A Trip to Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town

Wigtown is tucked away in the southwest corner of Scotland in Galloway, a region that doesn’t draw too many tourists. It did remind us a lot of Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales, what with the dry-stone walls, rolling green hills with more imposing mountains behind, sheep in the fields, and goodly number of bookshops. Wigtown is a sleepier place – it’s really just one main street and square – and has fewer bookshops and eateries overall, but the shops it does have are mainly large and inviting, and several are lovely bookshops-cum-cafés where you can pause for tea/coffee and cake before continuing with your book browsing. It rained for much of our trip and even snowed on a couple of brief occasions, but we got one day of very good weather and made the best of all the rest.

 

Day 1, Monday the 2nd: Six-plus hours of driving, partially in the sleet and snow, saw us arriving to our spacious and comfortable B&B by 6 p.m., giving us an hour to freshen up before dinner in the dining room. Cullen skink (leek and potato soup with chunks of smoked haddock); pork chops in a mustard cream sauce with roast parsnips, boiled potatoes and carrots, and mashed swede (aka rutabaga); and chocolate cake with gingerbread sauce. All delicious!

Day 2, Tuesday the 3rd: Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast, accompanied by plenteous tea and toast. Off in the drizzle to see some local sites: Torhouse stone circle and Crook of Baldoon RSPB bird reserve. Nice sightings of whooper swans, pink-footed geese and lapwings, and a panoramic view of Wigtown across the way. Back to the car in the steady rain to find that we had a flat tire. Thanks to our foot pump, we got back to the W. Barclay garage in town, where they ordered a new tire and fitted the spare wheel. In the afternoon we drove to the Isle of Whithorn to see the 13th-century St. Ninian’s Chapel ruins and St. Ninian’s Cave. In the evening we went to Craft for beer/cider and the weekly acoustic music night, which, alas, just ended up being two old guys playing Americana songs on guitars.

 

Today’s book shopping: Glaisnock Café, where we also stopped for coffee and a tasty slice of courgette and avocado cake; The Open Book (run by Airbnb customers – this week it was Maureen from Pennsylvania and her niece Rebecca from Switzerland; they’d booked the experience two years ago, and the wait is now up to three years); the Wigtown Community shop (a charity shop); and browsing at Old Bank Books and Byre Books.

 

I loved seeing lots of Bookshop Band merchandise around. This was in the Festival Shop.

Day 3, Wednesday the 4th: Vegetarian ‘full Scottish’ cooked breakfast to fuel us for a rainy day of bookshops and explorations further afield. 12 p.m.: return trip to the garage to have our tire fitted. All the staff were so friendly and pleasant. They seemed delighted to see tourists around, and were interested in where we came from and what we were finding to do in the area. Mr. Barclay himself had one of the thickest Scottish accents I’ve ever heard, but I managed to decipher that he thinks of Galloway as “the next best place to heaven,” despite the weather. We spotted a local ‘celebrity’, Ben of the Bookshop Band, in the Co-op, but didn’t say hello as he was trying to pay for his shopping and had the baby in tow.

In the afternoon we ventured to Newton Stewart, the nearest big town, to buy petrol, picnic supper food, and another secondhand book at the community shop there. We retreated from the sudden snow for a scrumptious dinner of smoked salmon, black pudding and haggis (all of them battered and fried, with chips!) at a diner-like smokehouse. Back in Wigtown, we got a mainly dry evening to do the Martyrs’ Walk. In 1685 two Covenanters (Scottish reformers who broke from Charles I’s Anglican Church), Margaret McLachlan, 63, and Margaret Wilson, 18, were tied to stakes on the mud flats and allowed to drown in the rising tide.

 

Today’s book shopping: THE BOOKSHOP. I’ve meant to visit ever since I read Jessica Fox’s memoir, Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets, in February 2013. Previously based in California, Fox decided on a whim to visit a bookshop in Scotland and ended up here at the country’s largest. She promptly fell in love with the bookshop owner and with Wigtown itself; though she and Shaun Bythell are no longer an item, she has been a major mover and shaker in the town, playing a role in the annual festival and establishing The Open Book.

 

The Bookshop is a wonderfully rambling place with lots of nooks and crannies housing all sorts of categories. Look out for the shot and mounted Kindle, the Festival bed, the stuffed badger, a scroll of bookseller’s rules, Captain the cat, and a display of Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. Together we found £35 worth of books we wanted to buy – whew! – thanks to my husband’s niche nature books, and had a nice chat with the man himself at the till. He signed my book, commiserated with us about the weather and our trip to see “Willie” (Barclay), and gave us tips for what to see locally. You’d hardly believe he’s the same curmudgeon who wrote the book. Now that I’ve been to the town and the shop, it’s time for me to start rereading it.

 

 

We also perused the smallish but very nice selection at Beltie Books, where we made a welcome stop for a cappuccino and some cookies, and I bought a cut-price new book at the Festival Shop. (They stock books by festival speakers plus a curated selection of new releases.)

