311: Wigtown and Whithorn

OS Explorer map 311, Wigtown, Whithorn & The Machars – I own this map, but had not visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post 18th July 2018. (This is the eleventh of fourteen posts concerning my July 2018 trip to Harris and Galloway with my Cambridge friends.)

So my previous post ended when Erithacus, Millicent, Vesper, Cheremy, Queenie and I, after a very early start to catch a ferry and then a very long day’s driving, were finally just about to arrive at the caravan park where we’d be staying for the next four days. We arrived fairly late in the day, and so after we’d found our caravan, we didn’t do much more than eat a lazy dinner of oven vegetarian burgers and chips before going to bed.

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Our accommodation for the next few days!

The caravan park was in Creetown, a village on the south coast of Galloway (and in this map area). We’d chosen it, though, for its proximity to two places of great interest to us: Wigtown and Whithorn – what could appeal to us more than Scotland’s national book town and the site of some of the earliest recorded history Scotland has to offer? Even better for you, dear readers, both of these places are in this map area!

Where Creetown is to be found (map from OS Maps online)

The next day, before we could  journey to any of these exciting places, there was important business to attend to: it was Vesper’s birthday! We artfully arranged her birthday presents on the coffee table while she was in the shower, and they were happily received.

We then departed on the day’s outing to Whithorn, sadly leaving Erithacus behind as she had some work to do. Now Whithorn is historically interesting for being the location of St Ninian’s 4th-5th-century mission to the Picts, the first time Christianity was brought to that people, the first recorded church in what is now Scotland. Of course, as is usually the case, we only know of the man from documents from centuries later, starting with Bede in the 730s, so there’s pretty much nothing to be said about him securely at all (although, as will be seen below, there’s no shortage of evidence of Christianity about at this early time). However, Whithorn was an important ecclesiastical centre and place of pilgrimage throughout the medieval period, to which Ninian was a centrally important figure.

Arriving in Whithorn, I dropped off the others to find the Priory before going back up the road to get some petrol, which was a much more interesting experience than getting petrol usually is: the petrol station was a church that had been converted into a car garage!

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The weird and wonderful Whithorn petrol station!

I then bought a couple of things in the shops on the street [1] before joining the others, who were standing in the little café and museum buying us admission tickets to the site.

There was actually really rather a lot to see in Whithorn, which we weren’t expecting – first we were shown around a reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse; it was a reconstruction of one they’d dug up in a swamp nearby, and our guide was a history student who’d worked on the dig and was very knowledgeable about things even in the face of a hard grilling by Cheremy and Millicent. Something we found especially cute was that a little mini-roundhouse had been provided next to it for the chickens! Someone had also set up a loom in the roundhouse, which we knew Erithacus would appreciate, since she’s planning to build one herself this year.

From the roundhouse we went into the first of two museums on the site and were shown a little video clearly created by someone with a flair for the dramatic but without the budget to match, and narrated by someone who seemed a little insecure in the face of St Columba: Ninian was favourably compared to him in every other sentence. The exhibition itself was really very good, running through the entire history of Whithorn; it was just generally very interesting and well-presented. The second of the two museums was an exhibition of carved stones dating from the 5th to the 14th century. We were shown around the stones museum by a curator lady who seemed to have been born for the job – not only did she love it and know her stuff awfully well, her father was the previous curator.

Now, we all studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic together, so we know a thing or two about early medieval Britain. I didn’t take the paper on Brittonic History, so Ninian and his crew weren’t something I’d studied, however to those of us who had, some of these stones were very familiar. There’s very very little historical evidence for the history of the Brittonic-speaking people (Picts, Cornish, Welsh, Bretons, “Britons” – i.e. the ancestors of those latter three) in the early middle ages, so a lot of the study in the field is based on very sparse attestations, among which a few carved stones are really very important for the earliest centuries. Photographed above is Whithorn’s earliest, the 5th-century Latinus stone, which directly proves Christianity and writing to have been prominent in the area at that early date.

We then went and had a look in the ruins of Whithorn Priory itself, which was in better shape than some medieval monasteries I’ve seen, and worse than some too.

We then returned to the caravan after a shop stop in Newton Stewart, and had an evening of fun and frivolity as Cheremy made lentil-filled tortillas for dinner and Erithacus successfully made pancakes thanks to the spatula and frying pan that we’d brought back with us from the shops. After dinner we introduced Queenie and Erithacus to the delights of the programme Black Books. However, the evening’s most notable occurrence was when Vesper and Erithacus took up electric curlers and straighteners and applied themselves to my hair and Millicent’s. The results were, of course, spectacular.

The next day’s trip was to Wigtown, which, aside from having been rather an important place in the past, and being served by a now-closed railway (not that that’s especially rare), has the singular distinction of being Scotland’s National Book Town. [2] Cheremy had had the wonderful idea that we should play a game of Book Secret Santa, [3] to which end we were all secretly assigned a fellow member of the group by picking a folded piece of paper out of my shirt pocket (as we didn’t have a hat), for whom we had to buy an interesting book for under £5.

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Unfortunately the one picture I took doesn’t do justice to Wigtown

Wigtown was wonderful; there were indeed twenty or so great second-hand bookshop, and we had a lovely couple of hours poking around, buying things, and even stroking a cat or two.

The last shop we went to was the excitingly named Dragon Books, which turned out, to our delight, to be an almost-entirely science fiction and fantasy-oriented shop – the owner had to open it up especially for us, too; it didn’t seem like he got many visitors. It was full of cheap paperback SF and fantasy from decades past (as well as plenty of good stuff), which is always good for a laugh, and we spent a pleasant while giggling at odd cover art. We bought a few things because they seemed too amusing to pass up, including a book about a detective Catholic bishop that, once I read it, turned out not to be as awful as I expected. Cheremy, the least SFF-inclined of us, somehow managed to hunt down a theological treatise in the shop’s small non-SFF section. After Dragon Books, we were well satisfied and made our way back to the caravan.

It wasn’t until two days later that we’d be departing for home, however Wigtown was the last happening of note in this map area – the next day, I left the others to take Erithacus to Glasgow to get her flight to join her family in Italy, and the evenings (and the others’ day) consisted primarily of sitting around generally enjoying each other’s company, watching a little Merlin. My next post will concern a mistake made while planning dinner later this day, and after that I’ll be telling you about the way home!


[1] Erithacus had tried to make pancakes earlier in the day, but had been defeated by the lack of suitable equipment in the caravan’s kitchen – I therefore was buying a spatula and some foil oven trays to be used to make a cake for Vesper later, and later in the day Millicent and I ended up buying a frying pan too.

[2] A week later I visited Fjærland, Norway’s National Book Town, which was a pleasing occurrence. While Wigtown had the edge in having more bookshops, which were more pleasingly windy, and in having books all in a language I know, Fjærland did rather win for natural beauty…

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[3] It not being Christmas, we realised that Secret Santa wasn’t really an appropriate name for this game. Since we are medieval nerds, we naturally looked up the day’s saint’s day, and, pleased to find that it was the feast day of the wife of Alfred the Great, duly renamed the game Obscure Ealhswith. (Since everyone knows that, in Old English, all vowels alliterate…)

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