Hazel McHaffie

Shaun Bythell

Virtual Wigtown Book Festival

What a  week! What a treat! I’ve returned to Wigtown, over in the south west of Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway, this time for their annual Book Festival – for the very first time a virtual event.

Before each session the camera has taken me through the town with its plethora of independent bookshops, and I’ve been reminded of the unique atmosphere and warm welcome Scotland’s National Book Town extends.

I was spoilt for choice. A few sessions were actually filmed in Wigtown in the familiar arrangement of author and interviewer actually speaking to one another, appropriately socially distanced; most were from homes or offices around the UK and abroad. And what a rich variety of topics were covered, light-hearted and deadly serious, entertaining as well as challenging. A taster will suffice for my purposes.

Wigtown’s own curmudgeonly bookshop owner, Shaun Bythell, now author of two bestsellers, ‘nibbling away at the hands of those who feed him’ in his confessions of a bookseller, appeared on his home turf. Except that he’s now undergone something of a transformation since I last saw him: neatly trimmed hair, smartly dressed, positively benign about his fellow man! Hello? Fatherhood seems to have smoothed some of his jagged edges!

Award-winning freelance Scottish journalist Peter Ross was new to me. He gave a fascinating insight into his work and writing about graveyards, weaving stories about the living as well as the dead, in a gentle almost reverential tone. And yes, the story of Wigtown’s martyrs featured. He came across as rather shy, but his writing style is assured and beautiful – a joy to hear some of his choice phrases and astute observations.

Writer, photographer, crofter, sheep-breeder, Tamsin Calidas, gave a mesmerising account of her life on a remote Hebridean island, battling the savage weather, local animosity, betrayal, and fearful loneliness. Her session ended with a film from within the waves around her island home, made by her, and overlaid with her voice paying tribute to the healing power of cold water swimming. Altogether moving and uplifting. And her own inner peace, achieved through a catalogue of vicissitudes, pervaded her responses.

More well-known personalities included Alastair Campbell, appearing, not to talk about the years as political aide and strategist to Tony Blair, but to share his levelling experience of depression and alcoholism, and to appeal for more understanding of mental illness. It seemed somehow appropriate that his image was poorly-focused and quite dark, capturing a much softer and more likeable person than in the political glory days.

It was against a backdrop of books and folders that Baroness Helena Kennedy shared something of her multitudinous and high profile activities as a barrister specialising in human rights and civil liberties, as she was questioned by a reporter from Beirut. She’s been involved in a number of infamous international cases, and shared fascinating details of specific incidents, as well as her opinions on world leaders and regimes. Rivetting stuff.

One of my favourite event speakers, forensic anthropologist, Professor Dame Sue Black, gave her inimitable insights into her work and knowledge of bones, combining facts and stories to bring a potentially dry subject to life. What constitutes a ‘good hanging’? How you can determine so much about a person from fragments of their skeleton. How the bones of a newborn baby can survive from Roman times. How much she enjoys working with crime writers. And even though she frequents haunts like murder scenes or disaster sites, her joy of life, her sense of the ridiculous, bear out her philosophy: ‘You have to work by the light rather than let yourself be consumed by the darkness.’

These and others kept me enthralled – and all from the comfort of my own home. Hats off to organisations everywhere who have risen to the challenges of life under a pandemic with such energy and professionalism. The opportunity to escape to a book festival has to be a brilliant tonic for isolated writers everywhere.

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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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