The Year of Stories in Scotland’s Land
Argyll and the Isles have always been to me, the ultimate land of myths and stories. As a wee boy, I used to sail across from my small world to paint my dad’s yacht Sisu at Ardmaleish Boatyard on exotic Bute. I spent more time gazing out across the waters to Cowal’s brooding hills dreaming than I ever did painting and writing too. I penned wee poems that the world will never see. Now as an adult I’ve become a writer who shares his passion for Argyll through my own stories, blogs and books. Join me now in this special Year of Stories as we let our imaginations sweep off to the epic land of Argyll and Bute.
It came as no surprise for me to learn that Argyll is said to have the highest concentration of artists anywhere in Scotland. It is a truly inspiring oasis alive with soaring Munro mountains coated in layers of mist, and plunging glens alive with antler-clad deer, of sweeping sandy beaches and surging rivers, of sinewy mainland coast and bountiful real-life treasure islands.
The land is writ large in Argyll and it’s underpinned too by culture and history as beguiling as anywhere in Scotland. This is a region where the ghosts of Lords of the Isles still linger amidst their old Hebridean haunts, where sturdy Stewart castles still preside over towns and the thick forests are still alive with fairies. Well, that is what I’ve spent years telling my wee girls anyway. The richness of Argyll’s stories is further enhanced in them being told not just in English, but in Scots and Gaelic too.
I’ve spent the last couple of decades as a travel writer exploring every nook and cranny of Argyll and its necklace of islands. There are stories everywhere you look and storytellers, from the Celtic bards whose words were passed down from generation to generation, on to visiting storytellers too, priests from Ireland enshrining their experiences in stone, and on to surely Jura’s most famous storyteller: George Orwell.
Orwell came to Scotland to clear both his head of distraction and his lungs of TB. He fled to Jura to work on – and ultimately complete – his magnum opus. And in a twist that is a story in itself, his seminal dystopian novel was almost never completed. In the 1940s Orwell took on the might of the Gulf of Corryvreckan Whirlpool in a small motorboat. The party included Orwell’s sister, Avril, nephew and niece. They were all toppled into the tumultuous waters. Remarkably they managed to scramble onto a rocky outcrop. But still, were it not for a passing fishing boat, the world would never have had 1984. The island certainly made quite an impression too on Orwell’s adopted son, Richard, who has declared he wants his own ashes sprinkled into the wilds of Corryvreckan.
Just across the water on Islay, another place for me really sets the imagination and heart racing. When I first headed for the ancient fulcrum of the Lords of the Isles, Finlaggan, I was surprised, even a little disappointed. I had expected rugged ramparts and sturdy fortifications. There is, of course, none of that. Finlaggan has no real defences, just an island in a lochan draped in centuries of remarkable history. The Lords of the Isles were so powerful they didn’t need vaulting walls to protect them. Their ghosts and the carvings writ on the stones you can still see set me off. And if that’s not enough the Paps of Jura loom large in the distance. It’s quite an inspiring spot.
It’s great to see initiatives that both foster and encourage this creative side of Argyll. Take Wander Argyll, who are showcasing Argyll and Bute’s rich culture, heritage, and arts – there are loads of suggestions of things to see, do and engage with online. CHARTS, Argyll and the Isles’ Culture, Heritage and Arts Assembly, was set up to represent the region’s artists and heritage businesses – you can visit their website and learn more about their 500 plus members and what they do.
And now, of course, we have the designated Year of Stories Scotland 2022. This very special themed year is delving deep into Scotland’s famed culture of stories and storytelling, looking at how stories weave into the way we live our lives and perceive our own history. It’s a chance for local businesses and organisations to tell their own stories and celebrate them with the public.
Throughout the Year of Stories Scotland 2022 watch out for a busy programme of events and activities all over Argyll and its sprinkling of islands. There will be one-off specials themed around the year, but also annual events and more regular festivities will take on a Year of Stories theme. It is split into five main strands: Iconic Stories and Storytellers – the old guard if you like, the classics; New Stories – new talent and emerging cultural energy; Scotland's People and Places – those bedrocks of Scottish storytelling from Highland glens to urban skylines; Local Tales and Legends – stripping things back to a community-based local level through the generations; and finally, Inspired by Nature - how man’s encounters with nature are woven into our oral and written storytelling culture.
They are myriad ways to both celebrate and enjoy Argyll and Bute in this most special of years. As I write this I’ve just learned of songwriting workshops that will soon grace the plush self-catering escape I’m based at here on the Cowal peninsula – The Hollies. These are just a recent nod to a tradition of stories and storytelling that have rippled through inspiring Argyll and the Isles for as long as man has walked these lands and sailed these ancient seas.