LANDSCAPE, WARMTH & FOLKSINESS: Celebrating 25 years of the Wigtown Book Festival.

From the outset, the Wigtown Book Festival has championed Dumfries and Galloway’s landscape, history and languages. There have always been trendy writers and the most talked about media figures – but these are combined with a real concern for the area’s roots and culture.

by Hugh Mcmillan

The Wigtown Book Festival enjoys its 25th anniversary this year and when I read my poem of celebration [appended below] at Friday’s opening party, I felt I was shining a small light on the most eccentric, brilliant, entertaining and friendly book festival in the world.

Pictured are Sandra McDowall (secretary of the Community Council which made the bid for Book Town status), with three former officers of Dumfries and Galloway Council – (from left) Derek Crichton, Les Jardine and Graham Trickey. (Photo Credit: Third Sector: Dumfries & Galloway)

In 1998, a committee pondering the location of Scotland’s first book town controversially selected a small decrepit ex-market town deep in the Machars, a remote and rural bulge of land close to the Solway Firth in the west of Dumfries and Galloway.

The town, like many others in the area, had fallen on hard times. A creamery, which was its main employer, had closed along with many other businesses. The centre of the town was full of boarded-up shops. The roof of the grandiose town hall was leaking. The old distillery at Bladnoch was shut. Surely, here was a case for a town to be revived.  

Richard Booth, the founder of the Hay-on-Wye Book town (and in a way the whole international book town movement), preferred Dalmellington in Ayrshire, a town with better transport links, that he thought was more economically and socially viable. After all, Wigtown had no rail link and was only accessible via the A75 from either Dumfries or Stranraer, a 70 mile round trip even from the major towns of Dumfries and Galloway, never mind anywhere else.

Booth’s advice was cheerfully ignored. Wigtown was anointed and the bookshops moved in. To begin with, books were sold alongside pet-food, linoleum and fishing tackle or even outdoors. Nowadays, some of the original shops –  Reading Lasses, the Old Bank, The Bookshop and Box of Frogs/Curly Tail – are still there while others continue in the same hands, though their names have changed. Some bookshops have gone entirely, some altered: the Music Shop became Beltie Books and Cafe, the Book Corner turned into the Open Book, the holiday bookshop, where you can play at bookselling for a week or so.  

Not long after this momentous (some might say puzzling) decision, a meeting of great Galloway writers saw readings by Alasdair Reid from Whithorn (arguably Galloway’s greatest English-speaking poet), Jack Hunter (arguably Galloway’s greatest historian), and the son of John McNiellie (author of the scandalous ‘Galloway Ploughman’ and arguably Galloway’s Irvine Welsh). Plans were made and the Book Festival was born.

I read at the first festival in a pub which has now become a bookshop. A retrograde step some would say. The Galloway remains Wigtown’s only proper pub, where some of the festival’s and book town’s opponents are still to be found. ‘This place used to be a dump, now it’s a dump with a book festival.’

A lot of folk rail on about colonisation. Certainly a few years ago when I was looking for a Scottish woman to read a poem in Scots about Elspeth Buchan, we had to bus one in from Stranraer, all expenses paid. Sometimes walking about Wigtown, it can be like the Home Counties. Mind you, the same could be said for every scenic part of Dumfries and Galloway.

Despite all this, the hard facts are impressive: The Festival generates £4.3 million for the local economy each year; that’s £23 generated for every £1 of public funding received. Since the festival began, over 3000 authors and performers have taken part, bringing over 300,000 people to Wigtown. Last year, they delivered author sessions and workshops to over 5,500 children and young people across 73 schools and nurseries in the region.

From the outset, the Wigtown Book Festival has set out its stall to spotlight and champion Galloway’s landscape, history and languages. There have always been the most trendy writers, the most talked about political and media figures – but these have been combined with a real concern for the area’s roots and, ironically, its disappearing cultures: Galloway’s legacy in Gaelic and Scots, its rich and unique history and literature (Did you know the Lord of Galloway commissioned his own Arthurian romance ‘Fergus of Galloway’, written in beautiful medieval French?). It’s an international festival very conscious of the heritage in which it’s embedded. That singles it out (big style!) from its rival in Edinburgh.

