I've been far afield this week. It's a two and a half hour sail to get to the beautiful Hebridean Isle of Colonsay, off the west coast of Scotland. It is a tiny island, with a population of 120 souls, but last weekend it held its book festival. The ferry across was packed with cheerful souls ready to enjoy their feast of culture and the audiences, of 100 and more, were warm and enthusiastic.
The festival phenomenon has taken Britain by storm and there's hardly a village of any size that doesn't have some sort of book festival at this time of year – often a crime weekend, which has kept me busy driving all over Scotland. Everyone gets caught up in the preparation and the excitement and it's often a shot in the arm for local businesses and hotels too, very welcome in these difficult times.
There's something special, though, about a festival on an island. I'd been to one before, on the neighbouring Isle of Islay, and that had certainly whetted my appetite. The atmosphere was wonderful and the craic went on late into the night, but the only problem was that the next day, when the book festival had a full programme, was also the day of the funeral of a well-known local lady. Funerals are taken seriously here and it started at nine in the morning and finished with a wake that ended at eleven at night. Since almost the whole population was attending, our audiences were composed almost exclusively of the organisers and their long-suffering spouses, strong-armed into coming and looking as if they were enjoying it.
There were fortunately no such problems this time. One of the benefits of being a speaker is having free access to all the other talks as well, and I learned a lot about the island's history, going right back to St Columba, who brought Christianity from Ireland to Scotland, landing here though legend has it that he left to sail on further because from here he could still see his beloved Ireland. His brother, St Oran, stayed on, and is commemorated by a Holy Well and this curious little statue. There's a story to be found there, I'm sure – a good place for a body.
As I write at my desk in Edinburgh I can hear the sound of traffic, of busy people all rushing on their way to do important things and I try to hold on to the memory of the slow island pace of life and the silence that is so profound you can hear the blood singing in your ears. Perhaps we've got it all wrong.