster, scallops and mussels emphasising the importance of using a very good stock to prepare the dish. She followed up by showing the audience how to make a classic Moules Marinieres – bowls of each dish were distributed, recipes handed out and murmurs of contentment resounded under the marquee. 
On Saturday, Scott Chance, celebrated chef and very hard working Islay Hotel manager set up a beautiful tray of seafood and introduced 1001 ways in which to open and serve oysters. An aphrodisiac they may be but nothing kicked off in the tent! People were quite happy to savour the different marinades for the oysters and he even cooked some of the molluscs on the BBQ. Second session allowed the audience to see how spider crabs, langoustines and whelks can be prepared, cooked and served. The aromas of garlic butter and lime and chilli marinade pervaded the air.Thanks to everyone who provided their time and donated produce. Happy days.

All these delectable culinary delights could be washed down with a libation from the hospitality tent and calories burned having a go at the Port Ellen Football Club’s football challenge, perusing the stalls or entering the array of beach activities.

Friday and Saturday saw the return of Stramash sailing by popular demand. The classes were very well attended and enjoyed by all who took part. This year there was also the opportunity to try ones hand at Coasteering around the Ard with Hebridean Pursuits on Saturday and Sunday – an exciting, time was had by all and many a request for a return trip next year. Opportunities to get out on the water continued with taster sessions offered by Islay Canoe Club which went down a treat on Saturday afternoon. The rainy conditions certainly didn’t dampen spirits and at one point over 100 people could be seen enjoying activities in the bay.

During the day on Friday and Saturday Allan Campbell held a crabbing competition at the pontoons which was extremely popular with the children and possibly even more so with the grown-ups. No crabs were harmed in the process, but we can’t say the same about some of the egos!

Round on Leodamus beach Dougie MacTaggart held the first Festival of the Sea sandcastle competition with over 20 entries and an incredible standard of sandcastle construction and imagination. The beach also hosted the beach ‘Oa’lympics and Beach volleyball for the first time this year with assistance from the Islay High School Youth Ambassadors.

One of the most popular attractions was the sealife touch tank provided by Fraser and Ishbel Aitken. With a wide variety of sea creatures it held a substantial audience for most of the day and appealed to children and adults alike.
Ella Edgar’s Highland Dancers performed a medley of dances on Saturday afternoon. Due to weather conditions the St Columba saved the day and provided wet weather cover. Ever the professionals the dancers took the venue change in their stride and delivered a sterling performance. Many thanks to Ella and the girls for another world class set and many congratulations on the well-deserved recognition for those dancers who were heading to represent Scotland in Switzerland the following day. It is a testament to the hard work and dedication of Ella and the dancers and a truly spectacular achievement.

On Saturday afternoon the St Columba hosted a talk by the RSPB. For those in the audience who thought they were going to hear a talk on the different variety of birds on Islay and around the coast of Scotland they were in for an educational surprise.  Kara Brydson’s talk was very much a few levels beyond peoples initial expectations. Kara works for the RSPB on Marine and Coastal policy at both European and Global level and is clearly a very passionate advocate on this subject.  Her engaging talk clearly defined to the attendees that we are fighting a war against climate change in our seas which is having a devastating effect on the numbers of birds we have on the shores of Scotland.  A change in water temperature of only 2 degrees is changing the food chain dramatically enough that we seeing colonies of birds more than halving in size.  But it’s not just climate change that is a threat to our seas but also coastal management, port policy, fishing, plus oil spills and pollution, things that we can directly influence.  Every year, just under eight million seabirds from 26 species, such as puffins and terns, come to the shores of the British Isles to breed, often in spectacular colonies and to find out more on how you can help ensure their survival go to the RSPB website and look up the “Safeguard our sealife” campaign or pop along to a RSPB reserve.  Thank you to Kara for coming along and sharing her knowledge and passion.

