Hazel McHaffie

Scotland’s National Book Town

Inside Scotland’s National Book Town

Fourteen independent bookshops in one tiny town? Surely … surely they can’t all survive buried in a remote location deep in a large rural county, way off the beaten track … can they?

You haven’t been to Scotland’s National Book Town, Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, then!

From their names to their ambience, their range of genres to their quirky extras, they’re all distinctive, all appealing.

Pop in to the rustic cafe: ReadingLasses, and you get a sense of how special and distinctive this place is. Tables are scattered throughout the rooms; you bag a seat, and while you wait for your soup to arrive, you browse the books, take in the extensive ceiling-height display of old family photos and artefacts belonging to owner, Dr Jackie, (she was a scientist amongst other things in a former life), slip in to the Women’s Room devoted to lesbian literature and women writers … By the time I’d finished lunch I had five books ready to purchase. It’s irresistible.

Excellent signposting, alphabetic sorting, isn’t confined to the Old Bank Bookshop where co-proprietor, Joyce Cochrane, is a qualified librarian; it seems to be a specialty of the town – so much easier to browse effectively compared with the more haphazard displays I’m used to in the city.

Most of the bookshops are divided into several rooms, inviting you to roam in peace, lingering to flick through possible purchases on the ubiquitous sofas and chairs. Bliss. One shop (The Bookshop) even has a large bed filling a little mezzanine area!!

Not surprising maybe as the owner, Shaun Bythell, is a rather eccentric chap with a whacky sense of humour which you see at every turn.

He is himself a published author as well as owning this the largest secondhand bookshop anywhere in the country, a Grade II-listed Georgian building, holding upwards of 10,000 books and a mile of shelving!

Talk about ramshackle! … and no, I hadn’t caught him on moving-in day!! The place is littered with hazards and piles and boxes and assorted paraphernalia, (I think Shaun would probably give Health and Safety a pretty good run for their money!) but it’s well worth the danger, if you escape without being vilified in his pithy diaries of a bookseller!

But Wigtown is way, way more than a list of assets. As you’ll have gathered, the owners of the said bookshops have fabulous pedigrees – including in their number not just the aforementioned scientist and librarian, but a sheriff/criminal QC, a social worker, teachers – lovely lovely people only too ready to share their stories as well as their welcoming premises. Maybe it’s true that it’s a universal dream …?

It’s on that theory at least that they’ve based another project at The Open Book – billed as a ‘unique holiday experience’. Members of the general public can come to run the bookshop for a couple of weeks, and they do indeed come, from around the world – it’s fully booked until 2021!

I have no idea how everyone copes with the competition behind the scenes, but there was a warm spirit of camaraderie in what they divulged to me, backed up by the enthusiastic team in the Wigtown Book Festival Office. And there’s nothing ‘part-time retirement project’ about their ventures: these people know what’s on their shelves, they converse knowledgeably about authors, they’ve carefully retained a personal touch alongside the rustic country charm and history of their premises.

Sadly the Byre Books shop wasn’t open on weekdays in November, but it’s like a secret surprise hidden down a back alley at the end of a tunnel of trees; such a perfect location for books on folklore and mythology. I crept down there twice just to savour the thrilling approach.

Friday morning was my leaving date, but I simply had to visit the newest bookshop: Well-Read Books, just opened (Friday to Monday only at the moment) by former criminal QC/sheriff, Ruth Anderson, so I popped down to the Wetlands to see the geese until she opened at 10. And boy, was it worth the delay. From the beautiful logo drawn by a local artist to the muted decor, it’s tastefully decorated (still smelling of paint it’s that new) and so beautifully organised, books in such good condition, it’s like a showcase.

But this charming lady knows her subjects – many! It’s her ambition to source specific titles for customers and she totally made my day week year by producing not one but two Mary Elizabeth Braddons for me without advance warning.

Rare treasures, so, of course, I had to snap up both.

Time and space don’t allow me to detail more and retain your goodwill, but every bookshop was an experience, and I supported their ventures by purchasing no fewer than 35 books – only two of which were on my list! Thank you, Wigtown, for a fabulous experience.

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A bookworm’s paradise

Head in the general direction of Dumfries, then point your nose towards the Atlantic Ocean, and with luck you’ll stumble upon a tiny little place called Wigtown, population less than 900.

Small in mathematical dimensions it may be, but Wigtown punches way above its weight in other senses. In 1998, it went from a decaying backwater to become ‘Scotland’s National Book Town’ (after winning a competition against more flourishing towns such as Dunblane and Moffat), a development which acted as a catalyst for major community regeneration.

The rejuvenated and very splendid County Buildings are a monument to the drive to put this sleepy little place on the map. Supportive funding from many sources, and the sterling work of some hugely dedicated enthusiasts, have helped it go from strength to strength.

And boy, does it merit the title of National Book Town twenty years on! Why?
Big breath in …
Because …
it has a thriving annual Book Festival each September – selling in the region of 29,000 tickets this year for 290 events;
plus it masterminds several smaller, more specialist book and festive events in January, March and May and July (that I heard about – there could well be more);
plus it organises outreach literary activities for schools and prisons and care homes and budding writers;
plus it offers opportunities for members of the general public from around the world to realise their dream of running a book shop for a couple of weeks in The Open Book;
plus it currently boasts 14 independent bookshops, and a further 6 book-related businesses;
plus the largest secondhand bookshop anywhere in the country  Рa Grade II-listed Georgian building, holding upwards of 10,000 books and a mile of shelving!
And breathe out …

Quaint, pretty, picturesque, atmospheric ‘ the blurb has it, cultural gems nestling cheek by jowl with delightful little tea rooms (also full of books!), a heady mixture of old Scots common sense and farming traditions leavening the literary landscape.

Its own martyrs,

its own stone circle,
its own famous names and connections.

It’s even got a toe in nature conservation, bordered as it is by a nature reserve (which stretches all the way to Newton Stewart in the North and Creetown in the West), home to exotic species of migrant geese down in the saltmarshes; offering easily accessed bird/squirrel hides;

ospreys in the skies; wonderful forest trails a few minutes drive away.

What’s not to like?

I’ve just spent a couple of days there lapping up all the literary references and browsing and exploring. What a treat. Even in November. This tiny town nestling at the remote edge of a vast pastoral county is thriving to such an extent that most of the shops and cafes stay open all year round.

During the September Festival this year – its 20th anniversary – the town was spectacularly decorated with special outdoor wallpaper designed by artist Astrid Jaekel under the theme: If these walls could talk. Each set of drawings illustrated a unique part of that particular building’s history. Some of it is still in situ, so I could see why unsuspecting drivers almost collided with each other when they encountered it initially; ‘striking’ doesn’t do it justice.

You might have noticed that, at the beginning of this month, The Royal Society for Public Health produced a report: Health on the High Street: Running on Empty. It found that ‘unhealthy’ high streets could be taking up to two and a half years off people’s lives. Unhealthy = full of bookmakers and off-licences (points also deducted for payday lenders, fast food outlets, tanning salons, empty shops); healthy = libraries and pharmacies (bonus points also for dentists, opticians, coffee shops, museums and galleries). Yep, I think we can see an inherent weighting here! Anyway … overall our beautiful city, Edinburgh, came top of the health stakes. But, you know what? I reckon Wigtown would be up there in the big league if it were scored. It’s a tonic of a town.

I loved it. And I plan to take you inside some of these fascinating bookshops next week to share my experience of browsing and buying there.

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