Kevin MacNeil wraps-up An Lanntair’s Brilliant & Forever Festival!

  • Published on: 17th August 2022
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The Brilliant & Forever festival was brought to life for the first time earlier this month – local writer and author of The Brilliant & Forever novel, Kevin MacNeil reflects on his story becoming a reality…

“If you build it,” said Kevin Costner (no relation), “they will come.” And we – humans and alpacas alike – turned the Castle Green into our own ‘field of dreams’ on August 6th 2022. For this was the day our unique (and slightly bonkers) Brilliant & Forever literary festival took place.

The Brilliant & Forever was part of Scotland’sYear of Stories 2022’ and was essentially an entertaining, good-natured literary competition, featuring a lot of humour and a few twists along the way. It’s fair to say that some people were initially sceptical about the project, as though they hadn’t met a talking alpaca before. A sizeable marquee pretty much at capacity, however, spoke for itself, as did an enthusiastic and engaged audience that was much larger than we had any right to expect, especially given the cold monsoon weather.

Shortlisted authors (twelve human, one alpaca) shared diverse stories in eight-minute slots, live and in-person (or in-alpaca), except for three people who had pre-recorded theirs. The trio of expert judges (two human, one alpaca) gave helpful, generous, and encouraging feedback on each story.

In truth, the quality of writing submitted was so pleasingly high that the judges had decided to create a Highly Commended list for some of those whose work was not shortlisted. It was gratifying to know that writers – new and established, aspiring and published – responded to a quirky idea with relish. The wide-ranging stories probed the psyche, ventured into the surreal, evoked deep emotional reactions of nostalgia, compassion, loss, love, and more.

Often, when the imagination seeps its way into physical reality, numerous serendipities occur. As is fair and professional, the submitted short stories were anonymised before the judges read them. When she perused the programme, Jenny Niven (judge, eminent producer and director, former Head of Literature at Creative Scotland) gasped. She recognised someone; a shortlisted author had worked with her on ‘Time Out’ magazine in Beijing! Many such synchronicities arose, giving the whole event the shine of something extraordinary in more ways than one.

Meanwhile, participants had travelled from North America, continental Europe, various parts of the Mainland and even Tarbert to enjoy not only the narratives but the alpacas, the merchandise (T-shirts, notebooks, badges, Stetsons!), the general air of laughter and tacit zaniness, and the music (courtesy of an appropriately relaxed and witty Willie Campbell, setting exactly the right tone for the afternoon). One Mainland-based islander made a stealth visit home, dressed in Gothic ninja black, hoping their family wouldn’t spy them because they wanted a quick fuss-free flying visit. While this individual did feature smack-bang in the middle of the TV screen on the BBC Alba news item about the B&F, their surreptitious visit home hasn’t been rumbled. Yet.

The joint winners of the golden alpaca statuettes – objects they didn’t know their mantelpieces never needed – were announced: Rachel Carmichael and R.M. Murray. In one fell swoop, their respective CVs became at once more impressive and more surreal.

Reactions to the event have been uplifting. Many people – participants and audience members – requested that the event take place again next year, and that a book anthologising the stories be published. Whether this was the only or the inaugural B&F Festival remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: everyone had an experience to remember.

I don’t think many people knew quite what to expect, but even for those involved the event surpassed expectations. If we hold another B&F – or even make it an annual event, like a smaller-scale literary cousin to the Hebridean Celtic Festival – I would tweak a few things, but overall, I was thrilled with how it turned out. The marquee on Lews Castle Green brimmed with bemused, and then transfixed audience members. Writers gained enormously in confidence from the appreciative audience. People who would otherwise never have met bonded tightly; meaningful friendships were forged. The alpacas, of course, stole everyone’s hearts. One audience member, writing afterwards, described it as “pure joy,” and said she felt “lucky to be on the island at the same time as the B&F.”

What have we learned from this adventure? I think the Brilliant & Forever experience exemplified the following truths: there is an appetite for literature events in the islands, especially events that bring people together in a relaxed and enjoyable manner; literary events are a sound investment, regardless of weather; there is capacity for literary festivals to take events and ideas seriously without taking themselves seriously (from now on, non-alpaca-themed lit fests will feel somehow lacking!); there is tangible potential for greater mudita, sympathetic joy, in artistic endeavour. Literature, like many art forms, is sometimes contaminated with a (deeply destructive) sense of simmering envies and petty jealousies, but the B&F proved that even in a ’competitive’ environment, there can be sincere pleasure and overwhelmingly positive connectivity.

A great many stars – the alpacas of Alpacan, placard makers, tech and logistics magicians, EventScotland folk (especially Emma), An Lanntair staff (Moira, above all) – came into alignment to make this work, and in the end, it felt as though not just stars but entire constellations fell into place.

And so, it turns out the vision we had was just crazy enough to work. Wet weekends in the Hebrides, alas, are common; a rare event like The Brilliant & Forever offers an unusual and edifying alternative. We built it, they came. As if the imagination, when carried over tangibly into the ‘real’ word, can bring with it life-enhancing colour, novelty, an array of large emotions, moments that last. The very stuff that, in turn, contributes to making up a person’s own memories, their journey, their story.

– Kevin MacNeil