Words on Wigtown 2014

23 October 2014

Alison Barnes, a regular visitor to Wigtown Book Festival over the years got in touch with her impressions of this year's festival. 


I was collared early one morning by Anne Brown, to be interviewed on Radio Wigtown. I was asked why we (with my husband, Tony and sister, Janice) come yearly to the Festival. My impromptu reply was for mental stimulation, and still reeling from a hectic spate of re-reading of James Barke's Land of the Leal, after Scott's Guy Mannering and Crocket's Raiders, I blethered on about the quality of these now neglected authors. This no doubt sounded pretentious although it was sincere. I do believe these writers are well worth reading, and thank Cally Phillips for rescuing S.R.Crockett from being dismissed as a Kailyard voice.


     With time to reflect I should have also said that we come for the varied enjoyment of art and music, well-informed talks on literature and poetry, and the chance to meet authors and critics in the flesh. Above all, we come to enjoy the wonderful welcome from everyone involved in running the Festival.


     This year it opened with a talk by Iona Leishman about her commissioned painting, which aims to recapture the turmoil in the mind of Mary, Queen of Scots, on her arrival, after a forty mile gallop from defeat to Dundrennan Abbey. There she sought sanctuary on her last night on Scottish soil. The painting was crowded with misty symbols of horse, Abbey and Abbot, over a distant outline of the Cumberland coast -- a stark reminder of the fate awaiting her in Protestant England.


    Then with eyes opened for us by us by Valerie Groves as to the amorous nature of the enchanting Laurie Lee, we dutifully marched down the High Street, following Kirkcudbright Pipe Band augmented with several enthusiastic drummers. The traditionally intermittent display of fireworks from behind the Bay Hotel and Bistro caused merriment as the assembled audience guessed wrongly which was the climax of the show. In fact the final straw was a lone sparkler. One might say it ended not with a bang but a whimper. Nevertheless it was enjoyed by all, and set us in the right mood for the opening party in the marquee.


     As always there has been music in variety. We sampled lovely old songs sung by Irish soprano, Petrea Cooney, ably accompanied on lute or guitar by Gordon Ferries. Their music is delightful but wooden seats are hard on ageing bottoms. We were gobsmacked by the rich beauty of Lauren McQuistin's operatic voice, singing lyrics by Shakespeare and Burns. Having given us one burst

of O mio babbino caro, we were not surprised to hear that this locally bred star won first place at

Wigtown's Got Talent, Indeed, Tony declared she was a true Galloway Belter. 


    On another evening we were moved to tears  by the performance celebrating Sir Harry Lauder's life and songs, culminating in his commemoration for his own, and all lost sons of the Great War----Keep right on to the end of the road. This performance was rendered even more poignant having listened to David Gordon talking about his father's Memoirs of life at the Front.


     We have been hugely entertained by some well-known names, and some lesser known to us, who live outside the reach of Scottish television. One such big name, Irving Finkel, abandoned the dais to come down to our level and proceeded to give a moving, sorry, mobile performance. His life-long studies of ancient Babylonian culture and his mastery of cuneiform script inscribed on clay tablets has enabled him to research the pre Biblical origins of the Noah's Ark story. The talk was well illustrated with slides showing how a scale model  of a reed coracle ark was built by craftsmen skilled in ancient technology in the interests of research.


    Jonathan Miller talked with persuasive authority about his work as a ground - breaking producer of plays and operas to a large audience appreciative of his ready wit and wide ranging experience.


    As in other years there have been many fascinating outreach venues, one such was David Sumner's uniquely atmospheric Swallow Theatre, where closeness to the actors evokes the spirit of Shakespeare's early theatres. This time we saw two short comedies of modern manners, which left most of the mainly senior audience wondering how anyone could willingly expose themselves to the inanities of Twitter.


An early highlight was an evening dinner held in Shaun Bythell's gracious elegant dining room above The Book Shop. Rick Gekoski's authoritative and entertaining discourse between courses, on dealing in rare first editions (at astronomical prices) opened my husband's eyes to an alternative view of bibliomania. However, I fear it is much too late to curb Tony's magpie instincts for collecting beautifully illustrated, superbly bound, All Edges Gilt volumes on almost every subject under the sun.


    Allan Little's Desert Island Books began with our childhood favourite, the Wind in the Willows, with insightful comments on the Edwardian world it ironically revealed. Unfortunately we had to make a hasty exit before question time was over, in order to dash across the Machars as fast as the narrow, winding roads will allow to the next venue. We were charmed by the mellow beauty of the Old Place of Mochrum, where after a talk in the Boathouse on Mochrum Loch, we were taken on tractor- drawn trailers to see Galloway Belties in their fields. Tony celebrated this in verse (read out on Wigtown Radio) considering what the cows made of our visit.


    Possibly the most spectacular venue this year was Barholm Castle, recently restored home of John and Janet Brennan-Inglis. Janet's previous talk had prepared us to be impressed, but the reality is overwhelming. The Castle is truly romantic in the manner of Sir Walter Scott. Indeed it has been suggested as the original Ellangowan in Guy Mannering. Now sympathetically furnished with lovingly crafted Jacobean reproduction chairs, chests and a magnificent four-poster bed, all of which would have been well above the means of the original Bonnet Lairds--the McCullochs, but creates a glamorised mythical history in true Abbotsford vein. We were lucky to see the Castle and its unusual gardens with wonderful views in glorious sunshine.


 The following day the heavens opened, so Cruggleton Church lit only by candles formed a mysterious setting for Tom Pow's evocative, musically accompanied recitation of his poem, Nine Nests.


    Next day Tom Pow entertained us with a poem about a Dumfries forger who survived transportation to Australia by force of personality.


     The second weekend began with a discussion between Stuart Kelly and John Manson of James Barke's lengthy novel, Land of the Leal. This emotively demonstrates how harsh life was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for labourers in farming in the Rhinns of Galloway, Borders and the Neuk of Fife, and the bad conditions in the Clyde shipyards from the General Strike of 1926 and through the great depression of the thirties, as seen through the eyes of David and Jean Ramsay. This event was one of a theme exploring the distinctive nature of Lowland Scotland. This talk certainly did this and highlighted the differences between rural and industrial Scotland which persist to this day. YES? NO!


    Even the stark poverty of Barke's Scotland seemed to offer more hope and showed more sanity than North Korea, as described by Paul French, where the ludicrous levels of self - delusion are mind- boggling and tragi-comic. For Janice this talk had extra significance as she had recently

suffered a talk by a gullible lady tourist who had swallowed all the government propaganda whole.              


Unfortunately, a landslide on the railway near Brampton, Cumbria, caused by the previous night's incessant downpour, prevented Bill Herbert, poet and makar, from presenting his latest collection of poems. However he arrived in time to announce the winner of the main prize in the Wigtown Poetry Competition, to an appreciative audience in the cosy atmosphere of Beltie Books Cafe.


The evening ended with a talk interspersed with songs, sung by Anne Lorne Gillies. We could have listened to her enchanting, unaccompanied voice all night, but the long, wet ride to Carrick Shore loomed.


The final day ended on a more hopeful note for booksellers in the age of the Kindle, than is usually expressed. The Festival closed in the "cinema", with the curtains opened to reveal the view across Wigtown Bay to Creetown, Barholm Castle and the hills beyond. This coastline is the setting for Sir Walter Scott's tale of smugglers and gypsies, Guy Mannering, which was the subject of Stuart Kelly's talk. In it he clearly showed his deep appreciation and love of this now sadly neglected author.


Sad, that it was over, we agreed that the 2014 Festival was the best one yet!