Scotland’s National Book Town
Books, relaxation, hospitality… and more books!
Set in the heart of bonnie Galloway, Scotland’s National Book Town provides a welcome retreat from everyday stress for Laura Scott.
Glistening across the bay between veils of delicate Scotch mist our destination made us stop to admire from afar well before we arrived. The drive to Scotland’s National Book Town, nestled in the heart of rural Galloway, added at least another hour to our journey, we couldn’t help but stop to take in the views!
Taking things at a slower pace was what this trip was all about, an escape from stress and the frantic rush of everyday life, if only for a few days. Driving along the A75 with the sweeping Solway Firth coastline on one side, the mountainous Galloway Forest Park on the other and the evening sun setting the sky alight, even the journey was a pleasure. Wigtown celebrates its fifth birthday as Scotland’s National Book Town this year, an excuse, if one were needed, to take time out to discover its stories.
Five years ago this was just like hundreds of other small rural towns across the British countryside, suffering from a decline in traditional industries, the resulting unemployment and a migration of its young people to other areas. Becoming a Book Town has halted that all too familiar rural decline and brought life back to Wigtown.
More than that, it’s brought dozens of new businesses, including our hosts, The Wigtown Ploughman Hotel. This is a family run business and it shows. Cleanly and atmospherically refurbished, the Ploughman’s speciality is its sumptuous menus filled with appetising local produce and hearty portions to more than satisfy weary new arrivals. Our appetites sated a stroll through Wigtown’s wide main street told us what being a book town really meant. Bookshop after bookshop after bookshop, over ten on the main street alone, not including the publishers, archive newspapers, music shop and art gallery – quite astonishing for a town of only 1,200 residents.
Discovering the streets packed with cars and hundreds of people milling about on the first morning of our tranquil, get-away-from-it-all break was a surprise. Wigtown is host to a busy street market twice a month from Easter till October with around twenty stalls filled with everything you would expect in a rural market – jams, chutney and locally smoked foods next to knitwear and antiques.
Escaping the temptation of the stalls and heading to bookshelves we started with the largest, the largest traditional bookshop in Scotland actually, whose regular shop front exterior descends into a labyrinth of rooms, sprawling out into the garden. Aptly named ‘The Book Shop’, it does what it says on the tin with shelves stocked to overflowing with books on a huge range of subjects.
The scent of aging paper and freshly brewed coffee, the dusty air and cosy atmosphere. When you’re used to dashing into one of the sanitised chains of book stores, going straight to the section you want and finding exactly what you expect, it’s a real forgotten pleasure to spend hours browsing and flicking through pages to find that hidden gem you’d forgotten you wanted. Emerging with a James Bond first edition and two William Blake antique prints for less than fifty pounds we felt well rewarded for our browsing.
Hours later at closing time we had only managed to visit a few of the 30 book related businesses. The ReadingLasses with its fabulous coffee and baking, comfy sofas and extensive collection of social studies and literature. The Old Bank specialising in Scottish history and first editions, and stockists of the highly collectable ‘Smallest Books in the World’, produced in Wigtown by Gleniffer Press. Ming Books, literally a house of books with its eccentric owners on-hand to help, the tiny Transformer in nearby Bladnoch with its vast collection of sci-fi in an impossibly small space and Byre Books which focuses on mythology and folklore. Too many to visit in too short a space of time!
The glorious summer sunshine faded by early evening to stormy skies and lashing rain. It’s said that the climate in Galloway is special. Noticeably warmer than the rest of Scotland and often bearing no resemblance to weather forecasts, the long Galloway coast is washed by the warming Atlantic Gulf Stream while the shape of the land creates small micro-climates much appreciated by the many formal gardens and specialist nurseries nearby.
There may have been storms outside but who said you need sunny weather to have a great holiday. Spending an evening with a loved one, next to an open fire, sipping the local water of life and perusing ones purchases is well recommended for melting any lingering tensions or stresses away.
