Dr. Nick Morgan returns to chart the history of the Islay festival of Fèis Ìle to see if somewhere along the way it went from a festival of culture to a festival of greed.
The ferries and flights are fully booked. If you can find a hotel room it may well cost you upwards of £300 a night. The nearest available Airbnb property is a single-roomed cabin ‘retreat’ on Rathlin Island, on the other side of the North Channel.
It’s the return of the Fèis Ìle, established on Islay in 1986 as a community-based celebration of the island’s culture, but now described on the festival’s official website simply as ‘the ultimate whisky festival.’
If you want to get an idea of what the Fèis was about when it started then take a look on YouTube at the film made last year, The Founders of the Fèis, the first in a promised series about the history and development of the event. Margaret Ann Mactaggart, the first chair of the Fèis Ìle Committee, sums it up nicely. It was, she said to help visitors “discover what the island was really like, and for the island itself to have a look at what it was… to get the community to look at itself.”
What emerged were annual carnival parades themed around local issues, concerts, ceilidhs, best-dressed village competitions, walks, talks, and school-based programs for children. As someone who remembers the festival as a child (and is now involved in organising and delivering Fèis events) Mactaggart recalls “as a kid I remember the float parades and us all getting involved in painting backdrops and making costumes. The villages all looked lovely with the flowers and gardens done up for the competitions and all the bunting hanging out.”
A Frankenstein’s monster?
Well, there’s no float parade and precious little bunting now. Instead, the Fèis has become a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, a week of mostly distillery-related events stitched together with a rich thread of avarice that is sadly only too common in today’s whisky world. Above the skirl of the bagpipes and the cacophony of fiddles, guitars, and accordions the things that ring out loudest over the Queen of the Hebrides for seven days are the cash registers of the various distillery shops where hundreds of thousands of pounds are handed over by visitors (and not a few Ileachs) in exchange for special festival bottlings and tickets for tours and tastings.
The greed is not only restricted to the distilleries; there’s the unsavoury presence of whisky auction houses stalking newly bought bottles from punters like ambulance chasers hunting corpses. And the stalkers are often stalked by the professional flippers who contrive to acquire multiple bottles in order to fund their trip through their sale on the secondary market. I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some cask investment people there too, with their estate-agent haircuts and too-tight suits, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting and incredulous with the lure of unimagined wealth. It’s somehow not what Margaret Ann Mactaggart and her colleagues had in mind back in the day.
Quite how did this happen? Watch The Founders of the Fèis and you’ll get a real flavour of the early days of the festival, where whisky was only first introduced as an amuse-bouche before a slide show in the Bowmore Hall, moving to the Ramsay Hall in Port Ellen as a minor prelude to the ceilidh there. As one early Fèis Ìle Committee member and event organiser told me “we had big bands, Runrig, Capercaillie, the Saw Doctors, and the Boys of the Lough – it was a proper music festival and that is what brought people here. The distilleries might have given a bottle, but it was not a whisky festival at all at the start.”
In the mid-1990s Feis seemed to have passed former Lagavulin manager Mike Nicolson by: “my recollection of the Fèis is confined to Kevin [Campbell] and his chums pushing a cask. From where to where has unfortunately disappeared into the fog of time, although I do recall it seemed like a long way.” The Ramsay Hall tasting he said “wasn’t as much fun as the fancy dress competition.” A photograph of Lagavulin in the early Fèis years shows the distillery festooned with a single banner promoting White Horse blended Scotch, with not a word of malt whisky. And when that distillery did begin to host open days there was a certain innocence and charm about what they did, like the year when Lagavulin manager Donald Renwick and his staff donned Victorian clothing (in the style of Sir Peter Mackie and his workforce) to welcome their guests.
The fallout of the festival bottlings
Then came along the Feis Ile special distillery bottlings. Ardbeg appears to have opened this pernicious Pandora’s Box in 2002, quickly followed by Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Bowmore, and Bruichladdich. Lagavulin’s first bottling (the responsibility of the author) was in 2007 along with Caol Ila’s, followed by the disastrously ill-conceived (also the responsibility of the author) single cask Port Ellen bottling of 2008. If you can find a bottle it’s yours for around £4,000. It was sold for £99.99.
By this time the start of each distillery’s open day resembled the beginning of the Harrod’s sale, with long queues of visitors and islanders jostling for position come rain or shine, and not a few mules hired to do the shopping for others. It may well have been that there was a genuine spirit of philanthropy behind these early and quite reasonably priced bottlings, a sense that it was ‘giving something back’ to those who had made considerable efforts at considerable expense to get to the island, and their sale undoubtedly pushed up the annual takings of the various visitor centre shops. ‘Rare rewards for Islay whisky festival pilgrims’ read the headline of one press release at the time.
