10 Things You Probably Never Knew About Wigtown

Quaint, pretty, picturesque, atmospheric – Wigtown offers a literary and cosy day out with its numerous book shops and sweet little tea rooms hosting sugary or healthy fayre – depending on your yearn.

There’s definitely a sense of culture here but thankfully it’s mixed with old Scots common sense and a feel for the area’s farming traditions.

Granted Royal Burgh status in 1469, the town focused on its Port in the 15th century but the main industry both prior to and after seafaring was clearly farming. Today many residents are self-employed. With no industry to speak of, the town boosts its coffers immensely with the huge number of visitors it receives for 10 days every year when it hosts an annual book festival under the auspices of Scotland’s National Book Town.

Enjoy and feel free to add any more in the comments at the bottom of the article


1. Home of the two female ‘Wigtown Martyrs’

There was less patience for opposing religious or political views several hundred years ago.

Two of the townswomen discovered this the hard way when they were tied to stakes and drowned by the incoming tide. Their crime? To refuse to denounce themselves as Covenanters by signing the Abjuration Oath (an anti-Presbyterian document and which, from December 1864, all Scots had to sign or face death).

The elderly Margaret McLachlan and teenager teenage Margaret Wilson were part of a group today known as the Wigtown Martyrs. The only women in the group, they were drowned in May 1685 while the others – three men – were hanged. The graves of all five can be found in a railed enclosure in the kirkyard of the town’s former Old Kirk. A monument to them sits on the town’s Windy Hill but the most poignant reminder is the Martyr’s Stake at the edge of Wigtown Bay.

By Bubobubo2 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

2. Wigtown Bay Local Nature Reserve is great for geese-spotting

Barnacle Goose, Pink-footed Goose, Greenland White-fronted Goose, Graylag Goose – you’ll find them all at Wigtown waterfront doing their stuff in the Salt Marshes. From November to early April, the Bay area is a magnet for these and other water wading birds.

Wigtown actually borders on a natural reserve (which stretches all the way to Newton Stewart in the North and Creetown in the West) and in the spring and summer you’ll also find Ospreys. The first pair of Ospreys to visit Galloway in more than 100 years appeared in 2004.

There’s now a CCTV camera at the top of the town’s County Buildings which is linked to their nest and where it’s possible to watch new chicks being born.

3. Wigtown has its own answer to Glastonbury

Slightly smaller and attracting notably less attention that the Glastonbury Stone Circle, Wigtown’s version is nevertheless regarded as one of the best preserved in Britain.

Measuring around 60ft diameter and dating from the second millennium BC, the Torehousekie Stone Circle with its 19, five feet high slabs surrounding a cairn is believed to be closely aligned with the Winter Solstice.

4. The town was once ruled by Archibald the Grim

Yes, it’s an unfortunate name and not one many of us would personally like conferred upon us, but you could be forgiven for reserving your sympathy since the man ended up owning half of Scotland at one point.

The bastard son of King Robert I’s lieutenant Sir James “the Black” Douglas, Archibald was described as a ‘dark and ugly’ child who resembled a cook rather than a nobleman.’

However, he grew up to be a strong warrior and fought for the French during his teens and twenties having spent time there as a child. And indeed others have insisted that the ‘grim’ tag was conferred on Archibald due to his toughness in battle.

He became Earl of Wigtown in 1372 (by merely purchasing the title) then was appointed Sheriff of Edinburgh. His marriage saw him inherit estates in Aberdeenshire, Moray, Ross, Lanarkshire and Roxburghshire, before he himself became the powerful Lord of Galloway.

5. Wigtown boasts Scotland’s biggest 2nd hand bookshop

And it’s owned by an American! Or at least co-owned by one; Jessica Fox, an American ‘storyteller’ working for NASA in the States had a recurring dream about working in a book shop in Scotland. After a spot of googling she decided it was The Bookshop in Wigtown. So she booked a plane ticket and arrived in the town to ‘see and touch’ the real thing rather than merely dream about it.