Dumfries and Galloway was once a place where writers had no support, and you could only dream of a situation where an organisation would encourage and mentor young writers, organise festivals for kids, sort out outreach in schools and prisons.

The great trilingual bard Willie Neill, contemporary of MacCaig’s and every bit as good, dreamed of a situation where poets could write in their local area, using the languages and history of their local area, using the publishers of the local area, and thrive. The Wigtown Book Festival is making Dumfries and Galloway a powerhouse of local creativity. At Wigtown this year, young makars will mix with local writing groups and local poets of all ages, as well as international stars.

The Wigtown Book Festival generates genuine affection among writers. There are a variety of reasons for this. They love the landscape, the warmth of the audiences, the town, the quirkiness of the whole thing.  I love its folksiness, the fact you feel sometimes that they’re making it up as they go along. You’re always getting phoned up at the last minute and asked to do something incredibly creative but doomed to failure. And cover up stuff they’ve done. Nothing bad of course, just silly.

There is a cast of hundreds of course but the spine of the Wigtown crew are the brilliant Director Adrian Turpin and the indefatigable (and equally brilliant) Administrator Anne Barclay, a native of the area, who’ve been there since kick off and are not hard to admire. They are not apparatchiks but lovers of the place and its people.

So all hail Wigtown! I was looking forward to every second as I organised my journey by train, bus, raft and yak, knowing I would meet old friends. And new. And weird.

Wigtown 25 by Hugh McMillan

Doon in the Machars naur the Sulway Firth
wis a toon that had tynt its sense of wirth,
a fousome past had turnt tae dearth,
but it’s a toon that has been turnt aroond.
The map of Galloway reveals the names
of the Scots and the Vikings and the Gaels,
the scattered stones still mouth the tales,
of these rich and vibrant times.
Rivers and sandbars, hidden glens,
cormorants, otters, flocks and skeins,
where the fairies left Scotland and the Wickerman flamed, 
the place is holy ground.
But joabs were scant, industries dyin,
the maist muckle export was their ain children flyin,
quattin the laund as aye to mak a try in 
the ceeties, or itherwhaur in the wurld.
So a book town was chosen near to the sea:
a close run thing: not everyone’s idea
where such an important institution should be,
in Galloway! But there it was born.

The Festival followed in short measure,
there were cynics of course, as there are ever,
they didn’t see the scope, or the treasure,
in taking a risk of this kind. 

Naething steys the same, things are aye changin,
naebodys aye happy gans withoot sayin,
ye cannae hing on tae things that are agin,
or things that hae withert or dowd.

Audiences appeared, bookshops abounding,
cafes took root, the cakes were astounding,
even the bitterest folk in the pub were loud in
saying something special’s begun.  

Not just here, but all over the region
the fingers of the adventure were spreading 
the town was a hub that was always bleeding
into places that were usually let down.

We aa ken the celebrities, the scrievers world wide
who ilka year traivel  here an bide,
they were sometimes scunnert but mair aften
bein here in this bayous toon.

Writers in schools outreach in prison,
mini festivals for kids, poetry competitions,
a town was reborn but now there was vision,
to spread the love far and wide.

From Mc Niellie to Hunter to Alastair Reid
they’ve celebrated the history the poetry and leid,
they’ve legacy built but they’ve paid heed
to the legacies that have mattered before them.

Somethin rare was makkit here, centret roon readin,
in a wurld fu o fechtin that’s hungert an greedy,
the doucest airt is the yin that’s maist needit, 
an ho this toun mad its name.
Here’s to the organisers and workers and sponsors
those who’ve coped with plagues, egos and losses,
who’ve still kept the dream alive in their heads as
twenty five years have gone down.
So raise your tassies, drink deep an herty,
theres hauf an hoor ye can carouse at this pairty,
till next year’s programmin needs tae be stairtin:
in the miracle that is Wigtown.

About our contributor

Hugh McMillan is a poet and writer from south-west Scotland who has been published and anthologised widely. An award winner in competitions including the Smith/Doorstep Pamphlet Prize, the Callum MacDonald Prize and the Cardiff International Poetry Competition, he has also been shortlisted for the Michael Marks Prize, the Basil Bunting Poetry Award and the Bridport Prize. (Photo Credit: Joanne Mackay)

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