Until 1950 trains used to run between Biggar and Broughton and on to Peebles. This disused line is now a path that is more suited to walking, but you can cycle it. It's only around 5 miles, the scenery is incredible and there is a brewery at the end of the route.
You can find the path south of Biggar High School, adjacent to the caravan park. To reach Biggar itself you will find a route guide on my blog about cycling to Biggar.
The start of the old railway path is a good surface and easy to cycle on, but it doesn't stay that way!
The path soon becomes overgrown to the point that you feel like you are cycling across a field on tracks left by a tractor. It becomes unrecognisable as a railway line. There are very few reminders that this was once traveresed by steam trains- the main infrastructure is the occasional small bridge with rusting ironwork.
I confess to being surprised by how incredible the scenery is on this path. I fell into the trap of assuming that north is the direction you need to go in Scotland to find the best scenery, but it is simply not true. The more that I travel in the south of Scotland the more I appreciate that it's just as beautiful here.
For the entire path there is a horizon of hills and I was lucky to have a day where the sunlight was golden and the sky blue and full of fluffy clouds. There are also hills on the right, some with incredible formations. It is a landscape sculpted over hundreds of millions of years from a time when these hills were once mountains as high as the Alps.
It must have been a dream to be an engine driver on this line and have this view from the cab.
The line began operating in the 1860s, but passenger volume never reached anticipated levels and it was closed in 1950. Freight traffic continued until 1966.
There was one small section that was completely impassable on my bike. It was too narrow and too muddy and I could not get any traction. I had to push my bike through nettles and got stung several times.
Arriving at Broughton there is a nice surprise- an old style railway signal.
The end of the route is adjacent to Broughton Ales, the first microbrewery in Scotland. It was established in 1979 and produces a varied range of beer, stout and lager. There is a shop where you can stock up on supplies.
I have written a review of the brewery's strong ale, Old Jock. The bottle label features Scottish flags and a bearded man wearing tartan standing in front of a backdrop of hills. A more 'Scottish' looking beer label you will be hard pushed to find. I love the bottle art of the cleverly named Hopopotamus pale ale. It features a hippo that has a keg of beer as a body!
Returning to Biggar
You can go back on the railway path, but if you found it tough to cycle you could use the B7016. It is a quiet country road and there are no nettles!
My Biggar blog is packed with ideas of things to see and do in Biggar, including the museum and independent shops.
Somewhere to Stay
If you are spending the night in Biggar read my review of the Elphinstone Hotel.
Biggar, located in rural South Lanarkshire, has a great museum and is crammed with independent shops and cafes. It's about 30 miles from Edinburgh and this blog tells you how to get there and what to see on the way
Highlights of this route
Take a train to Addiewell
Carstairs Junction is actually the closest station to Biggar- it's about a 10 mile cycle. However, trains to Carstairs are not that frequent and if you want a longer cycle you could take a train to Addiewell, which is about 20 miles from Biggar.
Addiewell is around 35 minutes by train from Edinburgh and around one hour from Glasgow.
Addiewell station, now little more than a platform and a couple of bus shelters, was once graced with a ticket office and waiting rooms. It is an isolated location with nothing much in the immediate vicinity. The cycle route travels south on Station Road, a single-track that really feels like you are in a remote location.
That's a lot of whisky
At the bottom of Station Road you will hit the A71. It's a left turn here where you pass the mass of the North British Distillery. This is a grain whisky producer and the warehouses- row upon row of black brick buildings- contain maturing whisky. In order to qualify as Scotch whisky the liquid must mature for 3 years and this site has a capacity for 130 million litres of the stuff. This is whisky production on an industrial scale and there are no pretty pagoda-topped distillery buildings or guided tours here. I could see weather-beaten whisky barrels, stacked in pyramids and hear beeping delivery lorry reversing alarms.
