Wigtown has been settled for at least 1000 years. Today it is a small sleepy place in Galloway, but for most of its life, it was the chief town of Galloway west of the Cree. Standing on its hill overlooking the sea, it was the ferry point to cross the tidal river until the early 19th century, giving Wigtown considerable strategic and commercial importance. The county was named after it; it had a royal castle and house of Blackfriars dating from the 13th century; it was the seat of an Earldom from 1341. This is probably when its first burgh charter dates from despite the oldest surviving written record being from 1457.
Many people know of Wigtown because of the Martyrs who were put to death in 1685 for their refusal, along with many other Covenanters, to accept Episcopalian church services and in particular that the King had the right to call himself head of the church. The covenanting tradition is reflected in the town’s motto: “Let Wigtown Flourish by the preaching of thy word, through Christ Jesus, who is our only head”.
The harbour used to be close to the Martyrs’ stake until the River Bladnoch changed course, and the new harbour was built in its present location around 1825. Busy with coastal trade and its fairs and markets, Wigtown was the service centre for the farming communities of the Machars. Its Royal Burgh and county town status gave it a monopoly until well into the 19th century. However the growth of rail and road networks did not favour the town, and it found itself on the periphery, diminshing its trade and overall prosperity. During the 20th century, Wigtown lost its administrative and legal roles and two key employers: Bladnoch distillery in the 80s and the Co-operative Creamery in the 90s. The town’s population fell and buildings became empty. These were difficult times for a proud town, and a new venture was badly needed to re-vitalise the historic Royal Burgh.
In 1997, Wigtown was designated Scotland’s national booktown; this has acted as a catalyst for regeneration with many properties refurbished, including the splendid County Buildings. The gardens were laid out in their present form, and the old mercat cross erected at their centre. New businesses have opened and, although there is not the same variety of shops there once was, Wigtown has become a magnet for book lovers, with its many second hand bookshops. The town is a charming and welcoming place, with its centre retaining a medieval layout, and fine buildings dating from previous centuries. It continues to win awards, most recently the Creative Places Award in 2012, as Scotland’s most creative small town. The Wigtown Book Festival, started in 1998, is an annual event (end of September – start of October) pulling in huge audiences to hear a very varied selection of authors. There is also an annual Spring Weekend early in May, and a more traditional Community Festival takes place in July, with a focus on family events. There is a market every Saturday from Easter to late September. All this is evidence that community spirit is alive and well in the town, and promises that Wigtown will indeed continue to flourish.
Bladnoch Distillery has recently re-opened and is a mile west of the town.