Wigtown Book Town: 'I started as a Girl Guide, now I run the festival'

·3 min read
Anne Barclay
Anne Barclay is now the operational director with the Wigtown Book Festival

Little did Anne Barclay know when she was a 14-year-old Girl Guide campaigning for Wigtown to become Scotland's national book town that 25 years later she would be running the show.

It was up against five other potential venues, including two more from Dumfries and Galloway - Gatehouse of Fleet and Moffat.

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The others were Dalmellington, Dunblane and Strathaven.

The aim was to regenerate the chosen area by basing the model on the successful Hay-on-Wye Festival.

Anne, who is now operational director of the book festival, wrote a letter of support as a schoolgirl explaining why Wigtown should win.

She remembers film crews turning up in the build-up to the announcement.

"The town really fell on its knees when I was growing up," she said.

"I remember walking to school past the building that we're in now (The Print Room) and the windows were boarded up with paint flaking off the walls and there were dozens of buildings like that in the town."

She said that on the day Wigtown became book town - 16 May 1998 - there were 83 properties on the market following the closures of the local creamery and distillery.

"Lots of our friends at school had to move away with their families so they could find employment elsewhere," she said.

"It still gives me chills thinking about how it was then."

By the time she was at university studying marketing and events and needed 200 hours of work experience, however, the town was changing and she secured a place with the book festival which had started in 1999.

She helped to set up the marquee on the main square and and kept the coffee area clean and tidy.

Her role has changed a little since then, but she retains the spirit of those early days and the push to encourage people to come and live and work and enjoy Wigtown.

Part of that effort is by welcoming well-known writers like Michael Morpurgo and Katherine Rundell to this year's festival in September.

"Authors often say when they're here they feel like part of the community," she said.

"They love that people interact with them. They don't always get that in other places.

"They're welcomed so warmly by our volunteers."

There are currently about 100 volunteers who do everything from driving authors to and from airports and train stations to selling tickets.

Attendances have risen steadily from just under 1,000 in 1999 to nearly 30,000 in 2019 - the last full festival pre-pandemic.

Work is ongoing to build numbers back up with a range of events at the 25th edition later this year.

Anne has even been inspired in her own efforts by a talk at the festival by BBC correspondent Frank Gardner.

He was paralysed when he was shot six times by al-Qaeda while reporting in Saudi Arabia and his cameraman, Simon Cumbers, died.

"One of the things he said was don't sweat the small stuff and that had a profound effect on me," she said.

"I used to get really worked up about all sorts of things in the lead up to the festival and all of a sudden you think - we're just here to do the best we can and to make sure everyone has a really good time."

The full line-up of the 2023 festival is yet to be revealed but Anne promised it would be a special edition.

"There will be a very strong 25th anniversary theme so it will feel like a big party and everyone's invited," she said.

The festival, too, has come a long way since it was launched.