News | The Saltmarsh Library

9 June 2020

Wigtown Book Festival commissions original book celebrating saltmarsh from award-winning writer

Wigtown Book Festival has commissioned a new book celebrating the salt marshes that have shaped the history of Scotland’s National Book Town. 

The Saltmarsh Library, a work of creative non-fiction to be published in 2021, will be written by one of the country’s most exciting young authors, the Saltire Award-winning Dumfries-based nature writer Stephen Rutt.

The book is part of the wider "Solway to the Sea" project, which has been funded by Scottish Natural Heritage’s Plunge In! Coasts and Waters Community Fund. The fund was established by SNH to help community groups across Scotland celebrate the Year of Coasts and Waters. "Solway to the Sea" will be a key programme strand at this year’s Wigtown Book Festival online (25 Sept-4 Oct). 

The salt marshes are one of south-west Scotland’s greatest natural assets. Sometimes known as The Inks, they are now part of the 2,845-hectare Wigtown Bay Local Nature Reserve, sitting within the Unesco Biosphere. The reserve hosts three species of migrant geese and overwintering whooper swans that migrate from the arctic. The area is also special for its fish species with sparling and twait shad breeding, and eelgrass beds that are important wildlife habitats.

The Saltmarsh Library will look at the saltmarsh as a keeper of stories. The marshland literally shaped Wigtown as tide patterns changed, and in its turn it was shaped by man. It has seen human drama like the drowning of the Wigtown Martyrs and has hidden secrets (such as evidence of the Chernobyl disaster revealed via isotopes in mud). As a huge carbon sink and at the mercy of flooding, it also reveals tales of our future climate.

Rutt, 28, has published two previous books, The Seafarers, recipient of the Saltire First Book Award and a Roger Deakin Award, and Wintering: A Season with Geese. He studied on the literature and environment MA at Essex University and in 2015 spent seven months at the bird observatory in North Ronaldsay.

Stephen Rutt said: “Like a library, nature is a great repository of stories, experiences and cultures. I hope the new book will communicate these tales and give a sense of the place. 

“The saltmarshes are very special, with their shifting of sediments that suddenly stabilise with vegetation like glasswort and samphire. Being there and watching the tides come in and hide the landscape - making it a seascape - and seeing the water recede to reveal land again is something I find hypnotic on a deep, emotional level.

“My research will be partly cultural, partly scientific. It's the blending of these strands that I focus on in my writing.”

Adrian Turpin, Wigtown Book Festival’s creative director, said: “The book and the wider project aim to help more people discover the very special character of this place which exists between land and sea. Stephen is a truly engaging writer, and someone who knows and loves Dumfries and Galloway, so he’s absolutely ideal to write this book.”

This year it is hoped there will be guided tours of the marshes (physical or filmed – depending on the Covid-19 situation). These will be run by Freelance Ranger and 2019 Dumfries & Galloway Life magazine Environmental Champion Elizabeth Tindal, who will be acting as a consultant on the project.

She said: “I love the whole of Wigtown Bay - it’s one of my favourite places in the entire world. There’s such a sense of space and it’s full of beauty, birds and sea. I’m really looking forward to sharing this with everyone.” 

SNH Chief Executive Francesca Osowska said: “We had a fantastic response to this fund and each of our 24 successful projects were chosen because they demonstrate just how much there is to celebrate about Scotland’s wonderful coastlines and waterways, their landscapes, biodiversity and wildlife.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing the Solway to the Sea project progress and am sure that its creativity and enthusiasm will engage and connect more people with our coasts and waters and secure a real and lasting legacy for the themed year in the local community.”

Fact Sheet: Why the saltmarsh is so special 

By freelance ranger Elizabeth Tindal

  • Wigtown Bay Local Nature Reserve is the largest LNR in Britain.
  • Wigtown Bay is a special type of estuarine system, a Fjard, where there are two main water sources - in this case the Bladnoch and Cree rivers - and sand banks at the mouth.
  • The saltmarsh on Wigtown Bay is 2,845 ha. At least 500 ha was created by the Earl of Galloway. He had to get an act of parliament (1839) to create grazing land in front of Wigtown around 1875. They used a method which meant creating embankments of stone and thorn. As the tide receded the water flowed through and the sediments were left behind allowing saltmarsh plants to grow, creating what we can see today.
  • When you walk out on the saltmarsh you can still see the stone and thorn embankments in some of the creeks. They are well below the level of the saltmarsh now.
  • The saltmarsh is locally known as the Inks. Locally it is held that the name comes from the anoxic black layer a few centimetres below the mud surface that looks like black ink. However, it is thought that it is actually of the same derivation as the Scottish “inches” and Irish “innes” from the Irish Gaelic before the 7th century and means – home or flat land near the water or that water comes over (Herbert Maxwell).
  • The River Bladnoch was moved. The harbour used to be at the Martyrs' Stake area and was relocated so that steam-powered boats would have easier access to the “new” harbour. There are two distinctive walls which run along the course of the Bladnoch maintaining it in this new position.
  • Two female covenanters were tied to stakes and drowned at the old harbour. A memorial was erected to them in Victorian times, although there are those in Wigtown who speak about the removal of the original stake being within living memory.
  • The railway line which was decommissioned in 1963 ran along the inner edge of Wigtown Bay along the sea wall. There are people  who still remember being on the last train. The sleepers from this line were used to form the path across the saltmarsh to the Martyrs' Stake.
  • Wigtown Bay LNR has three main species of overwintering migrant geese; pink foot geese, greylag geese and barnacle geese, with small numbers of other species.

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