Wigtown was chosen as Scotland’s Book Town in 1998, in a project designed to breathe life into an ailing rural community in a remote part of Scotland, through the relatively new concept of literary tourism. Wigtown was then on its knees, local industries and employers having shut up shop, forcing about 20 percent of the population out of work. The streets – abandoned shop fronts, boarded up properties- reflected the town’s parlous state.
The Book Festival, therefore, which followed hot on the heels of the establishment of the Book Town, was an ambitious attempt to provide a ten-day guaranteed annual boost to the community by establishing a world class program of book events which attracted not just day trippers but a regular audience who would stay in the vicinity, sleep there, and eat there. The Festival is now Scotland’s second biggest and contributes more than £2 million every year to the local community.
From the start, the Festival involved poetry events, the first one crammed chaotically into the decaying splendour of the Town Hall with a huge and enthusiastic crowd of performers and listeners.
The idea of the Poetry Competition was to establish the literary reputation of the Festival. Andrew Forster was, at the time, literary development officer for the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association and sought to emulate the success of other national prizes, such as the Bridport Prize, in establishing in people’s minds a major literary accolade with a specific literary location. He was also aware that at that time Scotland did not have a major Poetry Competition. To double down on the prestige of the event, he set out to attract big name judges from the start.
Don Paterson, who had just won the hugely prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize, was judge in 2005-6, and his name helped launch the competition. Jackie Kay followed in 2006/7 and Robert Crawford in 2007-8. From the beginning – to reflect Galloway’s legacy of Gaelic history and culture – there was a Gaelic category prize funded by the Gaelic Books Council and the judges, in the first three years were also huge names, Aonghas MacNeacail, Rody Gorman and Meg Bateman. In 2011, the Festival Prize added a Scots Language category, judged by eminent Scots poets, and in 2018 introduced a Fresh Voice Award for emerging talent from Dumfries and Galloway, and in 2019, to commemorate the great talent that was Whithorn-born Alastair Reid, a new pamphlet prize.
A full list of the judges is included at the back of this pamphlet, but the quality of adjudicator remained stellar, across all categories, English, Gaelic and Scots, involving for instance the likes of Douglas Dunn, Liz Lochead and Kevin MacNeil.
Through the fifteen years of its existence the Competition has attracted powerfully good judges, poems that were worthy winners, and a big entry from Scotland and abroad from poets of all backgrounds and experience. It has evolved to be seen as Scotland’s pre-eminent poetry competition and winning it is regarded as a prestigious and potentially career defining event. Moreover because of its careful attention to the minority languages, and their equal weighting, the competition has helped in the fight to preserve and stimulate these precious parts of Scotland’s cultural and literal heritage.
Thanks to Hugh McMillan for writing this piece.
Refreshed and rebranded in 2019, Wigtown Poetry Prize welcomes entries from poets writing in English wherever they may live. Separate categories celebrate the best of Scottish Gaelic and Scots language poetry, a special category acknowledges a rising talent in Dumfries & Galloway, and a pamphlet prize is named in memory of Alastair Reid – local poet and one of Scotland’s foremost literary figures.
The competition closes on 31 May 2021, with a prize-giving at Wigtown Book Festival in the autumn.
Wigtown Prize: £1500
Wigtown Scots Prize: £500
Supported by Saltire Society
Wigtown Scottish Gaelic Prize: £500
Supported by The Gaelic Books Council
Dumfries & Galloway Fresh Voice Award
Professional support including mentoring by Wigtown Festival Company and a retreat at Moniack Mhor Creative Writing Centre
Alastair Reid Pamphlet Prize
30 copies of a pamphlet of your work set by Gerry Cambridge
Invitation to Read at StAnza 2022
A winner of one or more categories will be selected at the discretion of StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival and Wigtown Festival Company
Those entering Wigtown Scottish Gaelic and Wigtown Scots categories can also submit their poems to be considered for the Wigtown Prize free-of-charge.
To learn more, click here.