From Wigtown to Edinburgh, Scotland’s prime territory for the written word
WIGTOWN, Scotland – “You’re on the road to nowhere.”
The roads were getting narrower and narrower on the drive through southwestern Scotland. We had left behind the divided highway outside Glasgow, and then, somewhere near the towns with signs saying “Haste Ye Back,” had lost the painted line down the middle of the two-lane road.
For a few miles now, we had been on a one-track road, the kind where you must back up to the last lay-by if you meet a car coming from the other direction. My mom politely suggested that it might be a good idea to turn around.
Caught in the act of what was, at minimum, a six-point turn for a still jet-lagged driver getting reacquainted with driving from the passenger seat, I asked a man sent by the gods of lost travelers if we were on the road to Newton Stewart.
No, we weren’t. (See first paragraph.)
But he straightened us out, and we were soon on the road to somewhere again. Specifically, the area around Wigtown, the village that has become Scotland’s national book town.
I had lived in Scotland when I was young and had been back several times since, but on this trip in June, I wanted to try a new area – Galloway – and a new theme – literary Scotland.
For someone seriously bookish (you know, the kind who collects old Penguin paperbacks and judges vintage books by their covers), the idea of a town dedicated to secondhand books was thrilling.
And Wigtown didn’t disappoint.
The Book Shop was my favorite spot in town. Row upon row of Penguins. Higgledy-piggledy rooms, chandeliers, fireplaces and writerly things etched on the walls (“Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hands.” Ezra Pound. Or, if you want to go another way, “Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” Einstein.)
But even the most bookish types have to go outside once in a while, and that is where the Machars peninsula, as the area is known, is like the plain secretary who takes off her glasses and her boss says, “Why, Miss Smith, you’re beautiful!”
Rolling green fields that look more like Ireland than the Scotland I had known. Woodlands carpeted with wildflowers and lighted by sunbeams. A coastline that manages to look rugged and lush at the same time. Seaside villages with pastel-painted houses all in a row.
We were staying at one of the more perfect places I’ve rented in my travels, with one of the better names: Cruggleton Lodge, about a 10-minute drive south of Wigtown. Sitting on the edge of a cliff, with a view of the Irish Sea and the remnants of a 12th century castle, it had been in spooky disrepair when owners Ella and Finn McCreath rescued it.
Today, the interior is just as striking as the view, both modern-stylish and cozy – a hard combination to get right. The wooden floors have an inherent warmth to them, so going barefoot is sensuous. Oh, and for those who daydream of living the retro-Anglo country life, it even has an Aga stove.
And did I say that it has lots of books?
I’m sure I wasn’t the first visitor to look around and say I could live here. In fact, I know I’m not, because Ella told us about an American friend of hers. Get this: She had been living in L.A., working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and chucked it all to move to Wigtown. Not only did she fall in love with a local bookseller, but she also wrote a book about it – and when I was here, was in London talking about a possible movie.
Looks like my spot as the book-loving Angeleno who dreams of living in a Scottish village and then writing a bestseller about it has been taken. Bummer.
Luckily, I had plenty of places to drown my sorrows (not that I really had any). Scotland’s southernmost whisky-maker, Bladnoch Distillery, is just south of Wigtown. We bought a bottle of the 22-year-old single malt, and it was quite mellow, not as peaty as the whiskys from the islands to the west.
Across the road from the distillery is the Bladnoch Inn, a whitewashed pub and bed-and-breakfast. Its tidy black sign informed us that fishing licenses were also available. We had lunch at a comfy window table and lived it up with a gin and tonic on a glorious blue-sky day. My only regret: The wall-mounted wooden jukebox wasn’t working.
Farther down the peninsula, the Steam Packet Inn in the village of Isle of Whithorn was a lovely place to have Sunday lunch. It was the first warm weekend of the year, after a long winter that saw snow falling in May, and everyone looked a bit dazed and happy as they sat in sundresses and shorts on the quay, eating fish and chips and drinking real ales.
After a few days of exploring the region, with its beach cave where a saint once meditated and its ancient standing stones, it was time for our next literary destination: Edinburgh.
Perhaps the most famous book set in Edinburgh is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” inspired by an upstanding citizen who secretly lived a lowdown life. More recently, Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” was Mr. Hyde all the way.
My favorite Edinburgh book is Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” and my mom’s is anything from Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series.
The closest we got to the latter was the Oxford Bar, famous for being a Rankin favorite. Even though the pub, on a quiet street in the New Town, is on the tourist trail, the bartender and the locals couldn’t have been friendlier.
The closest we got to the former was a 10-minute walk to the Old Town, and an inscription in the concrete outside the Writers’ Museum that read, “The transfiguration of the commonplace. Muriel Spark.” Right on, Ms. Spark.
The museum, in a pretty little close off the Royal Mile not far from Edinburgh Castle, honors three of Scotland’s most famous writers: Stevenson, Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Even though I’m still haunted by the memory of standing in front of my primary school class and trying to recite a poem in the local vernacular (a thing of beauty in a Scottish accent, a thing of comedy in an American one), I’m a fan of Burns’ deeply human insights.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
One night in Edinburgh, my oldest friend came to visit. He had witnessed my mangling of the Scottish poem all those decades ago but somehow didn’t hold it against me. One of the highlights of the trip was seeing his reaction to the stupendous views from the place we had rented. He went from window to window (and there were many), taking snaps on his smartphone.
The Old Observatory House, recently restored by a building preservation group called the Vivat Trust, sits atop Calton Hill, which has probably the best vantage point in the city. The views are 360 degrees: of the castle, the extinct volcano known as Arthur’s Seat, the Firth of Forth and the truly odd assortment of memorials and buildings on the hill itself, including a half-built acropolis.
The Gothic-style house looked like a mini-castle and had a touch of Downton Abbey to it – right down to the service bells above the kitchen door. (Sadly, the bells are silent and no longer summon a Carson or Mrs. Hughes.) It doesn’t come cheap, at about $300 a night, but it sleeps eight, and it would be a dreamy place for a gathering of family or friends.
One day, I sat by the window in a comfy chair, torn between a book I had picked up in Wigtown and the city spread out below me, cast in the golden glow of a midsummer evening when the sun doesn’t set until nearly 11.
I stared out the window awhile. Then I picked up the book and started to read.