Day 4, Thursday the 5th: SUNSHINE, at last! After hearty omelettes, we headed to the hill that overlooks the town to get the best views of the week. On to Monreith for a charming coastal walk up to the Gavin Maxwell monument of a bronze otter. (He wrote Ring of Bright Water, which my husband brought along to read on our trip.) After a lunch stop back in town, it was out to the red kite feeding station about 40 minutes away – I came for the books; my husband came for the red kites. Though they’re common enough in our part of Berkshire, he was keen to see the site of another recent reintroduction. Wales also has a feeding station we visited some years ago, and on both occasions seeing dozens of birds swoop down for meat was quite the spectacle – though here you sit on an open porch, even closer to the action. We did a few other short walks in the area, finishing off with a sunset sit in Wigtown’s bird hide.

 

 

Today’s book shopping: ReadingLasses calls itself Britain’s only women’s bookshop. They stock Persephone Books direct from Bloomsbury, and they also have a large selection of secondhand books. This is the best place to go in town for a light meal and a snack. We had delicious homemade soup with soda bread for an early lunch, followed by coffee and tiffin. I bought a novel by Candia McWilliam, a Scottish author I’ve only read nonfiction by before.

 

At Curly Tale Books, the children’s bookshop next-door to The Bookshop, we bought a picture book about the local ‘belted’ Galloway cows for our niece. We didn’t realize the shop owner is also the author! She offered to sign the book for us, but we decided that a five-year-old wouldn’t appreciate it enough.

Day 5, Friday the 6th: Full Scottish breakfast to see us on our way, and a farewell to the two B&B cats, including the fluffiest cat on earth. To break up the rather arduous journey, we stopped early on at the Cairn Holy stone circle/tomb and the Cream o’ Galloway farm shop for cheese and ice cream. Home at 7:30 p.m. to find something from the freezer for dinner, unpack and shelve all these new books.

Cairn Holy

Total acquisitions: 13 books for me, 7 books for my husband, 3 books for gifts

Wigtown is more than twice as far away as Hay is for us, so we’re less likely to go back. (It’s also a tough place to find a decent evening meal.) However, I’d like to think that life will take me back to Wigtown someday, perhaps for the Festival, or for a stay at The Open Book – though I’d have to start planning ahead to 2021!


 

What I read:

Bits of lots of books I had on the go, but mostly a few vaguely appropriate titles:

 

Under the Skin by Michel Faber was the perfect book for reading on rainy Scottish highways. I’m so glad I decided at the last minute to bring it. Isserley drives along Highland roads picking up hitchhikers – but only the hunky males – to take back to her farm near the Moray Firth. It’s likely that you already know the setup of this even if you haven’t read it, perhaps from the buzz around the 2013 film version starring Scarlett Johansson. It must have been so difficult for the first reviewers and interviewers to discuss the book without spoilers back in 2000. David Mitchell, in his introduction to my Canons series reprint, does an admirable job of suggesting the eeriness of the contents without giving anything significant away.

Shelve this under science fiction, though it veers towards horror and then becomes a telling allegory. I knew the basic plot beforehand, but there were still some surprises awaiting me, and I was impressed with how Faber pulled it all off. Keep an eye open for how he uses the word “human.” This has a lot to say about compassion and dignity, and how despite our differences we are fundamentally the same “under the skin.”

An atmospheric line: “The fields all around her house were shrouded in snow, with patches of dark earth poking through here and there as if the world were a rich fruit cake under cream.”

 

Between Stone and Sky: Memoirs of a Waller by Whitney Brown: For a TLS review. Brown, from South Carolina, trained as a dry-stone waller in Wales (where she fell in love with a man who wouldn’t marry her), but we saw plenty such walls in Scotland too. As an expat I could relate to her feeling of being split between two countries.  (Releases May 17th.)

 

In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult. by Rebecca Stott: I read the first two-fifths or so, mostly in the car and over our leisurely B&B breakfasts. One branch of Stott’s Exclusive Brethren family came from Eyemouth, a Scottish fishing village. A family memoir, a bereavement memoir, a theological theme: this brings together a lot of my favorite things. And it won last year’s Costa Biography Award, so you know it’s got to be good.

I also started two books by Scottish novelists, The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay and The Accidental by Ali Smith – though I don’t know if I’ll make it through the latter.

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38 thoughts on “A Trip to Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town

  1. Wigtown tourist board ought to be paying you! It does sound worth a detour. If your husband is into red kite spotting he should come here. A tiny reintroduction programme maybe 12 or so years ago has resulted in their becoming a common sight. It’s been fascinating watching their territory increase year on year. They’ve even reached us now and we’re twenty miles away.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s still an undervisited place, so not particularly geared to tourists. Our Rough Guide barely gives Wigtown a paragraph, and the whole region doesn’t get many pages. Even Shaun Bythell admitted that you need local knowledge about what to see and do.

