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Publisher spotlight: Ailsapress

Across 2022, the Year of Stories, we are spotlighting Publishing Scotland members, who will share their own story in their own words. Get to know Ailsapress, the Isle of Islay-based publisher aiming to produce work that reflects indigenous island life, and offers a memento to visitors who come to the island.

What’s your story?

Ailsapress is probably one of the smallest of Publishing Scotland’s Members, yet I think the story we have to tell could encourage others who are not looking to make it “big-time”, but want to enable creativity in the form of writing and/or illustration in their local community. 

At the start, I myself was an author unsuccessfully looking for a publishing outlet for what turned out to be our first book, The Tail of Ailsa, by myself Catherine Wilson and artist Ruth McLean. We had worked on the book 17 years before it finally came out under our imprint “Ailsapress” – named after the cat who belonged to Ruth! The book, a combination of verse and image, showed Ailsa about her daily business, sleeping, eating, watching birds and her fascination with water.

It was 2007 when the book came out. Ruth often says, by waiting so long to publish, we were able to take advantage of the advances made in digital programming both of images and publishing formats. In any case, I was immediately thrust on a steep learning curve – so much to learn! I hadn’t even thought about distribution when we started. But we were lucky enough to show the book to Matthew Perren of Bookspeed and he liked the book well enough to take it on.

I knew from the start that I wanted Ailsapress to serve as a publishing outlet in the Isle of Islay where I had recently retired. Islay had been a family basking ground from my earliest years. I know the island well and I imagined lots of books we could publish, especially as we have a busy tourist trade which, with the increasing number of Whisky Distilleries, is fast becoming a year-round trade rather than just seasonal.

Tell us about some of your key stories.

Back then, such was my ignorance that I did not realise that to become a publishing member of Publishing Scotland, one needed to have at least two authors other than yourself. Of course it makes perfect sense but talk about putting the cart before the horse! Anyway whilst I was waiting for my first ‘other’ authors, Ruth and I set about creating a young children’s series based on the adventures of two Islay ponies, Bramble and Coultoon. Then in 2011, Mary McGregor, a local Ileach who had been born and raised on Islay, approached me with some of her writing. I was delighted. She is a natural story-teller and her stories are about the crofting farm of her early years. Her writing is very fresh and apt for both our local community and our tourist visitors. 

My second ‘other’ author was Stuart Graham who wrote an account of Islay at the time of World War 1. So many Ileachs lost their lives in this war, their names are inscribed on the War Memorials but the detail of their lives is otherwise easily forgotten. Stuart took his title from a poem by Wilfred Owen, These Men are Worth Your Tears (2015). In 2016 we published Martine Nouet’s À Table: Whisky from Glass to Plate. Martine came to Islay as a whisky and drink journalist, malt whisky being one of the principle industries. She fell in love with the island decided to make her home here. There are so many places that remain wild and solitary on the island, and wherever you go, there will be some encounter to surprise you, a golden eagle, a double rainbow, or the sound of singing seals. 

In 2017, the Tom Thomson Gallery of Owen Sound suggested that Ruth and I do a book about the Canadian artist Tom Thomson and his dog. They had been selling our Bramble and Coultoon books and rightly envisaged that Tom and his dog would make a good story for younger readers. This came out in 2018 with the title Eulalie’s Journey to Algonquin with Tom Thomson. Our last two books are Mary McGregor’s The Seasons with Cindy and Lucy – Old Farming Ways on Islay published 2022, and Emily Carr and Raven – In the Darkness of Her Dreams by myself and Ruth MacLean published 2021.

What draws you to a story? What makes a good story? 

Since becoming a publishing member of Publishing Scotland, I have often been approached by budding authors and illustrators or sometimes by someone who wants a re-print of their book. I always answer such queries but so far nothing has tempted me. Partly this is because I wish to remain a publisher offering books that accord with Islay. As I am now in my early eighties, I would love to pass Ailsapress on to a younger person who has the same interest at heart. But there’s a funny twist: Ailsapress has found an outlet in Canada!

What’s next in the Ailsapress story?

In fact, right now at the time of writing, I am in Canada. Ruth and I are in the middle of a reading tour, mostly for our Emily Carr book but we’ve presented the Tom Thomson book in a couple of places too. Our book on Emily Carr is for the young adult reader and older. It tells the life story of Emily Carr (1871-1945) from an unusual angle which blends fact with fiction. She comes into this life as a lost tree soul and this determines her search to become “a real artist” to use her own words. It also accords with her love of trees. The story is very topical for present-day Canada. As well as her close relationship with the trees, Emily had a true empathy with the First Nations people. We have found audiences sympathetic and enthusiastic. We were especially happy with the response of teenage pupils in two Ontario High Schools and have already sold a class set to one school. It would be great to have our book come into its own as an educational tool. I should also mention that since her first collage interpretations of Ailsa her cat, Ruth’s collage work has become increasingly subtle. She is now using beautiful fibre papers from Japan – a treat to behold – and on this tour we have also done collage workshops. 

Learn more about Ailsapress at