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Issue 52 - In the news

Scotland Magazine Issue 52
August 2010


This article is 8 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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In the news

Wigtown festival booms
Nobody arrives in Wigtown because they are passing through. Not unless they are lost, that is. The market and former county town of Wigtownshire lies deep in the ‘Machars’ area of Dumfries and Galloway in south-west Scotland. It is more than 50 miles south-west of Dumfries, 30 miles from the ferry port of Stranraer, and 60 miles south of Ayr. Wigtown is not really on the road to anywhere.

Therein lies much of its charm, as it has escaped the worst excesses of high street homogenisation and tourist development, and retains a strong sense of community, but therein also lay a problem when the picturesque little town hit hard economic times during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Arguably, the 1,000-strong royal burgh and one-time trading port had long been in decline, losing its ‘county town’ status and administrative role when government reorganisation during the mid-1970s abolished Wigtownshire for administrative purposes and created Dumfries & Galloway, headquarted in distant Dumfries.

Then the late 1980s saw the closure of nearby Bladnoch Creamery, with the loss of a significant number of jobs, followed by the demise of Sorbie Creamery in 1991 and nearby Bladnoch distillery in 1993. Wigtown appeared to be in terminal decline.

Then came the idea of creating a Scottish National Book Town, as Wigtown Book Festival director Adrian Turpin explains. “The idea for a Scottish ‘book town’ came from the success of Hay-on-Wye originally,” he notes.

Hay-on-Wye, situated close to the English- Welsh border, has more than 30 bookshops, a thriving literary festival.

“By creating a town with lots of books you could perhaps revive a rural economy that was pretty well on its uppers,” says Turpin.

“Wigtown was up against four or five other Scottish towns, but it won, and in 1997 was crowned ‘Scotland’s National Book Town’.

“When the ‘book town’ venture started up it wasn’t about huge subsidies, it was more ‘give it a title and businesses will come’! We have photographs of boarded up shop fronts, streets with very few parked cars, taken just before the ‘book town’ status was given, and then the same views three years later, when shop fronts were painted and clean, and the town was starting to bustle. It’s a very graphic view of what happened.” Today, from modest beginnings, Wigtown is home to more than 20 bookshops and a publishing venture in the shape of CG Books Ltd, which is located a mile from the town and produces a range of local history titles.

The oldest-established literary retailer is simply called ‘The Bookshop,’ and is Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop.

Meanwhile, Transformer boasts “the largest stock in Scotland of second-hand and collectable science fiction and fantasy,” and the cleverly-named Readinglasses claims to be “the only second-hand bookshop specialising in women’s studies and social sciences outside London.” There are some 6,000 books on display in the bookshop-cafe with another 12,000 in the store behind the shop. Children are not forgotten in Wigtown, either, with The Box of Frogs specialising in literature for “kids of all ages.” Key to maintaining the profile of ‘Scotland’s National Book Town’ is the annual Book Festival, first staged in 1999.

Director Adrian Turpin recalls that “The first book festival was just a tiny thing. It’s gradually grown, and this is its 12th year. It now puts around half a million pounds into the economy.” During the opening reading of the first ever Festival, locally-born poet and translator Alistair Reid recalled his astonishment at hearing that the town had been designated Scotland’s National Book Town. “As a child, I can’t remember ever seeing one book in Wigtown!” he remarked.

Clearly, much has changed, and Adrian Turin says that “We try very hard to make sure it’s not just ‘talking heads’ at the Festival.

We like to get people involved. They are coming a long way off the main drag to be here and they are staying locally.” Part of that sense of involvement comes from the fact that as well as more conventional venues this year’s festival will feature readings in a ruined 12th century church, a castle and St Ninian’s Cave.

In addition to the main Festival programme, there will be what Turpin calls “ ‘Inspirations’ events in the former holding cell of the magistrates’ courts in Wigtown. It’s really about people engaging with the place.” Writing in Scotland on Sunday, literary editor Stuart Kelly noted recently that “Wigtown has managed to create a real ‘boutique’ feel to its festival. It’s refreshingly unstressed,” so Turpin and his dedicated team certainly seem to be on the right track.

Bladnoch distillery, just a mile from Wigtown, serves as a key venue during the Book Festival. Although it closed in 1993, the distillery has been operational once more on a small scale since 2000, and the picturesque 19th century structure is a popular visitor attraction in its own right, playing host to more than 20,000 people each year. It is owned by the irrepressible Northern Irish businessman Raymond Armstrong, who reopened the distillery against all the odds and now offers distillery tours and tastings, and retails gifts and a range of whiskies distilled on the premises and elsewhere. The 2009 Wigtown Book Festival featured a distillerybased mini-festival entitled ‘Whisky & Words,’ which explored the links between Scotland’s national drink and literature.

This time around, notable Scottish writers such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, James Robertson, Jackie Kay, Alan Massie and Alistair Gray will be heading to Wigtown, along with many more.

Whether or not you make the Festival, a trip to Wigtown and the surrounding Galloway countryside is warmly recommended.

This largely undiscovered, tranquil and quietly beautiful corner of Scotland is one of the country’s best kept secrets. Just make sure you have some empty space on your bookshelves before visiting Wigtown.

Nobody goes home empty-handed!