‘From Alloway to Abbotsford, via Auchinleck and Melrose, literary pearls lie tantalising across the south of Scotland. Now is the time to make a necklace of them.’
‘I fixed on Galloway as the best place to go,’ Richard Hannay declared in The 39 Steps. We liked the quote so much at the Wigtown Book Festival that we put it on a bag, and it’s come to mind a lot recently. For the past two years, we’ve been part of an EU-funded project looking at new approaches to literary tourism in rural areas. How can we make Dumfries & Galloway the best place to go for readers – even those not on the run from shadowy criminal conspiracies?
There’s a delicious variety in the Spot-lit project. In eastern Finland, plans are afoot to bring the wonderful (and undoubtedly) weird national epic Kalevala to a wider audience. Our partners at Arts over Borders in Northern Ireland dream of Enniskillen becoming a destination for Oscar Wilde pilgrimage. Meanwhile, along the Wild Atlantic Way, the storytellers and poets of Ireland’s West will be celebrated through new performances.
So what about south-west Scotland? What have we got to offer? More than is sometimes acknowledged. But that’s no surprise: Dumfries & Galloway (D&G) is used to being overlooked.
Let’s start with the classics. Burns’s Birthplace in Alloway often gets the glory, but it was Ellisland Farm outside Dumfries where he wrote “Tam o’ Shanter” and “Auld Lang Syne”, the town’s Globe Inn where he drank and St Michael’s Churchyard where he died. Walter Scott is about as Borders as you can get. But D&G might lay imaginative claim to Old Mortality, Redgauntlet and even The Bride of Lammermoor, which transposes its central story from Baldoon Castle, a stone’s throw from Wigtown itself.
Throw a stone in the south-west and you are likely to hit a place with a literary connection, be it Thomas Carlyle’s Ecclefechan or Hugh MacDiarmid’s Langholm. Four John Buchan novels are set in Galloway, while Peter Pan Moat Brae House – whose gardens fired the imagination of a young JM Barrie – is now home to Scotland’s National Centre for Children’s Literature.
Daundering along the Solway, one might note the Kirkcudbright of Dorothy L Sayers and Gavin Maxwell’s Elrig. And, at the risk of sounding like a particularly fiendish round of Stuart Kelly’s Literary Pub Quiz, did you know that John Ruskin’s family came from Wigtownshire? Or that Edgar Alan Poe wrote “The Raven” in Newton Stewart? I could go on.
A bit of literary trivia is always fun. But there is a serious point here. These literary landscapes offer real possibilities for sustainable tourism in south-west Scotland. It’s been done before: Samuel Crockett arguably invented Galloway as a Victorian tourist destination, through his bestselling but now forgotten novels.
As Scotland’s National Book Town Wigtown also has sold itself on books for more than two decades now – which explains why we took part in Spot-lit and are now working with nine businesses in Dumfries & Galloway as they develop new literary tourism experiences. These range from tours and stays to a musical performance and two new festivals. Since the Covid crisis, the project has taken on new significance as rural communities and tourist businesses begin to contemplate the road to recovery.
As several of these businesses show, literary tourism is not always the same thing as literary heritage. Vibrant festivals, independent bookshops (of which there were at last count 37 across the south of Scotland) and living writers, such as D&G-based Stephen Rutt, Patrick Laurie and Shaun Bythell, are all a vital part of the package.
‘Scotland’s Literary Heartland’ has a nice ring to it, and, though it would be nice to claim that title for D&G, it would be a push. But extend the parameters a little, north into Ayrshire and east into the Borders, and it looks less like hyperbole. From Alloway to Abbotsford, via Auchinleck and Melrose, literary pearls lie tantalising across the south of Scotland. Now is the time to make a necklace of them.
‘Seabirds love islands, as I love islands: the further out of the way they are, the less disturbance …