You are only on the A71 for half-a-mile and there is a pavement alongside it that is not really used by pedestrians, if you don't fancy joining the traffic. You then take a left down a country road that cuts through farming country to the A704 which you cross over to continue on the country road heading south. This is not a particularly scenic road, the farming landscapes are similar to many all over Scotland. The wind turbines are the standout feature here.
Some are near the roadside so I pulled over to listen to the gentle whir of the blades. It was quite a novelty to be next to one of these graceful machines for a few moments- you would miss this sitting in a car.
There is a border crossing on this route, from one council area, West Lothian, into another, South Lanarkshire. It is marked by a road sign welcoming you to the new area. I always look to see if there are any obvious difference when I cross one of these borders. In most case I find that there is no discernible change, but here it really did feel like I was entering somewhere different. The landscape felt less barren and the horizon suddenly blossomed with the hills of the Southern Uplands and the Pentlands.
I took a slight detour off the route to investigate a reservoir, largely because I liked the name- Cobbinshaw- and it struck me as the kind of place that not many people will have visited.
The road to the reservoir crosses over the West Coast Mainline railway and this got me thinking about all those people speeding to London and being completely unaware of this place. I do love train travel, but high speed trains don't allow you to really examine places like this, to hear their sounds, to experience their atmosphere and to feel their air in your face. I stopped by the shore and could see plenty of boats with fishermen. The only sounds were the gently lapping water and ducks splash landing on its surface.
I took a very muddy, pot-holed road to the causeway. A sign warned of children playing on quads on this road, but I didn't come across any. I paused on the causeway and the stillness made the place feel as remote as a Highland loch, despite being close to Scotland's urban centre.
Welcome to Woolfords
Returning to the main route I soon reached one of the few settlements along this road- Woolfords. It consists of a single row of cottages with a foreground of a moor of rushes, reeds and grass, a horizon of hills and legions of clouds. This place seems unbelievably remote and I wondered what it would be like to live there. A car must be essential. There are no shops within walking distance and I could see no evidence of a bus service.
Later on I found the road blocked by a herd of cows. They were walking towards me and I had to get off my bike and gently push it through the crowds, waiting for the beasts to make way for me. I smiled at them, said hello and thanked them for allowing me to pass!
The landscape here is not generic flat farmlands, but has waves and undulations because it was once an area of mountains as tall as the Alps. That was about 4 hundred million years ago and the changes in that landscape over that period of time have sculpted it into what we see today. From a bicycle saddle you naturally pay a lot attention to the road verges and these ones were awash with thistles, buttercups and butterflies.
This road ends at the A70, the Edinburgh Road, where you take a right turn towards Carnwath. You will be on the A70 for less than 10 minutes and I didn't find it a busy road. I passed an interesting house on this road- a round house, with a Harry Potter theme. It's called Hagrid’s Hut and has a weather vain with Harry Potter on his Quidditch broomstick.
Carnwath is a small village that has a main road flanked by rows of single-storey and two-storey cottages. There are some pretty houses here and a few shops. It has an unexpected claim to fame- the oldest running race in the world was started here! It's called the Red Hose Race, started in 1508 by Royal Charter. It must be held every year unless written permission is received from the Crown Authorities. This has only happened once, in 2001, due to the foot and mouth crisis.
The village also has a superb bakery called The Apple Pie. It has won numerous awards. Don't let the functional-looking building put you off as the products are well worth trying. Inside you will find a fine selection of savoury pies and cakes. I bought a strawberry tart and a white chocolate and malteser slice.
Cakes at the church
I cycled on a bit to find a picnic spot and came across the pretty parish church at Libberton. The sun was shining in my face and the view was outstanding. In one direction there were golden wheat fields with a big blue sky as far as you can see and in the other direction were the Southern Uplands, their green sides being enhanced by the burst of sun. Every cycle trip has a 'moment' where a special memory is created and it will be the thing you remember the most about the ride. This was the 'moment' of this trip- sitting in the sunshine, a gentle breeze, inspiring surroundings. Oh, and I almost forgot, the cakes! They were very good. The strawberry tart was of a traditional style with a thick and crunch pastry case that gave it a homely, authentic taste.