Kara’s talk was followed by ‘Whisky Galore’ on Saturday evening. Could there be a better way to watch this film than with a dram in hand?!  This event saw us come together in the St. Columba Hall to enjoy this Ealing Comedy spectacular with our special host for the evening Keith Hewitt.  In 2000 Keith acquired a very special bottle, it was one of the bottles salvaged from the S.S. Politician which ran aground off Eriskay in 1941, the event that inspired Compton Mackenzie on to write his best-selling novel “Whisky Galore”.  Since buying that first bottle Keith has gone on to grow both his knowledge and his collection of both artefacts from the “Polly” and memorabilia of the film.  He brought along with his some of the Jamaican Shillings that had also been salvaged from the ship and some of the film posters from its release around the world and shared with us a great history of both the fact and fiction elements of this classic story.  (Did you know in France the film’s title was “Whisky a Go Go” which then gave its name to world famous LA club?) After a very informative introduction, while enjoying an Ardbeg it was time to pour up a Laphroaig and to dim the lights and start the projector.   This is a film for young and old alike and if you haven’t seen it for a while you will be quickly drawn back in with the razor sharp dialogue and quick lines like the unforgettable “Some men are born two drinks under par”!! We ended our film night with a Lagavulin and a lot of laughs and we would like to thank Keith for bringing to our festival such an enjoyable event.

This year the main evening events were held in the Ramsay Hall, beginning with a ‘Touch of Tartan Ball’ on Friday night. This event was a family ceilidh with music from David Hastie, Ciara MacTaggart, Clare Jordan, Margaret MacDonald, David Adams, Donnie MacKinnon and Shane MacKinnon who delivered an exceptional performance and kept the ceilidh dancers wheiching round the floor well into the night. The guests were welcomed into the hall by piper Sandy MacLellan and given an optional ‘touch’ of tartan, kindly provided by the Woollen Mill and folded by staff at Ardbeg distillery. MC Georgie Crawford kept us all on our toes and led the grand march which got the night off to a dramatic start, followed by an impressive and intricate display by the Islay Country Dancers. The ladies continued with boundless energy all night long, coaxing many a reluctant visitor and the odd reluctant local up to the floor where they were soon ‘stripping the willow’ with gusto. Many thanks also to Alec Brown for his highly enjoyable impromptu performance. A massive thank you to all performers and guests for making this such a pleasant evening and a special thank you to David Hastie for  sharing his idea with the Festival of the Sea and seeing it to fruition.

Saturday’s evening event was the ‘Salty Seadog Shindig’ in the Ramsay Hall with musical entertainment by ‘The Democrats’ from across the water in Oban. The band was fantastic and raved about by all who attended with an eclectic variety of covers from across the decades and guaranteed to get any pirate swashing his or her buckle. A thoroughly enjoyable evening and a great way to round off the Saturday programme.  Many thanks to the band, stewards, volunteers and Johnny Depp for coming along!

The Festival of the Sea continued through to the Sunday beginning with the church service in St Johns led by Reverend Barlow from St Johns and Reverend McNulty  from the Baptist Church. This also gave everyone who attended an opportunity to view the flower displays in each of the church windows from the flower festival which ran during the Festival of the Sea. Thank you to both ministers and all those who contributed displays.

At half past 12 the church service came to a close and the march of the boats led proceedings from Leodamus Bay round to Northbay where the rest of the days activities would be based. It was a grand sight to see the Islay Pipe Band leading the march with the completed Currach held aloft by the proud group of builders and friends. The currach was joined by Jack Glover’s ‘Lily Bheag’, two of Gus Newman’s impressive Stormcats and later joined by the Isis I and II which had to be launched early in keeping with the tide.

A pleasant afternoon ensued watching the Islay Rowing Club teams taking to the waves and put the skiffs through their paces in North Bay. Please see the separate Islay Rowing Club article in the Ileach newspaper for a full list of results.

Donal MacPolan was presented with a bottle of Whisky from Laphraoig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg as a thank you for his tremendous efforts over the course of the Festival of the Sea.

