The Story of Scotland's National Book Town

12 September 2016

This article was recently published in the Toronto Star from a resident of the Open Book Shop. 


WIGTOWN, SCOTLAND-Sam Evans was born in England and lives in Ottawa but she’s at home in a dainty second-hand bookstore in this remote coastal town.


She’s staying at the Open Book, an Airbnb where guests pay $350 (Canadian) a week to run the bookshop.


It’s 3 p.m. and Evans is so engrossed she hasn’t eaten lunch.


“It feels like I’m hanging out in my lounge and people are just visiting. I’ve got my slippers behind the counter,” she says and chuckles.

So far, she’s sold books on wild plants and poultry­keeping. Her aim is to shift Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Shipping News.

“They didn’t give me any guidelines, just the keys,” she says of the store’s owners. “People ask ‘Do you have this?’ and I have no idea.”

Evans arrived yesterday and already wishes she booked a longer stay. The next available full week is in July 2019.

An anthropologist by trade, “watching the world go by” with a cup of tea is her nirvana.

“I thought I’d want to go sightseeing. I’m happier rummaging around a bookshop. Is that pathetic? It is, isn’t it?”

Not here. Wigtown tugs at your heart, awakening a childish passion too often dulled by trivial pains of the grind — mortgages, taxes and having to tie your own shoelaces.

I buy The Shipping News in solidarity with a kindred spirit. I’m soon 10 books richer for only $70.


In the 1970s, Wigtown was different. Growing up, Joyce Cochrane had to drive an hour to buy books. For a future librarian, that just wouldn’t do.

A literature deficiency obscured the beauty of the undulating Galloway Hills and crumbling 12th-century castles. Cochrane left, seemingly for good.

She guffawed when her father said a bookstore was opening here.

“It was awful,” says Cochrane. “There wasn’t even a library. I never thought books would bring me home.”

While pregnant in 2004, she bought the Old Bank Bookshop.

Today, her daughter Helena can be transported to glistening tundras, scorching deserts, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbiton or J.K. Rowling’s Hogsmeade. All without leaving her house.

A shy youngster, except to interject she’s 11 “and a half,” Helena captures Wigtown’s charm more succinctly than me, her librarian mother or her father, a former English teacher.

“It’s special.”


Wigtown has 10 independent bookstores, only 900 people and no Starbucks.

Commercial chains are yet to pillage Scotland’s National Book Town. It has character — in fact, millions of them.

At Cafe Rendezvous, an elderly couple enters and speaks a few words to every table. They ask a teenager if prom went well. As if the DJ was still playing, on comes The Eagles’ Take It Easy.


Strolling through the town, only an intoxicating fresh sea breeze interrupts the serene hush.

No fumes dirty the air because public transport is less forthcoming than a solution to Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway’s woes. One bookshop’s Facebook page says it’s “easier to hitch-hike.”


Down Main St. there’s Curly Tale Books owner Jayne Baldwin. Of all the words on book-store shelves, competition is not one. “We try not to tread on each other’s toes,” she explains.

“Everyone is very friendly. All sorts are attracted here. There’s a Cambridge professor, an American lady next door, and a couple from London.”


This burgeoning, unpretentious cultural utopia could have been an ad for Britain in the European Union (EU). About 25 years ago, Wigtown’s biggest employers, a creamery and distillery, closed. EU money propped up the annual September book festival in its infancy.


“To become a recognized book town, the criteria said it had to be beautiful,” says Cochrane. “And there had to be social and economic deprivation. Well, my generation left, so did the jobs, and no one could sell their house.”


A driving force behind the Book Town designation in 1998 was The Book Shop, supposedly Scotland’s largest second­hand bookstore.

Delve into its caverns, nooks and crannies. Every movement echoes. Flicking musty old vanilla pages is deafening. What a day to wear chunky Timberland boots. I tip toe row on row, developing a crick from tilting sideways to read spines.

There’s a destroyed Kindle on the wall and on overhead shelves, a placard reads “books for tall people.”

Some customers’ postcards are on display. “Do not go gently into that good night. Another double scotch should see you right,” reads one.

Reluctantly, I decline a whisky and leave Wigtown on snaking country roads north, passing a road sign for “Otters!” and exit signs at each town bidding me ‘Haste ye back,’ Scottish for ‘come back soon.’

Every exit is the same except there’s no message leaving Wigtown. You don’t need a reminder to return. Like a good book, once people pick up its charm, they can’t put it down. It’s special.

David Bateman is a Scotland-based writer.