From Libberton it's just another 5 miles or so to reach Biggar. And to find out what there is to see and do in Biggar head to my blog: Exploring Biggar.
A cosy book store, an ice cream and chocolate shop, a fascinating museum, a deli crammed with local produce and a coaching inn to spend the night are just some of the reasons to come to Biggar. This town in South Lanarkshire, near the River Clyde and the Scottish Borders, has plenty to see and do.
"We were in many countries and we ate the bread of many nations through the long years of our exile...Your bread was the best for it was given willingly and with a kind heart, not as a pittance, but like a loaf shared with a brother and friend. You did not know us and yet you treated us like brothers." A Polish soldier commenting on the hospitality of the Biggar community when troops were evacuated to the area in 1940. The experience of the Polish soldiers is explored in the Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum.
Biggar is a royal burgh, around 30 miles south of Edinburgh. The town is in a rural location, near the River Clyde and the River Tweed. It is next to a group of hills called the Southern Uplands. Imagine! These hills were once higher than the Alps, 4 hundred millions years ago.
Discover hidden courtyards
Biggar has an attractive townscape, including some hidden courtyards that are reached through passageways, called closes, from the High Street. This one is particularly lovely with the window boxes and flower displays:
The High Street is very wide in parts and this is a legacy from when the space was used for town markets, but most of this has now been given over to car parking.
One of the most striking buildings is the 1860 Corn Exchange with its clock tower. It was originally built as a grain market and is now a venue that hosts a program of theatre, music and other events.
Further along the High Street there is another building of note. It stands out because it is clearly much older than its neighbours and has a distinctive red front door that tall people would struggle entering.
The part of the High Street where Biggar Burn flows is very pretty. The Burn is crossed by a small stone bridge, dating from the thirteenth century. It is called Cadger's Bridge after William Wallace reputedly crossed the bridge, disguised as a Cadger (a hawker), to spy on an English camp.
The High Street features several small gardens and areas of tree and flower planting with plenty of benches. This makes it very pleasant for strolling and watching the world go by.
Coffee with cows
Biggar has a good choice of independent cafes, and I can recommend The Coffee Spot for a morning caffeine hit. This cafe has a fun cow theme with a massive print of cows on the wall. You can have fun trying to spot all the cow items- there is a cow clock, cow salt and pepper shakers on the table and the child's menu is called Little Calves Menu.
There is a great selection of cakes, but in the spirit of the cafe's theme I just had to choose the cow shaped biscuit with chocolate blobs replicating the black and white pattern of a Freisian cow. If you are looking for something more substantial the café offers breakfasts, soups and sandwiches.
Have a go at operating a 1930s telephone exchange
The Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum is full of fascinating objects that explore the area's social history. The town's telephone exchange was in operation until 1973 and you can have a play with the cables and pretend to be an operator.
The museum has a period street where you can walk inside various stores, like a toy shop, apothecary and shoemaker. It is very realistic and atmospheric; there are even sound effects, like children playing. The level of detail is impressive with shop signs and the objects in the shops, like medication bottles. There is a magnificent old car on display, a Stirling Panhard Voiturette. It was built in 1901 by a Scottish company from Hamilton.
Come and explore inside some of the shops on my video:
Did you know that this area has the earliest known traces of human activity in Scotland? This was 14,000 years ago and the museum displays arrow heads from that time. These would have been used to hunt wild horses and reindeer. There is a reindeer hide that you can feel- dense and soft- and imagine wearing to keep nice and warm in the depths of Scottish winters.
One of my favourite objects in the museum is a scallop shell ampulla. In Medieval times this would have been carried by pilgrims to store holy water that they had brought back from holy places. It really captured my imagination as it was likely dropped by a pilgrim on their way home. They were probably hoping that the holy water would bring about a miracle cure, perhaps for a poorly loved one.
Hit the shops!
