Four writers reveal draw of Wigtown Book Festival

FROM UFOs to mountains, a lost writer to a convict artist, Wigtown Book Festival guests look to the area for inspiration, says Susan Mansfield

An image from Zero Footprint by Morag Paterson and Ted Leeming; author SR Crockett
An image from Zero Footprint by Morag Paterson and Ted Leeming; author SR Crockett

Many visitors to the Wigtown Book Festival get a surprise when they come to make their travel arrangements. For the first time, the size of Dumfries and Galloway, that often overlooked region at the south-west corner of the map, becomes clear to them. Marketing material describes it as Scotland’s best-kept secret, but if you live there, that can be a curse as well as a blessing: the area suffers from many of the same challenges as the Highlands, though without the recognition or, often, the investment.

An innovative programming strand in this year’s book festival looks at the Living Lowlands, celebrating the “distinctive culture” of Southern Scotland, in particular Dumfries and Galloway, from its landscape and produce to its forgotten literary heroes. Here, four of the participants explain their relationship to this sometimes forgotten part of Scotland.

Hugh McMillan

Most Popular

    In 1824, Galloway man John Mactaggart published The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopaedia. Written in Scots, the book was a mix of ethnography, folklore, poetry and local gossip. Now the Wigtown Book Festival has commissioned local poet Hugh McMillan to write a contemporary version, McMillan’s Gallovidian Encyclopaedia, which will be launched at the festival.

    “Mactaggart’s book was very learned, though quirky. Mine is more like a personal response, my version of Dumfries and Galloway today. It’s meant to be funny but it does bring out serious things. One of them is the fact that Galloway is empty. There were more people here in 1700 than there are today. Today we are glorying in this emptiness, with things like ‘dark skies tourism’.

    “I’m interested in the question of regeneration: how do you regenerate and who are you regenerating for? Some regeneration projects are about parachuting people in rather than using local resources. People want to attract tourists here, which is good because the traditional industries are dying off, but how much does it benefit the local areas?

    “I bring some of the folklore up to date. Galloway is said to be the last place the fairies lived before they left Scotland. I brought that into the present day by interviewing a bloke who claimed to have been abducted by a flying saucer – there is a lot of UFO activity in Galloway, too. The things he was saying were very similar to the things people said when they claimed they were taken away by the fairies: they lost track of time, they weren’t sure if the people abducting them were good or evil. I was interviewing him in the pub, and when he left, the barman summoned me over and said: ‘See him – he’s away with the fairies’. The resonance really chimed.”

    Cally Wight

    Dumfries-born novelist SR Crockett was an enormous bestseller at the end of the 19th century, yet almost unknown today. Several events at the Wigtown Book Festival will invite a reappraisal of his reputation, including a lecture by Cally Wight, who is republishing his 32 Galloway novels with Ayton Publishing, and a screening of a 1920s silent film, A Lowland Cinderella, based on one of his novels.

    “Crockett was writing for magazines at the time that mass-market publishing opened up in the 1890s. He was picked up by the first literary agent, AT Watt, and by T Fisher Unwin, who were the new writing publishers of the time. Their aim was to flood the market with him. When Stevenson died in 1894, he took over that mantle. He was an overnight success, and he remained on the bestseller lists for the next ten years. He wrote about 70 books, including medieval stories, Covenanter stories, smugglers stories, children’s books. He wrote what publishers wanted him to write but managed to keep his unique voice within that. A lot of tourists would come to Galloway on the train looking for the places he wrote about. He wrote about Galloway the way Hardy wrote about Dorset.

    “He always wrote from an an anti-establishment position. He disliked the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful. When he’s writing a historical novel, the hero and heroine are always ordinary people who get into an adventure where they encounter historical people, he looks at history from a domestic point of view. He doesn’t do the rural idyll, he writes about harsh winters, and people getting thrown off their farms.

    “It’s incredible that someone who was so well known can be so completely forgotten. War came along, then modernism and he was dismissed as a kailyard writer. ‘Sentimental slop’ were the words MacDiarmid used. I think Crockett is a much better writer than he’s given credit for, he’s also a very approachable writer. They’re rip-roaring stories but they have a lot of depth to them.

    “A lot of writers who came after him knew his work and drew on it, including JM Barrie, JRR Tolkien and HG Wells.”

    Morag Paterson and Ted Leeming

    Landscape photographers Morag Paterson and Ted Leeming work from their low-carbon home in the Galloway hills. Their book Zero Footprint will be launched at the festival.

    “Having built this low-carbon home, Ted said: ‘Why don’t we look at applying that to a photography project? We picked a spot about a metre square directly outside the kitchen patio doors. We decided we could use any lens, point in any direction, the only restriction was that the legs of the tripod had to be within that area. There is a good view from the spot, but it doesn’t lend itself to traditional compositions.

    “We ended up with about 5,000 photographs, from which we selected the ones for the book. There are fantastic mists that roll up and down the glen, reforming the landscape entirely. Sometimes the house is in the mist, sometimes above it, looking down. You could stand there for three or four hours, with a new image presenting itself every 30 seconds. It’s hard to describe how beautiful Galloway is, and how much variety there is in the landscape here. A lot of our work is local. We recently did a project for Velux where we shot everything without having to drive more than ten miles from our house.

    “We’re now beginning a new project in Galloway Forest Park. Recently, I was speaking to a well-known Scottish landscape photographer, and he said: ‘You’re just wasting your time. I wouldn’t be able to take a decent picture of these borders hills, you should go somewhere more interesting for people’.

    “That set a stove under my ambitions. Galloway is incredibly undiscovered, underrated, undervisited, I hope that will change, and that our photography can play a part in that.”

    Tom Pow

    Poet Tom Pow has lived in Dumfries for more than 35 years, with local subject matter helping to inform much of his work. His latest book, A Wild Adventure, is inspired by the life of Dumfries man Thomas Watling, an artist who was deported to Australia for forgery in 1792.

    “Watling was an art teacher at Dumfries Academy and a miniature painter. When he was found guilty of forgery, the penalty was transportation or death. He found that he was of great value in Australia because he could illustrate the local flora and fauna. When the First Fleet sailed, 14 of the officers on board had publishing contracts. Watling was made to paint in the same way some people were made to dig ditches.

    “After some years there, he was pardoned and worked his way back to Dumfries.

    “I was interested in how someone from Dumfries was affected by what he went through. At that time, some people would opt to be hanged rather than transported – it was like going to the moon, and very few ever returned.

    “Watling would have witnessed brutality, starvation, incredible change. We know very little about him, which allowed a lot of poetic licence. I tried not to make the book into a coherent narrative, I focused on the moments I could trust, moments I was sure he had experienced. The motif of forgery runs through the collection, if he was a forger so I was forging him.

    “Dumfries and Galloway is a place that has allowed me to become the poet I am. The landscape is very important to me, though it took me a while to appreciate its subtle beauties. When I wrote my book In Another World: Amongst Europe’s Dying Villages, I thought about Galloway.

    “We have a history of Clearances here which is only now being looked at by historians. The three counties of Dumfriesshire, Kirkcudbrightshire and Wigtownshire experienced proportionately greater loss from emigration in the 19th century than the Clearance counties in the highlands.”

    • The Wigtown Book Festival runs from 26 September until 5 October,