By Mark Gillespie
March 18, 2020 – For more than two decades, whisky lovers have flocked to Scotland’s Isle of Islay at the end of May for Fèis Ìle, the Islay Festival of Malt & Music. As with many aspects of life in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic, this year will be different.
Festival directors met Tuesday night to consider their options, and in the end, decided that only one option existed: cancel this year’s Fèis completely given government recommendations against holding large public events. That phrase “large public events” defines the Fèis, which is Islay’s biggest week of year as the island’s population swells to around three times its usual size and hundreds of people line up for tours and exclusive festival bottling during each distillery’s open day.
Festival secretary Lesley McCall and the other directors have declined interview requests, referring reporters to the statement posted Wednesday on the Fèis Ìle web site and Facebook page.
Following Scottish Government guidelines, with deep regret, we announce that Fèis Ìle 2020 is cancelled.
We are devastated to have to announce this. We love our festival and welcoming people from around the world. We have considered the impact on islanders, local businesses and visitors alike.
We have made this decision after lengthy discussions between the Committee and our distillery partners, and have concluded no other option was viable.
Please continue to support our island and we look forward to seeing you for Fèis Ìle 2021.
Finally, to those who have bought tickets direct from Fèis Ìle, you will be contacted by our volunteers in the next 14 days. Please be patient and we will be in touch. Thank you.
The impact on Islay from the Fèis is huge in most years, as visitors pump much-needed money into the island’s hotels, pubs, and shops. However, those crowds also stress the Islay infrastructure to its limits and with limited public health facilities on the island, the risk to visitors and the local population from potential exposure to the virus gave the organizers no choice.
Islay’s nine distilleries have closed their visitors centers and ended tours, with some closing until at least April 3 and others until further notice. Each distillery organizes its own special events during the festival, and while many had not yet announced their schedule or started selling tickets, those that have should be contacting ticket holders to arrange for refunds.
The decision came hours after organizers of Spirit of Speyside and the Campbeltown Malts Festival announced their cancellations Tuesday. The Campbeltown cancellation was seen as a logical preview of the Islay decision, since that festival is held immediately before the Fèis each May and many visitors spend a day or two there before taking the ferry to Islay.
WhiskyCast has reached out to Islay tourism leaders to gauge the impact of the cancellation on the island’s economy. This story will be updated with additional information, and listen to the next episode of WhiskyCast for complete coverage.