Why the Islay Festival of Music and Malt is a heady mix of spirit and song

Songs, piping, dancing and whisky are all on the menu at the Islay Festival of Music and Malt (Feis Ile). This hugely popular event attracts thousands of visitors to Islay each year, trebling the island’s population at festival time. And you can see why they come. It’s a heady mix of spirit and song all taking place on one of the most beautiful island’s on the west coast of Scotland, the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’.

The first festival took place in 1985, inspired by the island community’s desire to help preserve the Gaelic language and culture in word and song. Today the festival is a showcase for all that’s good about Islay, including – you’ve guessed it – Islay’s world-famous whiskies. Whisky lovers – or just the ‘whisky-curious’ – will be in for a treat with a variety of whisky nosings and tastings, distillery tours and general celebrations of uisge-beatha. All of the eight Islay whisky distilleries – plus neighbouring Jura - open their doors with a host of events, masterclasses and special Fèis bottlings during festival week.

This year Douglas Laing & Co will be hosting tastings (with a difference!) and whisky paired meals, including a Sip ‘n’ Seafood brunch at the Bridgend Hotel where you can enjoy a selection of 6 aged and rare drams, beautifully paired with the finest seafood from Islay. David Wood, former Distillery Manager at Caol Ila Distillery, will be be hosting a series of exclusive Islay Single Malt Whisky Tastings at the Gaelic College in Bowmore. The full distillery programme is yet to be announced, so watch this space!

As well as the distillery programme, a main programme of music, dance and cultural activities takes place. There’s a ceilidh, concert or party on most nights of the event, so you’ll need your dancing shoes. Highlights this year include the Whisky Nosing/Ceilidh Night at Ramsay Hall in Port Ellen. All the Islay distilleries will have a nosing table. Enjoy a dram or two, tuck into some pancakes and dance the night away to the Simon Moran Trio. The Folk Night at Ardbeg Distillery promises to be a great evening, with a fantastic line up of local artists and the option of a pie and a pint. Or how about the Traditional Concert at Islay High School with Fred Morrison and Jess Smith, Scottish author, musician and storyteller?

Of course a visit to the festival doesn’t mean that you’re confined exclusively to the festival programme. Indeed it would be a real shame to visit Islay and not see what else it has to offer, from the wonderful secluded beaches to the fabulous wildlife spotting opportunities. You should take the opportunity to visit neighbouring Jura too. The islands are separated by the Sound of Islay, a half-mile wide stretch of water. The ferry runs from Port Askaig on Islay to Feolin on Jura.

This year’s Islay Festival of Music and Malt runs from Friday 26th May to Saturday 3rd June. While there are still tickets available, accommodation on Islay gets booked up well in advance for the festival week, as do the ferries to and from the island. But where there’s a will there’s a way and it would be a shame to have to wait another year before enjoying this magical event! You can check out the available accommodation here. Otherwise make sure you have the dates in your diary for next year. The Islay Festival of Music and Malt 2018 takes place from Friday 25th May - Saturday 2nd June.

Photo by Mark Unsworth.