Biggar is superb for independent shops. There are two butcher shops, gift shops and even an interior designer. Don't miss The Orchard for a wonderful selection of foodstuffs. Fish and seafood, fruit and vegetables, cakes, cheeses and lots more is available here. I picked up a super delicious punnet of strawberries from a local farm and a jar of raspberry and lime jam which definitely deserves its Great Taste Award.
The Orchard has this ethos of old fashioned service, probably like it was in a market town grocery store of days gone by. The owner was on the shop floor interacting with customers, checking if they could find what they were looking for and talking about the products. It made the experience of shopping a joy and certainly more special than a retail park. In fact, I felt that Biggar had successfully retained the tradition, history and welcome that you would associate with a market town. Just take a look at Miniatures and Mindings, a china shop, and you will get that nostalgic feeling.
Too many books?
I always think that the presence of an independent bookstore is a good sign of a healthy high street. On entering Atkinson Pryce Books I smiled at a sign- 'Too many books? I think what you mean is not enough bookshelves.' This a place to really appreciate the written word with cosy cushioned corner seats and armchairs.
What's your favourite flavour of ice cream?
You don't have to head for coastal towns to find some of Scotland's best ice cream. Taylor's ice cream has been produced in Biggar for over 40 years and you can get a cone at Cones and Candies on the High Street. I can recommend the mint chocolate chip, but any flavour is excellent here- the company has received over 100 awards from the National Ice Cream Alliance. It's another blast of nostalgia in this shop with big jars of sweets behind the counter. Treat yourself to some of the home made fudge and a box of their chocolates- tell me if you also thought the lime cream was incredible.
Do a circuit of Burnbraes Park with your ice cream. It sits in a valley with a line of handsome Victorian townhouses overlooking it. The Biggar Burn flows through it and the paddling pond is a great feature if you have children with you.
Adjacent to the park, the kirk dates from 1545 and if you go inside you will be rewarded with a magnificent stone interior and striking stained glass.
The town gasworks
A remarkable nineteenth century relic is Biggar's gasworks. Town gasworks, supplying gas for the town's heat and light, could be found all over Scotland. This is now the only surviving gasworks, with its original machinery intact. It's now a visitor attraction, although the limited opening hours mean that careful planning is required if you want to see inside. It was closed during my visit, but I would love to come back.
Biggar is home to the Scottish puppet theatre company. Performances take place throughout the year and you can check their website to see what's on. There's always a special Christmas show!
Cycling the Biggar to Broughton railway path
This disused line is now a walking and cycling route that provides breathtaking views of the hills that surround Biggar. Full details are in my blog about this path.
Staying the night
I recommend The Elphinstone Hotel for comfortable accommodation and an excellent restaurant. You can read my review of The Elphinstone on my blog.
Getting to Biggar
Read my blog about cycling to Biggar and what there is to see and do along the way. I reached Biggar by taking a train to Addiewell (40 minutes from Edinburgh, 52 minutes from Glasgow) and then cycling around 20 miles. The route is mainly by quiet country roads. Carstairs station is closer- a 10 mile cycle from Biggar- but trains are less frequent (around 40 minutes from Glasgow, under 30 minutes from Edinburgh).
Blog: Cycling to Biggar
I stayed at the cosy and welcoming Elphinstone Hotel in Biggar. It features a restaurant that has a Taste Our Best Award from VisitScotland. This hotel is a great base for exploring the attractions of Lanarkshire and the Scottish Borders. Read on for my review of the hotel.
The History Bit
Let your imagination take you back to the eighteenth century and you are travelling from Edinburgh to Carlisle on a stagecoach. The horses had to be changed every 10 miles or so and this takes place at a network of coaching inns that provided facilities like accommodation, meals and stables. The Elphinstone in Biggar was one of those inns. For over 400 years it played host to many travellers including Queen Victoria's Royal Company of Archers, the Dukes of Bucchleuch and acquaintances of Robert Burns. It is an impressive historical pedigree that is carried through nicely to the present day.
