Wigtown Through the Years

Anne Barclay remembers the first festival and the years that followed.

2 February 2023
Anne Barclay, Operational Director of Wigtown Festival Company is standing smiling, her back to a wall in Wigtown County Buildings.

Operational Director Anne Barclay has been at Wigtown Book Festival since the beginning. In the countdown to the 25th festival, we asked Anne a few questions about the early days of the Book Town Bid and its impact in the years that followed.

What do you remember most clearly from the first festival?

I was 14 when the first Wigtown Book Festival took place. I remember the excitement in the build up to it. It felt like the circus was coming to town. So many people within our community had poured their heart and soul into the project, spending several years convincing others that Wigtown stood the best chance of succeeding as a Book Town and as part of that wider plan, hosting an annual Festival. I recall the town being decorated and spaces that were a little tired - to say the least - being given lots of TLC, ready to welcome audiences from far and wide.

My most vivid memory is attending my first literary event in the old courtroom (now the John McNeillie Library) in the County Buildings, with legendary author, and longstanding Wigtown supporter, Mairi Hedderwick talking about her Katie Morag series. I still have the first book ever signed for me at a Wigtown Book Festival and 25 years on am delighted to read it with my own family. In that same year, I distributed programmes to visitors with 1st Wigtown Guides. It felt like a privilege to help spread the word about the festival.

Joan Linguard is standing in a room talking to a group of GirlGuides. They are sitting on the floor in Wigtown County Buildings.. A table is covered with a tartan tablecloth and books.
Children and families are walking in front of Wigtown County Buildings amongst entertainers wearing colourful clothes, playing instruments and walking on stilts during a Children's Book Festival event.

What do you think the impact of the Book Town bid and the Festival has been?

I remember vividly how Wigtown looked and felt while I was growing up here. I was very young when the Bladnoch Creamery closure was announced but remember friends from pre-school leaving because their families were forced to move elsewhere for work and not quite understanding why they didn't start school with us the following year. Throughout my time at Wigtown Primary School, my memories are of a physically desolate town with empty streets, uninhabited buildings, boarded-up windows and flaking paint. Despite this, the reality of living here was a strong sense of community spirit, with clubs, charity events and activities for all ages being run throughout the year. I am forever grateful to the people who made those things happen and who undoubtedly helped shape my future.

The shift in spirit was palpable from the day the Book Town Committee announced, from the upstairs window of Machars Action, that Wigtown had been selected as Scotland's National Book Town. While the 10-years that followed presented a difficult task for those at the helm in encouraging booksellers to come and open businesses and developing the Festival, their hard work and dedication laid the strong foundations that we still collectively operate from today and which enable us to continue to grow and evolve.

Old side view photo of no.11 North Main St, Wigtown. The building is run down and derelict.
Side view of Number 11 North Main Street, the building is derelict. A red doorway with columns and a portico alongside a boarded up window.

In 1998 when Wigtown was announced as Scotland's National Book Town there were 83 properties on the market. Today there are 4. I strongly feel that one of the most positive impacts of Book Town is growing the number of residents in the town, in turn maintaining properties and retaining services. The Festival now generates over £4m a year in economic benefit for the area and enough footfall during the rest of the year to warrant the continued opening of new businesses - book-related and more. These bring opportunities for local employment so families can live and work here. The festival helps sustain the vibrancy of the community, with different clubs and organisations, keeping alive the community spirit which sparked the festival in the first place. Perhaps the next challenge will be creating opportunities for affordable housing to help new families get on the housing ladder and making a home for the next generation of people who will help preserve and evolve our town.

The image above of Number 11 is my memory of Wigtown from my childhood. I walked past it every day on the way to school. This vision is engraved into my memory and is one of the reasons I feel so strongly about the benefit of what we do and the necessity for it to continue; that we never go back to this, that our children grow up in a place they are proud of and that offers them strong prospects should they decide to spread their wings or stay.

Many people are standing outside Wigtown Festival Company bookshop and box office talking and enjoying the sunshine, during Wigtown Book Festival.
School children are seated in the main marquee raising their hands to answer questions from an author on  stage, at a Children's Book Festival event.