Spiraling prices for these bottlings on the secondary market soon caught the attention of marketing folk and their commercial overlords, and the decision by eBay to begin to stop alcohol sales on its site in Europe in 2012, which in turn provoked the explosion of online whisky auctions, only served to fuel this nascent market. Producers naturally enough wanted to take back some of the value being lost to the secondary market so prices rose. Soon some distilleries were releasing two or three bottles in each festival, whilst single cask releases of a few hundred bottles morphed into vattings of thousands.
With no retailer margin on high-value bottles sold through distilleries or online by the producers the profits coming back to the brand owners have increased exponentially. Just look at the price and size of some of the releases and do the maths. And, of course, the resale of festival bottles at inflated prices by retailers and auctions has only accelerated. Surely you can hear the ringing of the tills?
The carpetbaggers could. As whisky came to dominate the festival in the first decade of the century there were unwritten rules in play. One was that it remained an island-focused event. But it wasn’t too long before others in the whisky world saw opportunities to profit from the spendthrift visitors. Fèis week became a honeypot for all to shamelessly feast on. Independent bottlers and retailers turned up running guerrilla tastings and events, possibly trying to claw back some of the margins they felt they were losing to the distilleries. Special festival bottlings (in reality often not special at all) from all and sundry have grown like Topsy.
Islay not only offered profit, but it also generously provided picturesque content, as every influencer and blogger tried to get in on the action and be seen to be part of the picture, in a rather ghastly act of cultural appropriation. As distillery events simply became too unwieldy to be managed by the on-site staff so some distilleries called in blenders from the mainland to help with tastings and presentations, and brand ambassadors arrived in their wake, keen to be seen and not to be left out of the fun.
And why restrict the entertainment to Islay when you can hold Fèis Ìle events in London, or for that matter, around the world? An early Fèis committee member and event organiser had a strong view on this point: “this is a personal question and for me, I don’t agree with it, for me the festival is about what’s produced on the island.” Another Ileach and former island distillery manager were more sanguine: “It’s the circumstances of success that everyone wants a piece of it. I feel it’s not all negative though as the Campbeltown whisky festival being introduced just before the Islay whisky festival helps create a better product. The Islay whisky festival has competition for people’s money with the likes of the Speyside Festival so improving the value helps Islay.”
When the distilleries first got involved in the festival they were welcomed as they brought with them some modest but essential financial support that was used to subsidise other events. But probably no one expected they would kidnap the event in the way they have. You might well ask who owns the festival now? Its uniqueness and identity have been slowly eroded by the ascendancy of the various whisky interests, the increasing presence of non-Islay businesses, and the obsession that some visitors have with the acquisition (and resale) of special bottlings. Cynics might say its future is determined not on Islay, but in offices in London, Paris, Chicago, and Tokyo.
Can the original Fèis Ìle spirit be restored?
Whilst it’s changed out of all recognition the fact that the Fèis Ìle survives at all today is in large part due to the irresistible rise in the popularity of Islay whisky around the world, and its magnetic ability to draw high-spending visitors to the island. It’s an important week for the hospitality industry and many other businesses on the island, particularly as it emerges from the shadow of the pandemic. The welcome and hospitality afforded to visitors are beyond compare, and they do have a great time, albeit mostly dedicated to distilleries, drams, and daredevil drinking.
Although it seems parsimonious when compared to the vast profits made by the distilleries over the festival week, each distillery does each pay £750 to the Fèis Ìle Committee, ostensibly for the rights to use ‘Fèis Ìle’ on their labels, and now a similar arrangement is in place for the island’s new non-whisky distilleries and those incomers who ride on the coat-tails of the Fèis. The resulting funds will be used to support more traditional cultural events on the island throughout the year, which would certainly benefit those many islanders who are so busy during the festival week, and perhaps rekindle some of that original Fèis Ìle spirit.
It would be a welcome rebalancing of something that’s got wildly out of kilter. I wonder also if the various distilleries and brand owners might not reflect on the amount of money they make during these seven days on Islay, and perhaps direct a little more of it back to the island to help support community activities during the remaining 358.
“I think the whisky influence has made the festival a victim of its own success”, said one of the people I spoke to on the island with a strong link to the Feis, “but I see that the current Fèis Ìle Committee is determined to try to pull some of that [cultural content] back into the festival.” Another of the islanders I spoke to also expressed an optimistic view, one that was very much in tune with the moment: “I think with everything else that’s been going on in the world we will get back to the aims of the festival, celebrating culture, heritage, and Gaelic tradition.”
Let’s hope that’s the case.