Four degrees west: Kirkcudbright

published in The Scotsman, September 1999

 

‘In this town you cut your finger and by the time news
gets to the end of the road it’s become an amputation’

KIRKCUDBRIGHT is in Galloway: and in cyberspace. A town of 3,500 people, laid out in 18th century pastels, it has no traffic lights and shops that shut determinedly for lunch.

Yet it sustains a parallel existence on the web (at www.kirkcudbright.co.uk), where the locals’ lives are lovingly recorded and photos hint at the crystalline light that makes Kirkcudbright a painters’ honeytrap.

The idea is not home-grown. Stephen Taylor, a web developer, was visiting his mother one winter when he began pondering the future of a “quietly beautiful” place where cellphones won’t work and people talk to strangers in the pub. What was the outlook for a little town in south-west Scotland, isolated by geography and marooned by the long-term decline of its staple industries, fishing and farming? How might Kirkcudbright market its charms to the world without turning itself into a tourists’ caricature?

Mr Taylor, who describes himself as “a penniless philanthropist”, set up the site with a grant from Dumfries and Galloway council. A fan of Dylan Thomas and Garrison Keillor, he has the outsider’s idealism for a sense of community, which he has tried to recreate on the site. An online club - one of Yahoo’s biggest in Scotland - unites people who have left the town, with messages from overseas surfers searching for traces of long-dead family.

The dead would join the website if Douglas Swan had his way. The monumental mason, whose family business has been in Kirkcudbright since 1864, wants to store on the website details of every headstone to be found in the town cemetery, which sits on a hillside overlooking the estuary of the Dee. So many were made by him, his father or grandfather, that Mr Swan is a walking chronicle of the town. The artist who fell off a ladder in his studio; the engaged man whose fiancee promptly put her wedding dress up for sale in the local paper; the endless fishermen’s deaths at sea.

From his cabin of an office off the mason’s yard, Mr Swan keeps an eye on the website with his daughter Carrie.

While Carrie confesses that her long-term ambition is to leave Kirkcudbright, her father is a zealot for his birthplace.

“I’ve visited some nice places in the world, but nowhere as nice as Kirkcudbright. The Caribbean’s not as nice as Kirkcudbright,” he says stoutly.

The town is dominated by the broken brick fingers of the 16th century MacLellan Castle, a Mecca for MacLellans all over the world. It looks incongruously warlike, like a domesticated tiger, among the whitewashed houses painted ochre, powder blue and cinnamon. “The High Street is pretty much as it was in the 18th century,” explains David Devereux, curator of the local museum and the Tolbooth Arts Centre, which once housed the town gaol. “There is a resistance to modernity here: things aren’t done in a hurried way.”

Kirkcudbright hopes that its recent past, at least, could be its fortune. In the latter half of the last century the town became a holiday haven for painters. The Glasgow artist and illustrator Jessie M King made a home here with her husband E A Taylor. “They were a very sociable couple, very colourful,” says Mr Devereux. Friends joined them for the summer, with the coming of the railway in 1863 making the town more accessible from Glasgow.

But this was not an artists’ colony in the Bohemian sense of the word. The painter EA Hornel, who returned to Kirkcudbright after spells in Antwerp and Japan, appears in pictures as a frock-coated Victorian gentleman. Jessie King was a thoroughly respectable daughter of the manse, whose eccentricities were confined to bicycling round town in her billowing black cloak and organising pageants. (On one occasion, the Scottish Colourist SJ Peploe did the honours as the Pied Piper of Hamelin.)

The tradition of Kirkcudbright as an artists’ town has stuck. The Tolbooth has been converted with European funds into an arts centre, celebrating the Jessie King era and showing the work of modern artists. Every summer new courses spring up for aspirant painters.

Colin Warden came here with his wife from Glasgow to fulfil his dream of becoming an artist. But other opportunities presented themselves. “It was 1972, and you couldn’t get a meal after 7pm from Dumfries to Stranraer.” They started a restaurant in the disused railway station, which now houses a health club.

Today Warden runs Castle MacLellan Foods, a pate-making business with a turnover of 3 million a year. He was recently bought out by the Norwegian firm Kvli, makers of Primula cheese - his own contribution to inward investment in Scotland.

Much as he loves Kirkcudbright, Warden has never grown accustomed to its smallness. “You cut your finger and by the time news gets to the end of the road it’s become an amputation. Someone has a fainting fit and you’re ringing up to offer condolences.”

With his 50 staff, Warden is one of Kirkcudbright’s main employers. The others are the fish processing factory and the big Express dairy with its three steel funnels. The town’s wealth is elsewhere, vested mainly in incomers and retired people. Property prices are the highest in Dumfries and Galloway, and Kirkcudbright comes second in the list of Scotland’s top towns for average inherited wealth.

The imbalance in age and social status worries Sue Morris, who runs the Selkirk Arms Hotel with her husband.

“We lose our young qualified people. Apart from a few doctors and architects, there’s a missing professional layer.”

When the local chamber of commerce met recently to discuss the possibility of funding a Millennium exhibition, it was a meeting of the worried elite.

For beneath the surface, there is an anxiety in Kirkcudbright. People feel abandoned, cut off from the rest of Scotland. The bank manager is more likely to be in Carlisle than in Dumfries or Stranraer.

The town’s future is unclear. Jessie King may be popular with Brad Pitt, a collector of her work, but she is not Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and there is some local scepticism as to how successfully Kirkcudbright could sell itself as an “art town”.

At the same time, foreign tourism has been hit by the high exchange rate. Four-fifths of Sue Morris’s guests at the Selkirk Arms are there for business, often in connection with the nearby Ministry of Defence shooting range. People who come for pleasure tend to be from the north of England - Cheshire, Yorkshire or Lancashire. Some sail their yachts into the marina at Kirkcudbright harbour.

But the town that wants to be noticed also wants to be left alone. David Devereux points to the history of smuggling in the area, and the fierce resistance to bishops from 17th-century Covenanters. “There is a sense of separateness in Galloway, a spirit of difference and non-compliance.”

This manifests itself in all sorts of ways, not all admirable. A vigilante campaign against a convicted paedophile last year led to his windows being smashed and the man being driven out of town.

For people trying to devise a future for Kirkcudbright, the defensive mindset can be frustrating. When the tourist buses come to town, visitors cannot get a cup of tea because the cafe-owners will not stay open late. Stephen Taylor, searching for someone to adopt his infant website, hit a blank.

To Colin Warden, an enthusiast for Scotland the Brand, it is obvious the area should market itself more energetically. “When we first sold our Galloway Pate, people got it confused with Galway in Ireland,” he says, sitting in his boardroom with white overalls hanging on the wall behind him. “But I felt that if we wanted this beautiful part of south-west Scotland to be known, we must stick with it.”

Warden recently launched a joint crab pate venture with some Orkney fisherman, in a nice example of solidarity between parts of Scotland that have cause to feel peripheral. “To say, ‘Oh, we’re not part of the mainstream’ - people are too prone to use that as an excuse,” he argues.

The Net might help. Stephen Taylor believes the website has big potential for training local people and creating web-based businesses. From far off in cyberspace - Taylor’s latest project was in Islington - he has gone into partnership with Doug Swan, his stonemason friend, to develop the site. “The future will not be about geographical communities, but communities of interest,” he says. “Kirkcudbright can benefit from that.”

Next week: Kirsty Milne goes to East Kilbride

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