Robert Twigger: Being the Wigtown Book Festival Hermit in Residence
As Hermit in Residence at Wigtown Book Festival this year I was informed I’d be given my own bothy or hovel to scribble in - in fact it was a rather nice studio with a transparent roof, perfect for writing in fact, it even had a little cot on which to cogitate. What did the hermit have to do? Actually it was a gimmick- rather like the professional hermits of the 18th Century- there to add colour to a stately home’s folly or ‘ruins’. Nevertheless I interpreted my task as one of wandering about and adding good cheer and gnomic remarks wherever possible. The hermit’s lodgings were provided by Shaun Bythell owner of the largest secondhand bookshop in Scotland, in whose living room, each year is created the ‘writer’s retreat’.
My studio also became the haunt of the ‘book doctor’ – a service provided by writer Kate Tough and poet William Bonar- offering to fix people’s literary problems before they submit them to a publisher. Moving out from the ambit of Shaun’s bookshop, the Wigtown Book Festival, ably organised by Adrian Turpin and Anne Barclay, spreads over the town centre with tents and event locations of a diversity unknown in other literary festivals. How about: canoeing with an author, making paella with one, walking and running with authors, not to mention the numerous children’s events and also the big name author events this year featuring Martin Bell, Tam Dalyell, Allan Massie and Celia Imrie among others. But what of my own cogitations and peregrinations? For a start I did some talks in schools, finding my way to the Wallace Academy in Thornhill. Little did I realise that this was the birthplace of Joseph Thompson, the discoverer of the Thompson’s gazelle, and one of the less well known but still important, African explorers. Now this fact was great news to me as I am currently writing about the Nile and some of the people who explored its upper reaches. I was able to photograph Thompson’s statue- somehow it felt easier than travelling all the way to Africa to commune with his past spirit.
Back at Wigtown there were events of a more social hue such as the yearly talent contest. I didn’t win, a highly talented young singer called Zoe Bestel did- definitely one to watch out for I’d say. On the canoeing with an author trip (I was that author, talking about my canoeing book Voyageur) we descended the Bladnoch river to the sea. As the tide was going out the river was falling quite rapidly but we all made it to Wigtown harbour before nightfall or being stranded on the mud. The harbour, by the way, is where parts of the WWII Mulberry harbour was constructed before being towed south for the invasion of France on D-Day. In a way our small flotilla of canoes, courtesy of Kirkudbright Canoe Club, was a reverse amphibious landing sixty odd years later…then it was back to the main area of the town to witness Spanish crime writer Jason Webster making genuine paella outdoors next to the county buildings. Real paella he told me comes from Valencia, where he lives and writes, and requires rabbit and chicken as the main ingredients. To find a rabbit at short notice was quite a task but Wigtown is not a town that shies from a challenge, and a frozen rabbit was secured and butchered after lengthy softening up in the microwave. Needless to say professional chef Marie from the Penninghame Centre (who also hosted two dinners for celebrated authors Stuart Kelly and Max Arthur) pronounced it top fodder.
Things were winding down by the second weekend- only to revive again for the traditional Ceilidh- a rip-roaring event where the amateurs probably outnumbered the pros- but were not considered the less for it. The dancing was fierce and the floor a bit slippy but what better way to end ten days of excellent literary festivities in Scotland’s best literary festival?
There are around 40 book festivals in Scotland- if you are a writer why not check out their websites and see how you can get involved?
There are some residencies available through Creative Scotland's Creative Futures programme – for more information on how to apply see: