We’ve had a lot of comments following Dr Nick Morgan’s recent post entitled ‘How Fèis Ìle was stolen by the Scotch whisky industry’ so we thought we’d give an opportunity for Ben Shakespeare from the Islay Festival Committee to respond. 

Okay, so we’re not sure that Scotch whisky needs saving, but an opinion piece recently published on these pages was like a dagger to the heart of the Fèis Ìle (Islay Festival) Committee, and also to so many that hold the islands and festival dear. We’re grateful for the outpouring of support from the local and whisky community we’ve received, as the original article speaks of a festival that none of us here recognise.

We would like to set the record straight.

You see, we felt completely misrepresented. Fèis Ìle, or the Islay Festival, isn’t really about the whisky. That’s precisely why we feel we are “the Ultimate Whisky Festival”. The whisky is the great magnet that pulls people here – but what people return for, year after year, is the people, the atmosphere, the camaraderie, being part of the international whisky family and also their love of Islay and Jura. Of course drinking great whisky is a major part of the festival, but it’s not the whole.

This is a festival that desperately needed to come back post-pandemic to help boost the local economy – when the festival was born in 1986 it was to boost the local economy, and so it is the case now more than ever.

Bruichladdich Open Day Feis Ile 2022

The crowds at the Bruichladdich Day (Credit Fèis Ìle/Ben Shakespeare)

After three days of the festival, everyone here is smiling. That’s not just because of the whisky. It’s that joy at meeting friends we’ve not seen for three years, it’s that world whisky community coming back together. The Lagavulin, Bruichladdich and Caol Ila days have been excellent, and well-attended by locals and visitors alike. The buzz of having the festival back and the island busy has been phenomenal. Seeing those faces again, and also meeting people we met virtually in pandemic years, has been a wonderful thing to behold.

Personally, I make it a mission to speak to as many people as possible, and I always encourage people to come up and say hi in my communications. The festival is all about that personal approach. I’ve met people from over twenty countries so far, and it’s only day three.

Now, as in 1986, we are all volunteers on the Committee, and we work with our distillery partners to bring about a successful festival that represents both the best of whisky and the best of Islay, and of Jura. We all work together: we have not been taken over, we have not been hijacked, and the spirit of the festival is alive and well.

Feis Ile 2022 dancers

Ella Edgar’s dancers preparing to perform at the Community Open Day

In fact, the documentary that we put together that Nicholas speaks so glowingly of, was put together completely voluntarily by me and the Committee. It’s us giving back and preserving the history of the island for generations to come.

To ensure this continues, we do now make sure that our trademark is enforced. No-one can come and have their own Fèis event without it being authorised by the Committee. That ensures that the money stays on the island and we can give back to the local community. It also is closing down the opportunism that has been seen in the past. We are not perfect, but we’re working hard to continually improve.

As well as being a non-profit, the Committee launched our Islay Wave fund in 2021, set to fundraise for the local community: we have sponsored traditional music lessons for youngsters, have rock music sessions for older kids coming up, held free events for kids of all ages and we’ve sponsored our History of Fèis Ìle display in the Gaelic Centre in Bowmore. There’s more to come too – we’ve been busy in the community.

This fundraising has been made possible with active help of all the local distilleries staff, help we are extremely grateful for. Right now our competition to win every single Festival Bottling is live on our fundraising page – the bottles are donated by the distilleries and they support us in this. That money stays on the island to do good – that’s the festival spirit. You can find out more at https://feisile.co.uk/fundraising/

This year, all our original Festival Committee events sold out in minutes. So we arranged more events. We work hard throughout the year to make the best festival for everyone, and so do all the pubs and hotels making sure that everyone has a great time. Distilleries have faced staffing issues, COVID issues, ferry issues, but everyone has come together to put on an amazing festival. Lambasting the festival for an aura of “corporate greed” ignores the hard work that’s actually done by all the island and distillery teams.

Some might bemoan prices of accommodation, but there is not a ticket for the Islay Festival. Provided you can get and stay here, entry to distillery days is cheap or free, the bands are laid on for you and you’re surrounded by great whisky.

Bruichladdich Day Feis Ile 2022

The crowds at Bruichladdich this year

The festival bottles are an enormous draw for the island and being able to buy your memento of the trip, to remind yourself of the time you had, that’s part of the festival experience for many. Some people are going to flip them, that will always happen with an in-demand, popular, limited-edition product. We just hope somewhere along its journey that people drink it. Whisky is much better as a shared experience than an expensive shelf-weight.

It has been hurtful to hear the depiction of Fèis Ìle as a cartoonish Victoriana nightmare – with visions of Frankenstein and whisky Fagins lurking to relieve festival-goers of their purchases – people may be put off by this. And that is the worst possible thing for these islands of ours and their economies. Nicholas Morgan has mentioned he attempted to contact us anonymously (we’re not sure why anonymously) but are still not aware of any approach after thorough checking.

If you want to find out the truth, come next year, see for yourself, make up your own mind who’s right. Maybe if you came in 2007, and didn’t like it in 2012, come back for 2023 – try it, see what we’ve done with the place, because it’s YOU who make the festival and we’re fighting bloody hard to make it the best it can be.

Life, whisky and Fèis Ìle are what you make them, if you happen to come here and only focus on the whisky bottles, you might feel disgruntled, but you’ve also missed the point. As Jackie Thompson, Visitor Manager at Ardbeg, says in the continuation of our History of Fèis Ìle documentary, “The Festival is a beacon of light within the whisky industry. People know they‘re going to have a great time. We know that it used to be that a distillery was a magnet for somebody to visit. I think Islay now is the magnet.

So, why are we the saviour of the scotch whisky industry? Well, we’re not really, but what we are about is taking the whisky back to the community, about that togetherness and connection with the land, and about the people that created it and the friends we share it with. We are celebrating the islands, the heritage and the culture that gives the world its whisky, year after year. That connection is everything.

The island makes the whisky, but it’s not the whisky that makes the island.