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