It was the closure of the railway in 1950 that did for Wigtown, leading to the shutdown of the local creamery and slow decline from what was once described as the quaintest town in the country into a boarded-up place reeking of neglect.
Things took a turn for the better when the Scottish government decided in 1998 Wigtown would become National Book Town. The decision reignited the heart of the place, and gave life to the annual book festival that has become one of the UK’s best-loved literary events, more than doubling the town’s 1,000-strong population each November.
Wigtown now has more then 20 book-related businesses. The views around the cluster of historic buildings that house them are extraordinarily picturesque. Salt marshes are alive with oyster catchers and overwintering geese and the still waters of Wigtown Bay are this weekend reflecting the snowfall on the hills beyond. This is a peninsula that inspired Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Hugh MacDiarmid, Rumer Godden and a key member of the Glasgow Boys, James Paterson. JK Rowling gave Wigtown a quidditch team. Sara Maitland and Joanna Lumley, a frequent guest at the festival, live nearby.
But, according to locals, Wigtown – now sometimes labelled “the Scottish Hay” – is suddenly at risk. These days drivers into Wigtown are greeted by a giant tarpaulin sign that screams “No to Californication”. The eco-energy firm Ecotricity is about to submit a planning application for seven 11-metre-high wind turbines that would string right across the hills of that view across Wigtown Bay. It is calling the windfarm California. An almighty row has ensued.
“Wigtown does attract people because of the isolation and the tranquillity,” said Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop, the town’s largest shop. “It’s not a wealthy place, but it’s a lot better than it was. It was in real decline and then took a nosedive in the 1980s, and becoming a book town has made it a thriving little place again.” Bythell insists this is not nimbyism. “I know it sounds like it, but most of the people here are very pro-green energy. I actually like windmills – in the right place, where the hills are much higher and the landscape quite bleak, they add a real drama. It’s about getting the place right, and this is rolling countryside where they will stick up.”
The Galloway Hills are dotted with neolithic burial cairns and tumbled castles, and Wigtown Bay itself is Britain’s biggest local nature reserve. The county council believed the land was not suitable for a windfarm and refused Ecotricity’s initial application for a “met mast”, a preliminary to the windfarm. An appeal is with Scottish ministers, who are likely to act in line with their pro-green energy policies.
Dale Vince, founder and director of Ecotricity, says he believes his turbines will be built on Kirkdale Hill within the next two years. “I don’t think there is a conflict between tourism and windfarms,” he said. “All the surveys ever undertaken by anyone on windfarms show consistently that 70% of the country supports them, even in their own backyard. There is a very vocal minority which creates a self-perpetuating myth that people don’t like them,” he said, pointing to UK government figures that more people support wind than support shale or nuclear energy.
His company’s first turbine is now 18 years old and going strong. “I set up what is the world’s first green energy company because the biggest single impact on global warming was energy and electricity production and I wanted to change that, to make an impact.”
He said the concentration of energy companies was now all in Scotland after the reversal of environmental promises made for England. “The Scottish government has a wonderful attitude and is already getting 50% of its electricity from wind, as well as exporting it. In England it’s only about 10%. In the current political climate, there has been a reversal of approval for about 50 windfarms, the green energy industry is in despair. Really the next election could be make or break for renewable energy in England. Wind energy is our new north sea oil with the added advantage that we’re not held over a barrel over prices by the Saudis. Its cheap, its abundant. In 20 years time the whole of the country will be powered by wind and sun and sea and we’ll look back and think what was the problem?”
The MSP for this sparsely populated corner of Dumfries and Galloway is Alex Fergusson. His concerns are with proper local consultation – Ecotricity organised an invite-only meeting with key community figures on the same night it had turned down an invitation to attend an open meeting organised by concerned locals. “It hardly sends the right message,” says Fergusson. While not against windfarms, which proliferate in his constituency, Fergusson feels the wind rush is overwhelming local authorities, which are having to deal with complex planning applications without any extra resources, and he wants a code of conduct to be introduced for the energy firms involved.
“I have some sympathy with both sides, but the fact remains windfarms split local communities right down the middle, so we do need to ensure proper consultation. This is an all but forgotten corner of the country,” he said, “highly dependent on farming, forestry and fishing, so it’s struggling and tourism is a much-needed bonus. The book town has brought a real boost to what 15 years ago was not a pretty place at all. Now arts and culture is really getting a foothold.”
For Save Wigtown Bay campaigner Lesley Cundiff the stakes are high. “This is a very special place, a beautiful part of the world, which is why we get so many artists and writers. Tourism is our lifeblood. This area has had so many turbines that now we’re inundated really. You feel you’ve fought one off and another pops up. But this place, this just has to be sacred. It has to be.”