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
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.