The Elphinstone is in a perfect location, on the High Street, right next to the town's attractions. The white washed exterior screams 'coaching inn' and it looks really pretty with the profusion of flowers in window boxes and hanging baskets.
The bar and lounge have plenty of coaching in features- low ceilings, roof beams, squeaky floorboards and working fires. The 11 bedrooms are a more modern style, but the traditional furniture and the sash and case windows (double glazed) maintain a connection to the building's past. The staff are friendly, welcoming and easy going.
I stayed in room 9. This is a family room with a double bed and bunk beds. Here is my video tour of the room:
There are two sash and case windows that bring a generous amount of natural light into the room. It is very spacious and includes a seating area where you can relax with a tea or coffee and browse the brochures of what there is to see and do in the area.
The bed was really comfortable and I had an amazing night's sleep. I liked that the room has two televisions- one next to the bunk beds and one next to the double bed- to allow children and adults to watch their own thing.
Everything in the room was immaculate and the bathroom sparkling. A nice touch is the inclusion of Arran Aromatics shower and bath products.
Restaurant and Bar
I took a cosy table next to the fire place in the lounge. The menu is impressive in it's variety and choice. It goes way beyond traditional pub grub and features curries, lamb tagine and pasta. There is something for everyone here.
The Elphinstone has a VisitScotland Taste our Best award. What this means is that the menu features ingredients with Scottish provenance, local ingredients and seasonal ingredients. The first page of the menu lists the suppliers, including meat from the butcher on the High Street, fish from the deli on the High Street and ice cream from the sweet shop on the High Street.
I ordered the haggis croquettes for the starter. They were beautifully crispy on the outside, giving a satisfying crunch. The interior of peppery meat was delicious and the creamy peppery sauce was the perfect accompaniment. They left me with a nice, warming aftertaste. I could easily have eaten another portion!
For my main course I had the fish and chips. It was exactly how you want this meal to be with succulent flaky white fish inside non-greasy crispy batter and chips with fluffy insides and a crunch on the outside.
The dessert menu is full of temptation, in particular the ice cream sundaes made with ice cream from the sweet shop just a few doors down from the hotel. The choices included Brownie, Applie Pie and Malteser Delight. I found it hard to decide so asked my server for her recommendation and she said the Malteser Delight was a good bet. When it arrived there was a gasp from the other dinners in the room- "look at that!" It looks the business and it was a joy to dig my spoon in and crunch the Maltesers buried within the vanilla ice cream and toffee sauce.
The bar offers a changing menu of guest ales and I tried a very nice one from The Orkney Brewery. Those who love their gin will be pleased to find an extensive menu of gins and tonics. Wines, cocktails and spirits are also well represented at the hotel.
This is a buffet format. There is a table set out with cereal, juice, yoghurt and a bowl of fresh fruit salad that had melon, kiwi, pineapple and orange.
You can also help yourself to the hot selection which includes sausage, fried eggs, beans, tomato, potato scones and bacon. I usually prefer my breakfast cooked to order, but the quality and taste was excellent. I really enjoyed it.
Biggar and the local area
The town of Biggar has plenty to see and do. There is an excellent museum, interesting architecture and a superb collection of independent shops. Biggar is located in South Lanarkshire, near to the border with the Scottish Borders. Pebbles is just 18 miles from Biggar and Dawyck Botanic Garden is just 10 miles away. New Lanark World Heritage Site is around 13 miles from Biggar.
I reached Biggar by taking a train to Addiewell (40 minutes from Edinburgh, 52 minutes from Glasgow) and then cycling around 19 miles. The route is mainly by quiet country roads. Carstairs station is closer- a 10 mile cycle from Biggar- but trains are less frequent (around 40 minutes from Glasgow, under 30 minutes from Edinburgh).
Disclaimer - My accommodation and meals were provided for the purposes of this review. These views are my own and reflect my honest experience.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.