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
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!