ANNE Barclay’s walk to primary school in Wigtown looked a lot different 25 years ago than it does for today’s children. 

“Windows were boarded up, paint was leaking off the buildings, there was scaffolding all around.

“It was a desolate place after the closure of the creamery and the distillery. It was a sad time and a number of my classmates were among those families”, she told The National. 

This year, Wigtown is celebrating 25 years as Scotland’s national book town and that dereliction has turned to vibrancy while Barclay herself is the operations director of Wigtown Book Festival. 

The day book town status was officially conferred, there were 83 properties on the market. There’s less than five today. 

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It’s an area that attracts 13,000 visitors and generates £4.3 million for the economy supporting the equivalent of 57 full-time jobs for 100 volunteers. 

This is how Wigtown was transformed, told by the people who helped make it happen. 

Securing the bid 

Sandra McDowall was secretary on the community council when the bid was first made for Wigtown to become the thriving book town it is today. 

“Somebody noticed an article in the paper that was asking whether a book town in Scotland could be sustainable”, she explained. 

“This led to somebody from Strathclyde University being commissioned to write a research paper on this and it was decided it was possible. 

Months were spent putting a proper bid together before a panel of judges from towns which had adopted the model from across Europe were chosen to evaluate whether Wigtown was suitable. 

McDowall says that other towns across Dumfries and Galloway also put in bids but, on May 16 1998, Wigtown was officially granted status as the national book town and work started on changing things for the better. 

Nothing happens overnight 

Having ticked all the boxes, the whole town got to work. Anyone who visits now will likely think it looks effortless and marvel at the way community bought into the idea. 

As McDowall explains though, it was very much an all or nothing plan. “We didn’t see another future. Everything was closing and in need of a face-lift. Someone called it the tumbleweed town. 

“I can’t begin to tell you how transformative it was. It didn’t happen overnight but we were given help to employ a development officer and people started to move into the town.”

At the time, without any guarantee of success, moving to Wigtown to set up a bookshop or printing press represented a big risk and Barclay has noted how much the town owes to those who had the “foresight” to campaign to make all this happen. 

History in the making

Ian Macdonald (pictured below) was among those who decided to take the chance on Wigtown and it’s safe to say things worked out – he even made his own little bit of history. 

He founded the Gleniffer Press with his wife Helen as a hobby having worked as an engineer at Glasgow Airport most of his life. 

The press became noted around the world for making miniature books and was active In this field up until 2007, when Macdonald decided to retire. 

“Towards the end of the 1990s, I wanted to relocate the press from Paisley where I’d lived all my life”, he explained. 

The National:

“We heard about Wigtown and fell in love with the place right away. We only came down to see what was going on and it was in a sorry state. 

“But then it started to encourage people to open book shops and printing and the idea at the time was to have lots of little events to encourage tourism.”

Although Macdonald retired in 2007, he did his best to help out as a volunteer at the festival. 

He was also among the founding members of the Miniature Book Society which still thrives to this day while the Gleniffer Press holds the distinction of releasing the first new book of the millennium – a miniature edition of the New Testament. 

“I wanted to do something really unusual and had to apply for a licence to do that”, he said. 

The National: One of the miniature books printed by IanOne of the miniature books printed by Ian (Image: Ian Macdonald)

Two special copies were bound in white leather and gifted to the first babies born in Paisley and Wigtown. 

What’s life like now? 

Key to the success of maintaining the town’s ethos, as Barclay puts it, is that all the community has bought into the idea and their “hard work and perseverance” is what helps make the town so unique. 

“Wigtown is a shining example of what can be achieved when everyone comes together.”

Even after 25 years, everyone still wants to help and the area still attracts talent. The National previously spoke with writer-director Jessica Fox who moved from California to Wigtown.

Her new film Stella was shot in Galloway House on Wigtown Bay.

The town is also home to seventeen book-related businesses and Scotland’s largest second-hand book shop. 

There’s even an opportunity through Airbnb for people to go and run their own book shop and a literary-themed guest house. 

Barclay explains how it's an idea she was initially sceptical of but now realises it gives people a chance to "leave a bit of their heart" in Wigtown. 

McDowall added: “We’ve had growth every year. It changes so much it’s always new so it just keeps on going and it’s just remarkable. 

“It’s got fantastic spirit.”

The festival 

This year’s festival will run from September 22 to October 1 having first took place in 1999.

It has since grown to become one of the UK’s favourites. Edinburgh-based Lee Randall is a guest programmer for this year’s festival. 

She said: “I’ve been involved in the festival for many years now, and visits to Wigtown are a highlight of my calendar. I’m besotted by the beauty of the town and its bookshops, and the warm welcome for visitors.  

“I’m not joking when I say that a piece of my heart resides there year-round. Wigtown is my home from home. 

"It’s wonderful to be celebrating its 25th anniversary as Scotland’s Book Town and we are really looking forward to an extra special 25th book festival later in the year.”