Galloway is fascinating place to explore and it’s puzzling that so few people seem to have discovered its simple pleasures. With most of Scotland’s landscapes easily accessibly in a relatively small area you’ll find mountains, lochs, waterfalls, heathery moors, coastline, lush farmland and forest all side by side in this ever changing landscape. The triangular piece of land on which Wigtown sits is known as the Machars and it’s riddled with history, with more Historic Scotland sites in this small area than almost anywhere else in Scotland.
South of Wigtown to Whithorn lies the cradle of Scottish Christianity where the first church was built with the story of the town’s past revealed by fascinating archaeological displays. West lies the 10th century Chapel Finian near Port William, east the impressive 4,000 year old Cairnholy and the well preserved ruin of Carsluith Castle. Heading north is the Galloway Forest Park, filled with stories of Robert the Bruce and his first victory over the English and of tyrannical gypsy kings. Stay within Wigtown’s boundaries and you’ll discover the Wigtown Martyrs’ Monument to 17th century Covenanters who died for their beliefs, the Torhouse Stone Circle dating from the Bronze Age and the site of the old Royal Castle on the impressive Wigtown Bay Nature Reserve.
It’s well worth spending a day exploring the quiet country roads by car to take in the treats of the surrounding area. Scotland’s most southerly point, the Mull of Galloway, with its impressive lighthouse, is open to the public at weekends with spectacular views to Ireland and Cumbria. Or try the beautiful Loch Trool, tumbling Glenluce Abbey or drive the Queens Way through the heart of the Forest Park.
But coming back to Wigtown via the local distillery is a pleasure not to be missed. The story of Bladnoch distillery is surely worth a book of its own. It’s a story of openings and closings, takeovers by multinationals, abandonment, dereliction and rebirth in the hands of an Irish businessman, keen to bring life, employment and tourism to the village of Bladnoch. It’s a story of success over all odds, with Scotland’s most southerly distillery now delighting visitors throughout the year eager to sample it’s unique malts, hosting community events, comedy, music and dances in its refurbished buildings, campers on its grounds with riverside and woodland walks to explore.
It must be something in the water. Wigtown is on the up too. A place to relax and unwind and a must for any bibliophile, Scotland’s Book Town has a charm of its own. Old fashioned maybe, with characters refreshingly eccentric, hospitality second to none, lively events throughout the year, stunning scenery, a rich natural heritage and miles and miles of books. I arrived as a tourist and left as a Friend of Wigtown – not an empty sentiment, with Friendship comes priority booking for the September Literary Festival – you can guarantee it won’t be long before I’m back!
Wigtown Book Town Company
Tel: 01988 402 036
For information on all Wigtown’s bookshops, events, accommodation and news.
The Wigtown Ploughman Hotel
Tel: 01988 403 236
The 5th Scottish Book Town Festival – 25th – 28th September 2003
Programmes and visitor information available from the Book Town Company on 01988 402 036. On-line booking on www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk. Guest authors include Kate Adie, Melvyn Bragg, Peter Kerr, Alistair Moffat and Alastair Reid among others.
The International Festival of Book Towns – 21st – 24th May 2004
An international celebration of Book Towns with representatives from around the world. Register on www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk for news updates.
Did you know…?
In 1999, Wigtown was recognised by the Scottish Parliament as Scotland’s National Book Town, when it became one of a global network of Book Towns including Hay-on-Wye in Wales; Stillwater, Minnesota, USA; and Southern Highlands, News South Wales, Australia.
A Book Town is a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or scenic beauty.
There are an estimated quarter of a million books for sale in Wigtown – that’s 250 books for each resident of the town.
Wigtown has 30 book-related businesses, including the largest second-hand traditional bookshop in Scotland and the publisher of the smallest books in the world.
The 2003 Scottish Book Town Festival is expected to boost temporarily the population of Wigtown by around 400%.