Sunday afternoon also saw the inaugural Festival of the Sea Tug o’ War competition organised by Dougie MacTaggart. Entries were received from 4 teams which made for a lively contest in the double knockout tournament. The brave and hardy ‘Dolly Mixtures’ came in a respectable 4th, followed by the boys from Portnahaven in 3rd who put up a good fight against Gordon Curries team in 2nd place, but the champions and first time winners of the Festival of the Sea Tug o’ War trophy were ‘Disaster Zone’ who were awarded medals and prizes by legendary anchor of the Port Ellen Tug o’ War team, Jim McFarlane.

After the excitement on the green during the day the dedicated party goers finished the day off in the White Hart hotel where we enjoyed a tremendous musical experience courtesy of Edinburgh-based band ‘The Blues Water’. Usually an 11 piece band, two of the eleven had been tempted over by their love of Islay whisky which left revellers wondering what sort of damage 11 of them would do! As their website proudly states; “Wild solos and puddles of sweat are a staple of every gig” and that was certainly the case in the White Hart. Thanks Paul and Felipe for a great evening’s entertainment.

Alba TV crew were covering some of the event so keep your eyes peeled for some footage in the near future.

There are a great many people to thank for making the Festival of the Sea 2012 a resounding success: The Festival of the Sea organising committee, Chairperson Jackie Thomson and members of the South Islay Development board for all their hard work, giving up a huge amount of spare, and often not so spare time to deliver an event the whole community can enjoy. A massive thank you to Donal MacPolan and all who helped build his beautiful currach, special mention must be made of Jim MacFarlane for inviting Donal over and to Donalda and Susan McFarlane for accommodating Donal during his visit.
Thank you to everyone who volunteered to help before, during and after the event putting up and taking down marquees, working the bar, stewarding, assisting with food demonstrations, supervising the Secrets of the Deep exhibition, decorating and all the other joyous tasks that are often unpleasant but always necessary! Thank you to the people who provided tents for the occasion; RBS, Jura Development Trust, IJCVS, Lagavulin Distillery, Lagavulin Fundraisers, Islay Rowing Club and Len Powell. Thank you to the speakers of our various talks, Donal MacPolan, Justin Ruthven-Tyers, Kara Brydson and Keith Hewitt. Chefs and assistants at the food demonstrations, especially Martine Nouet and Scott Chance. Performers; Islay Pipe Band and Ella Edgar’s Highland Dancers, Alec Brown, Islay Country Dancers, David Hastie, David Adams, Clare Jordan, Margaret MacDonald, Donnie MacKinnon, Shane MacKinnon, Ciara MacTaggart, Sandy MacLellan, The Democrats and The Blues Water. All stall holders and food providers, especially Fraser and Ishbel Aitken of the Seafood Shack for providing the touch tank on Saturday. Local businesses that must be thanked are Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphraoig distilleries for being extremely generous in support of the event, Buildbase for donating wood for the currach build and materials for the beach games, Gus and the team at Stormcats, Phil at Clear Water Marine, Caledonian MacBrayne, Islay Hotel, White Hart Hotel, Maharani, Iain. G. Lauries, Mundells and Islay Crab Exports. Many thanks to Stramash Outdoor Experience, Hebridean Pursuits and the Islay Canoe Club for the water-based activities and David Cameron for a fine set of curtains in the changing tent. Organisations who assisted; Port Ellen Playing Fields Association, St Johns catering crew, Islay, Jura and Colonsay Agricultural Show Committee, Islay Rugby Club, Islay Natural History Trust, Port Ellen Primary School, Islay Family History, RSPB, Mod Ile Committee, Port Ellen Harbour Association, Islay Rowing Club. Others who must be thanked for their contribution include all contributors of ‘Old Islay’ photos, Islay High School Young Ambassadors, John Findlay, Morven Laurie, Neil Baker, Mary MacAulay, the ‘Smoking Sands’ crew and Scott Mitchell.
A special mention to Calum Murray for commentating the food fair and teaming food with laughter (an excellent combination!) and Iain Gibson for doing the announcements in such an entertaining and charismatic fashion throughout Saturday and Sunday. Finally a big thank you to our tech genius and solver of all problems (you know who you are!) P.S. If you keep refusing to have your name in here I will continue with the plan for a statue in your honour on Port Ellen green!
There are a great many people to thank so my sincerest apologies if anyone has been missed out.


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