“I had no idea this was here”. That was the most common comment I heard from fellow visitors during a weekend in Wigtown. The town’s annual book festival attracts writers, poets, playwrights and pundits as well as visitors from all over the world to Scotland’s book town, nestled in the rolling hills of Galloway in the South West.
I was in Wigtown with Two Minute Manifesto – the monthly podcast I co-present with playwright David Greig. Driving down through the Galloway Forest Park on our way to Wigtown, David remarked that his discovery of this part of Scotland felt like one of those dreams where you find a door to an extra room in your house. Of course there’s nearly 150,000 people who know full well that Dumfries and Galloway exists – they live there – but David’s experience echoes that of so many people in Scotland.
In this central belt-dominated nation, we routinely overlook areas like Galloway, Ayrshire and the Borders. Even when the majority of the population huddled in the thin strip of land from Glasgow to Dundee imagine rural Scotland, it’s the Highlands that spring to mind, eyes set northwards and backs turned to the South.
Don’t get me wrong – the vast and diverse Highlands are stunningly beautiful and home to some incredible people. But having lived in Edinburgh for several years, I know that all too often Scotland=Edinburgh+Highlands. That may be a rookie tourist mistake, but it’s not that different from how we see ourselves – either vaguely urban, industrial and centralised or barren, deserted and remote.
These caricatures of our nation do us no favours. In the same way that we are said to use just 10% of our brains, imagine what we’re missing by overlooking vast swathes of Scotland.
Just 20 years ago, Wigtown was run down, its centre empty and its County Buildings nearing dereliction and threatened with demolition. The stunning setting with views south towards Whithorn or over Wigtown Bay to wee Creetown masked some of the highest levels of unemployment in Scotland. Yet in just a few short years, the efforts of a community determined to change its fate led to Wigtown being declared Scotland’s National Book Town and holding its first book festival.
Over the last decade and a half, the festival has grown, now lasting 10 days and drawing in crowds of visitors and creative people from all over Scotland and beyond. Now the County Buildings stand proud, dominating the town centre and home to community groups galore. The people are rightly proud of what they’ve built and the future they’ve given the town.
In our performance of the Two Minute Manifesto, we heard the ideas of former artistic director of the festival Finn McCreath. He argued for mass immigration to the region – a move which would both provide a home to the thousands seeking shelter in Europe from Syria, Afghanistan and beyond, and boost a sparse and ageing population in need of young families. Tom van Rijn, a local smallholder easily persuaded the audience with his manifesto that Galloway should be self-sufficient, though he basically started by telling us all the ways in which it already is, in terms of food production, energy generation and skills.
This corner of the world is already full of incredible people. Laura from along the coast spoke of the Massive Outpouring of Love – hundreds of volunteers to support refugees, brought together from across Galloway within a week to help clothe, shelter and feed the people stuck in Calais, desperately seeking a new home. Isla and Siobhan, young women from Wigtown seemed to organise half the festival and were bold, intelligent and fiercely proud of where they came from.
It strikes me that as more of the people who write the stories we tell ourselves discover the existence of such an inspiring place, we move a little closer to realising the diversity, ingenuity and creativity of all of Scotland. Thankfully, Wigtown is drawing them in and like the door in the dream, opening their minds to the potential within.