-> 2007 -> Book Review: Islay Past and Present

Wednesday, 14/Nov/2007

Book Review: Islay Past and Present

When I left for work this morning the postman arrived at my door, handing over the post. Apart from the usual junk mail it also contained two items coming from Islay. The first one was the Ileach. The second one was something I've waited for quite a long time since I first heard about it. I think I probably got on Mark Unsworth's nerves a bit with my pestering when the book would finally come out. But I now hold my copy of ‘Islay - Past and Present - A Century of Change’ in my hands:

Composite picture of a few views of the book

Having read Ron's well written and very positive review earlier this week I had quite high expectations for the book. I wasn't going to be disappointed. But let me take a step back and describe the book as well as why I was so keen to get it:

The book takes an old picture from Islay (with one exception they are from approx 1900 to 1940) and the modern equivalent, taken from the same spot. They are then shown next to each other, so that you can compare the old and the new picture. I've done a similar project online with my Swindon - Then and Now page. Hence I know what a fascinating yet also challenging project something like this is. First of all identifying the old picture, where is it, what is it. Then trying to find the spot where the picture was taken. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes you can't get to the spot any more, either way it takes quite some time to get the angle right. And finally you have to get the presentation of it right.

But back to the book, start with the facts. Hardcover, landscape format, 112 pages, black and white pictures. Then the content: Arriving in Port Ellen at the harbour Mark takes the reader on a journey around the island. The journey takes the reader from Port Ellen to Claggain Bay, then to Bowmore and via Bridgend to the Rinns. From the Rinns the journey continues via Ballygrant to Port Askaig and then finishes with a whirlwind tour of the distilleries. In other words, there should be something for almost everyone.

The pictures are annotated with a very short caption, not giving too much away about the picture and inviting the reader to discover the pictures and the differences. Sometimes the caption is in the form of a question, asking for missing information. For me this works very well, although I can see how this might not work so well for others: If you don't know the background to some of the pictures you might struggle to understand the caption. If you're more interested in facts, background and descriptions this book might not be perfect for you. But then it will be an excellent companion for any book about the history of Islay.

So, has Islay changed much in those pictures? No, not much. A lot of the buildings and features are still easily recognisable. Most updates are quite harmonious, although I think to an extent the picture selection helps here. There are some quite ugly ‘modern’ (I'd guess mostly built in or around the 1970s) buildings on Islay, which I don't think really fit in very well. Mark managed to largely avoid them in the book, so in that sense presents an idealised view. At the same time I think Islay has changed much less than the vast majority of other places in the UK, let alone on the continent.

As I received the book when I was leaving for work I took it into the office and showed it to a few of my colleagues. I think they were impressed by it as well and found it interesting even though they've never been to Islay, at best they've seen a few pictures and read a bit on my websites.

To summarise: Highly recommended.

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