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New chapter in Wigtown’s fortunes opened by book festival

Anne Barclay, operational manager of Wigtown's book festival (Chris Austin / DC Thomson)
Anne Barclay, operational manager of Wigtown's book festival (Chris Austin / DC Thomson)

TWENTY years ago, Wigtown was on its knees with a seemingly bleak future.

The local creamery and distillery had closed and properties lay boarded up and crumbling.

It needed an opportunity and when Strathclyde University suggested a Scottish town be regenerated to become the country’s official book town, Wigtown made its move.

Wigtown was officially announced as Scotland’s book town in 1998.

The following year, the first Wigtown Book Festival was held and it has grown to become the second biggest in the country, behind only the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Today, Wigtown is thriving with more than a dozen book-related businesses operating from within its boundaries.

The Bookshop, Wigtown (Chris Austin / DC Thomson)

Anne Barclay, the operational director at the festival, is from the town and was at the local primary school when Wigtown was awarded its status.

“You could almost see the tumbleweed rolling down the street on the way to school,” Anne said.

“There were windows boarded up and buildings were run down and desolate.

“I had friends in my class who had to move away when the creamery closed down because their parents needed to find new work.

“The transformation has been incredible but the one thing that hasn’t changed has been the community spirit and the drive to make it a wonderful place to live and visit.

“The day we became Scotland’s book town there were 87 vacant properties and today you’ll be lucky to find a dozen – and they tend to sell quickly.”

Wigtown’s first bookshop, simply titled The Bookshop, came before the book town status.

It was set up by John Carter, who ran an antiques shop in the town.

The Bookshop is now Scotland’s largest second-hand book store, with more than 100,000 titles and a mile of shelving.

Around 100 books are handed in every day to the shop, which is now run by Shaun Bythell.

Joyce Cochrane, owner of The Old Bank Bookshop (Chris Austin / DC Thomson)

Joyce Cochrane grew up six miles outside of Wigtown and became a chartered librarian, working in and around Edinburgh for more than 20 years.

Today she owns and runs The Old Bank Bookshop with her husband, Ian, living above the shop with their 13-year-old daughter, Helena, who they say was Wigtown’s first bookshop baby.

“It was going to be sold for accommodation, which would have been a shame,” Joyce said.

“We bought a building – it had no shelves, no books, so we had to start from scratch.

“We put the flat in Edinburgh up for sale and it sold within a week so we moved to Wigtown and camped in the back room of the shop – and I was three months pregnant.

“Upstairs became available and that is now our home.

“It’s been an amazing place to bring up Helena and I never would have imagined, looking back, that I would start up a bookshop in my home county.”

Jayne at Curly Tale Books (Chris Austin / DC Thomson)

Jayne Baldwin runs the children’s book shop, Curly Tale Books, with business partner Shalla Gray.

The author and illustrator duo had only been looking for premises for their publishing company when they decided to buy the store.

“We were hesitant,” Jayne said. “Because we had only been looking for office space. I certainly wouldn’t have gone elsewhere to open a bookshop, but we decided to take it on and it’s been a good move for us. I love it, which I didn’t expect.”

The 20th Wigtown Book Festival begins on September 21 and lasts for 10 days, enticing big names like Clare Balding, Ann Cleeves, Tom Devine and author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres, to this little corner of rural Dumfries and Galloway.