The recent meeting of the Wigtown Talk and Walks Group were treated to a fascinating talk on how the County Town became Scotland’s Booktown, delivered by two Festival stalwarts Sandra McDowell and Jenny Bradley.
On a cold, grey, wet Tuesday afternoon, a trip down memory lane cheered many of the audience as they heard about the history of Wigtown and it’s Book Festival.
These two passionate ladies, Sandra and Jenny, have been involved since the competition for a Book Town in Scotland was launched in 1996. Initial research was done by Dr Seaton for the Scottish Tourist Board, he believed Scotland could sustain a Book Town similar to Hay on Wye.
Wigtown, at that time, was very run down, the distillery had closed in 1987, the creamery in 1989 and some 80 properties were for sale. Shops closed and had their windows boarded up. Weeds decorated the pavements. County Buildings was in such a state of disrepair, the council considered demolishing it.
With hopes for a brighter future and the necessary impetus to improve the town, a committee got together and a proposal formed and entered for Wigtown to become Scotland’s National Book Town.
On the day of judging County Buildings, being the only available accommodation, was made as presentable as possible. The judges were given local produce to give them a flavour of the town. They soon realised that together, the active community, (willing to do anything to improve the town), plus the scenic area, low price properties, the possibility of a refurbished County Buildings to provide a venue for events, convinced them Wigtown could do what it takes to make a success. In 1998 Wigtown became officially Scotland’s very own designated Book Town.
In February 1999 Jenny Bradley became a Book Town Assistant, a small staff, funded by the council, was formed to raise the profile of the new Book Town, liaise with book sellers and raise recognition through a Book Festival, to be held at the end of September to prolong the summer season. Book shops sprung up with traders eager to come to the town, back then there were in the region of twenty individual shops.
The very first Festival took place in 1999, with the help of Raymond Armstrong providing a venue for the three day event. It received much criticism: not enough shops, not enough books. Undeterred, grants were sort and in May 2000 these enabled the start of the complete regeneration of County Buildings.
In 2007 the Council withdrew it’s funding and the Festival Limited Company was formed. They have found their own sponsors for the main event. Events Scotland fund the hire of the marquees. The ten day event now caters for ages across the board with a children’s Festival now held, since 2015, in Wigtown Primary School. Also a young people’s Festival for teenagers. In the early days audiences barely topped 1100. Last year the Festival had audiences of 24,595. With success, Jenny admitted, comes pressure. Many applications are made to enable this continuing success. With Creative Scotland funding for the next three years, events can now be held all year round.
The Open Book Shop has proved a valuable asset, with a long waiting list of people wishing to come for a week or two and enjoy the experience of running a book shop. Several book fairs have been held and Wigtown, now much transformed, has won Scotland in Bloom awards for several years. Authors coming to the Festival enjoy their time here being part of a community and nearly all request to come back and with such a warm welcome from Jenny Bradley and her team of volunteers – why not? During last year’s Festival volunteers worked 2000+ hours, from stuffing programmes into envelopes for dispatch in early August, processing ticket orders and running the book tent, box office, to stewarding events. Volunteer drivers collecting authors from stations clocked up 17000 miles. To ensure sustainability of the Book Festival new volunteers are always welcome, if you can help in any way please contact the new Festival office at 11, North Main Street, Wigtown Tel. No: 01988 402036 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jenny and Sandra had a wonderful array of old photographs and previous programmes for members to admire and remember the many famous faces who have walked Wigtown’s streets.