Faclan: The Hebridean Book Festival
Five years ago, in its fifth year, our book festival ended and I was confronted with an ineluctable truth: It had been crap. Not the writers, you understand; the numbers. If you herded the entire audience together and gave them tea and biscuits, they wouldn’t have filled our auditorium once. Afterwards, I looked for some silver-trim on the gloomy, rain-sodden cloud, but not for long. I’ve always been susceptible to reason and facts.
The festival was, I could see, multi-dysfunctional, unified by incoherence, lack of intensity, schedule, pricing, structure … Even the time of year, late August, was a bad call. Why? Because in Lewis, when you’re gifted a precious sunny day, any normal person is at a beach, a barbecue, doing the garden or creosoting the fence. Not sitting in a darkened room listening to a writer talking. One lovely evening we sold three tickets.
Who—and where—was our audience?
Who—and where—was our audience? I visited the Ullapool Book Festival and realised that their catchment area wasn’t just that wee town but pretty much the whole of Scotland. For all its ‘remoteness’, you could drive there and back in a day. And many did. If you wanted to come to Lewis, you had to take a plane or a ferry and fork out for overnight accommodation. What I’m saying is that you really had to want to come.
Well, that’s actually happening now. In 2011, Faclan relocated to late October (around the Celtic festival of Samhain), the cusp of the long, dark Lewis winter. I feel somehow that when the clocks go back it’s like when the lights go down in a theatre: something is about to happen.
And it does. Faclan is quite different from the sprawling summer-tent, linen-suit book festival model –– in scale, location and identity. It’s bespoke, boutique, dark. Events tightly curated and clustered round a theme as if for warmth and companionship. I think writers appear bigger here because, as Father Ted might say, they’re closer and in sharp focus. The ambience befits and benefits the solitary practice that is writing.
Faclan is bespoke, boutique, dark
Among the many we’ve lured here are Richard Dawkins, Jon Ronson, Robert Macfarlane, Julia Donaldson, Jonathan Meades, Alan Johnson and Jay Griffiths.
The theme this year is Blood: from medicine to murder to family, from the operating theatre to the theatre of war. Headliners include brain surgeon Henry Marsh appearing with psychologist Stephen Grosz, chaired by Gavin Francis. I actually think Start the Week on Radio 4 would be proud of that. Helen ‘Hawk’ Macdonald was turning everything down this year. Not us. See, we can offer some off-piste falconry. James Rebanks can discuss sheep ear-marks (comharradh) with an audience of his peers.
And on Saturday, you can have breakfast at 9am and see something special every hour until you lurch out of the Masque of the Red Death Club Night early Sunday morning.
I rest my case.
Image: John Maclean Photography