A Killing in Kirkcudbright

Sayers, sleuths and six suspects

31 August 2023
People standing in the small back yard of a sandstone house, listening to a speaker during a Dorothy L Sayers walk for Wigtown Book Festival.

When Dorothy L Sayers despatched Lord Peter Wimsey to Kirkcudbright the result was Five Red Herrings, a murder mystery with six suspects.

It was also, according to Sarah McConnel, a “love letter to the Galloway countryside”. The book is one in which she was at great pains to ensure that everything is accurate, from landscape details to railway timetables. Sarah, from Dunscore, and art tours guide Fiona Lee, have been specially commissioned by Wigtown Festival Company to lead walks round Dorothy L Sayers’ Kirkcudbright.

At this point, at the start of the 1930s the delightful fishing port, renowned for the quality of its light, was home to a vibrant artistic community. Sayers spent quite some time in the area and loved it, also getting to know the artists who had created a colony there.

People standing in front of a house in Kirkubright listening to a speaker at a Dorothy L Sayers walk for Wigtown Book Festival

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the amateur detective is on a fishing holiday when artist Sandy Campbell is found dead. Wimsey identifies six suspects, all artists who have each quarrelled with Campbell. One is guilty, the others are the red herrings.

In writing the book, Sayers took the characteristics of her real-life artist friends, mixed them up and created her suspects from the results – including giving one character the large moustache for which David Sassoon was well known.

There was an exception to this mosaic approach, the overbearing and unpleasant Matthew Gowan, described by Campbell as “an out-of-date old blunderer”. Gowan, Sarah notes, bears a rather precise resemblance to the celebrated E A Hornel, owner of the wonderful Kirkcudbright visitor attraction Broughton House, with whom Sayers herself had a falling out.

Many people stand listening inside an ornate room to a speaker during a Dorothy L Sayers walk event for Wigtown Book Festival. Large oil paintings adorn the walls, bright rugs on the floor.

Indeed, the direct links between the artists of the day and the novel are part of what makes the walks so appealing. Sarah and Fiona will start off in the magnificent Kirkcudbright Galleries where the walking party will be able to see works of the period, by the very people Sayers used for her characters.

They will then spend time hearing about the town, the book and the author as they enjoy a gentle stroll, taking in sites like Broughton House, the Tolbooth and the harbour.

Along the way they will learn about the visits paid by Sayers and her husband "Mac" Fleming, a Scottish journalist, first in 1928 when they stayed in the Anwoth Hotel in Gatehouse of Fleet and subsequently when they rented a studio in Kirkcudbright High Street.

Fiona Lee and  Sandra McConnel dressed in costume during the Dorothy L Sayers walk at Wigtown Book Festival.

Something that Sarah and Fiona will highlight is that Five Red Herrings also captures the end of an era, and a region on the point of change, with the rapid advance of motorised transport and the arrival of mains electricity.

And yet, one of the delights of Kirkcudbright is that much of its character survives, and it’s still quite possible to picture Sayers and her detective sauntering through its pretty streets.