She met, and liked, the shop proprietor and the rest is romantic history, a kind of Sleepless in Seattle but set in LA and Wigtown… As you’d expect, this bookshop, a Grade II-listed Georgian building, has a lovely old worlde charm. It holds at least 10,000 books and around one mile of shelving.

Wigtown actually boasts 12 independent bookshops, which is pretty incredible considering the town had only 921 residents at the last census. Although…..

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6. Scotland’s National Book Town

… during the Wigtown Book Festival in September, the number of residents in the town swells threefold.

The first-ever Book Festival was held in 1999; the town had been officially named Scotland’s National Book Town the previous year. Wigtown claimed the title after beating five others small towns in a competition to receive funding to host an annual book event.

Lasting an impressive and author/event-packed 10 days, writers and artists who’ve visited include Ian Rankin, Celia Imrie, John Simpson, Joanna Lumley, Douglas Hurd, Sally Magnusson, Richard Holloway, Clare Balding and children’s author Cathy Cassidy.

7.  Prolific screen writer Paul Laverty educated in Wigtown

Award-winning screen writer Paul Laverty, the work partner of famous film director Ken Loach, was born brought up in Wigtown. He’s the screenwriter for such well-known films as Carla’s Song (1996), My Name Is Joe (1998), Sweet Sixteen (2002), Ae Fond Kiss (2004), The Angels’ Share (2012) and the recently-acclaimed I, Daniel Blake (2016). Over the years Laverty’s work has provided a ‘leg up’ for many now-globally recognised actors such as Robert Carlyle, Peter Mullan and Cillian Murphy.

Now 59, Laverty was educated during his early years at All Souls’ School in the town then later at University in Rome and Glasgow. Before turning to writing he was a Human Rights Lawyer in Nicaragua.

By Julius1990 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

8. Birthplace of one of last century’s brightest botanist

Another of Wigtown’s famous sons, inhabiting the town before Laverty even set foot there, was John McConnell Black. Born in Wigtown in 1855, and educated at Wigtown Grammar School, he emigrated to Australia at the age of 22 where, over the years, he identified and illustrated the country’s native plants.

His book, The Naturalised Flora of South Australia was first published in 1909 with three other parts added during 1922 to 1929.

Within its pages, the book features more than 2,430 species of indigenous and naturalized plants.

Black died while writing a revised edition of the book twenty years later, but not before winning a fistful of Botany prizes in Australia and London, including the Ferdinand von Mueller Medal (Australian and New Zealand Association) for the Advancement of Science (1932) and the Clarke Medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales (1946)

Interestingly, despite his fascination for Botany, Black had a natural flair for languages which allowed him to understand Arabic, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish.

9. Wigtown Agricultural Show is over a century old

First appearing in 1813 – and even surviving throughout the years of the First World War (where it raised money for the troops) – Wigtown Show is a farmers and family favourite. And it’s also welcomed its fair share of celebrity guests such as TC Noel Edmonds, actress Diana Dors, former Dr Who John Pertwee, singer Isla St Clair and ex-Scotland Football Manager Ally McLeod (in 1978 – the same year the team played in the World Cup).

Admission tickets for the show were first charged in 1925, trade stands had first appeared three years earlier – at which time beers and wine were still banned with the only refreshment available via the tea urn.

The 2017 event – reassuring with an alcohol licence today – is due to take place in the town’s Bladnoch Park on Wednesday, August 2.

10. Wigtown had a secret World War II Airfield

During World War 2 Wigtown had its own airfield, known as Baldoon, and which was sited just one mile south of the town.

The area was originally used for training purposes but as the war progressed it became a useful operations base. Local girls from the town used to attend dances with some of the pilots stationed there. Hosting two concrete runways from 1942 onwards it was finally closed in 1948. Today the control towers, some hangars and 14 abandoned air-raid shelters can still be seen.

Over the years there have been many suggestions for the disused airfield, including a Solar Farm, mooted back in 2015. Today it still stands empty and derelict awaiting refurbishment.

So there you have it. A little all rounder tour of Wigtown.

We know there must be endless other facts about the town and please feel free to add any more in the comments below.