      Yes, he’d like to come see the Yorkshire site. He’s vaguely considering a book project on kites after his PhD is done, so he’d plan to visit all the other major kite spots, including Northants. and Sweden. Just a day or two after we visited this kite feeding center, there was news of a Galloway kite being poisoned 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am GREEN with envy. I’ve visited Scotland several times, back to my roots, Dad was born in Dumfries. Alas, due to the very negative exchange rate between the ZAR & the Brit Pd Stg, a visit is out of the question. So frustrating! Your description of the meals had me drooling. I like Scottish food – oats, haddock, leeks, tatties, neeps; not so keen on the haggis though !

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We passed by Dumfries on the way to Wigtown but didn’t go into it. It seems like the largest town in the area, so I imagine people go there for major shopping trips. I hope you’ll get to come back sometime soon. At our B&B there was a lady from New Zealand who was also exploring her roots — it sounded like she was meeting half-siblings for the first time and visiting her father’s grave.

      I first tried haggis on a bus tour of the Highlands in 2004 and I’ve liked it ever since! Just don’t think about what’s in it 😉

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  3. Whoo – the post we’ve all been waiting for! Sounds like you had a super time and I’m thinking as we’re bookbuyng birders this might be a good place for us to visit. Great buys and enjoyed the photos AND you braved going into The Shop!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, I never realized you were birders! Yes, I’d highly recommend it. Maybe go at a time when you are likely to have better weather, though, as there was so much more walking we could have done but didn’t because of the rain. (There are bookshops to retreat into, of course.) From Birmingham it wouldn’t seem so far away.

      He wasn’t scary at all in person 🙂 And I checked, we didn’t make it into a Tweet or Facebook post. I strived to be a model customer, browsing long enough but not too long, not getting in the way or asking annoying questions, actually buying a fair amount, and being polite at the till.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha – good work in the shop! I will posit it to my husband, might be difficult without a car, though. We love birdwatching although I draw the line at actual birdwatching holidays as I find them quite exhausting.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Oooh so envious of your trip. Wonderful photos too. I really want to go to Wigtown but it’s a long way from Birmingham and I don’t drive. I’ve never been further North than Edinburgh.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s a tough place to reach by public transport. We did look into it as my husband doesn’t like long drives (though is willing to do them if he has to). The nearest train station is in Stranraer, 25 miles away, I think. From there I imagine there would be a bus. A problem with coming by public transport is that you then couldn’t explore the surrounding area as easily. You could just tag along with Liz 😉

      A funny piece of trivia for you: Galloway is actually further south than some places in England — you turn southwest once you cross the border at Gretna.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved reading this. The food sounded wonderful! I’ve been on holiday to the area once before and loved it.
    I really enjoyed the Diary of a Bookseller book. Glad you went in his shop. The blog posts of your travels are always my favourites. And yes, do come up to North Yorkshire!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did you make it to Wigtown that time? I was so glad to finally visit, and The Bookshop was well worth it. I’d be keen to know what has changed since he wrote the book, since the diary only covers 2014-15. For one thing, I know he’s given up doing Fulfilled by Amazon.

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  6. I live 2 and a half hours north of Wigtown and I’ve been meaning to go since I moved to Scotland in 2015. I’m so glad I got to read about your trip and all the extra tidbits to look out for. It looks like you found a load of great stuff. I’m planning my trip immediately.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. So very nice — the whole week, and all your experiences. Even the flat tire. That’s true life; nothing’s ever perfect. ( well, maybe once in a great while) How fortunate you are to have a soulmate who shares your interests.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

      1. See, I hated The Book of Strange New Things – Peter was just awful. Mary Doria Russell wrote a novel called The Sparrow that has virtually the same plot – religious visit to an alien planet – but better done, IMO.

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    1. Really enjoyed reading this! I’m currently reading Shaun Bythell’s The Diary if a Bookseller and I’m itching to visit Wigtown! Went to Hay on Wye in Feb and loved it too, so this place is definitely on my list of bookish places to visit 😀 Great post 👍

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I can’t believe I’ve never been to Scotland and this lovely blog has made me even more desperate to go. So many lovely independent bookshops and some great food to boot!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland, but now I know exactly where I want to go. Also, I think I could probably live there. There are so many things to comment on… the B&B cats, the delicious food (seriously, potato and leek soup with haddock? And, I know I’m probably weird this way, but I love roasted parsnips and mashed turnip/rutabaga.), the book shops, and all your lovely pictures (I got a kick out of the sign in The Book Shop telling customers what NOT to do!).
    I’ve just added Under the Skin to my list – it sounds wonderfully creepy.
    Thank you for sharing your adventures! I’m off to book my stay at The Open Book… 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We loved everything about that meal. We were the only ones in the dining room that night and they brought out an enormous pile of vegetables. Though we did our best, we couldn’t quite eat all the potatoes and carrots. All the parsnip and swede were gone, though!

      Galloway is a very different Scottish experience than the Highlands & Islands, or Edinburgh and Glasgow, but if you ever get a chance to come over it’s well worth a few days in a longer touring schedule. Let me know if you manage to secure a spot at the Open Book in 2021!

      Liked by 1 person

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