Kari Howard / Los Angeles Times

This is the vantage from the Old Observatory House, which sits atop Calton Hill and offers great views of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Travel: Scotland prime trek for written word

Published: Saturday, Sep. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am

“You’re on the road to nowhere.”

The roads were getting narrower and narrower on the drive through southwestern Scotland. We had left behind the divided highway outside Glasgow, and then, somewhere near the towns with signs saying “Haste Ye Back,” had lost the painted line down the middle of the two-lane road.

For a few miles now, we had been on a one-track road, the kind on which you must back up to the last “lay-by” if you meet a car coming from the other direction. My mom politely suggested that it might be a good idea to turn around.

Caught in the act of what was, at minimum, a six-point turn for a still jet-lagged driver getting reacquainted with driving from the passenger seat, I asked a man sent by the gods of lost travelers if we were on the road to Newton Stewart.

No, we weren’t. (See first paragraph.)

But he straightened us out and we were soon on the road to somewhere again. Specifically, the area around Wigtown, the village that has become Scotland’s national book town.

I had lived in Scotland when I was young and had been back several times since, but on this trip in June, I wanted to try a new area, Galloway, and a new theme, literary Scotland.

For someone seriously bookish (you know, the kind who collects old Penguin paperbacks and judges vintage books by their covers), the idea of a town dedicated to secondhand books was thrilling.

And Wigtown didn’t disappoint.

The Book Shop was my favorite spot in town. Row upon row of Penguins. Higgledy-piggledy rooms, chandeliers, fireplaces and writerly things etched on the walls (“Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hands.” Ezra Pound. Or, if you want to go another way, “Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” Einstein.)

But even the most bookish types have to go outside once in a while, and that is where the Machars peninsula, as the area is known, is like the plain secretary who takes off her glasses and her boss says, “Why, Miss Smith, you’re beautiful!”

Rolling green fields that look more like Ireland than the Scotland I had known. Woodlands carpeted with wildflowers and lighted by sunbeams. A coastline that manages to look rugged and lush at the same time. Seaside villages with pastel-painted houses all in a row.

We were staying at one of the more perfect places I’ve rented in my travels, with one of the better names: Cruggleton Lodge, about a 10-minute drive south of Wigtown. Sitting on the edge of a cliff, with a view of the Irish Sea and the remnants of a 12th century castle, it had been in spooky disrepair when owners Ella and Finn McCreath rescued it.

Today, the interior is just as striking as the view, both modern-stylish and cozy — a hard combination to get right. The wooden floors have an inherent warmth to them, so going barefoot is a must. Oh, and for those who daydream of living the retro-Anglo country life, it even has an Aga stove.

And did I say that it has lots of books?

I’m sure I wasn’t the first visitor to look around and say I could live here. In fact, I know I’m not, because Ella told us about an American friend of hers. Get this: She had been living in Los Angeles, working for Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and chucked it all to move to Wigtown. Not only did she fall in love with a local bookseller, she also wrote a book about it — and when I was here, was in London talking about a possible movie.

Looks like my spot as the book-loving Angeleno who dreams of living in a Scottish village and then writing a bestseller about it has been taken. Bummer.

Luckily, I had plenty of places to drown my sorrows (not that I really had any). Scotland’s southernmost whisky maker, Bladnoch Distillery, is just south of Wigtown. We bought a bottle of the 22-year-old single malt, and it was quite mellow, not as peaty as the whiskys from the islands to the west.

Across the road from the distillery is the Bladnoch Inn, a whitewashed pub and bed-and-breakfast. Its tidy black sign informed us that fishing licenses were also available. We had lunch at a comfy window table and lived it up with a gin and tonic on a glorious blue-sky day. My only regret: The wall-mounted wooden jukebox wasn’t working.

Farther down the peninsula, the Steam Packet Inn in the village of Isle of Whithorn was a lovely place to have Sunday lunch.

After a few days of exploring the region, with its beach cave where a saint once meditated and its ancient standing stones, it was time for our next literary destination: Edinburgh.

Perhaps the most famous book set in Edinburgh is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” inspired by an upstanding citizen who secretly lived a lowdown life. More recently, Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” was Mr. Hyde all the way.

My favorite Edinburgh book is Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” and my mom’s is anything from Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series.

One night in Edinburgh, my oldest friend came to visit. One of the highlights of the trip was seeing his reaction to the stupendous views from the place we had rented. He went from window to window (and there were many), taking snapshots on his smartphone.

The Old Observatory House, recently restored by a building-preservation group called the Vivat Trust, sits atop Calton Hill, which has probably the best vantage point in the city. The views are 360 degrees: of the castle, the extinct volcano known as Arthur’s Seat, the Firth of Forth and the truly odd assortment of memorials and buildings on the hill itself, including a half-built acropolis.

One day, I sat by the window in a comfy chair, torn between a book I had picked up in Wigtown and the city spread out below me, cast in the golden glow of a midsummer evening when the sun doesn’t set until nearly 11.

I stared out the window awhile. Then I picked up the book and started to read.

IF YOU GO:

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the United States, dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (the country code for Britain) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Cruggleton Lodge, Galloway; 1988-600-694, www.bit.ly/179Lgke. Self-catering home is about $130 a night (summertime rates higher). The McCreaths have three other rentals on the property, as well as one in Edinburgh.

Old Observatory House, Edinburgh; 1981-550-753, www.bit.ly/eFEwLh. About $300 a night (summer and holiday rates can go much higher). A grand self-catering home managed by the Vivat Trust.

WHERE TO EAT:

Bladnoch Inn, Newton Stewart; 1988-402-200, no website. Pub meals about $10. The nearby Bladnoch Distillery (www.bladnoch.co.uk, 1988-402-605) offers tours and tastings.

Oxford Bar; Edinburgh; 131-539-7119, www.oxfordbar.co.uk), which Ian Rankin and his character Inspector Rebus have been known to frequent. Neither was there the night we stopped in, but it’s still a great place for a drink.

TO LEARN MORE:

• Wigtown’s website, www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk/index.asp, is helpful for area information. The 2013 Wigtown Book Festival is Sept. 27-Oct. 6.

• Dumfries & Galloway, www.visitdumfriesandgalloway.co.uk

Read more articles by Kari Howard



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