If you were to guess the location of the highest villages in Scotland, I bet your first thought probably wouldn't turn to somewhere south of Glasgow in the heart of the Scottish Lowlands. Yet, not only does Wanlockhead in Dumfries and Galloway hold the claim to fame as the highest village in Scotland at 1531 ft above sea level, it is also the next door neighbour to Leadhills, the second highest village in Scotland, situated just across the regional border in South Lanarkshire.
Both settlements developed and grew thanks to the discovery of the most important lead-zinc deposit in Scotland which brought mining and jobs to the area, with gold and other rare minerals also found locally. Although mining no longer takes place, the evidence of it is everywhere, from the visible heaps and shafts to the libraries, cottages and museum.
Easily reached in less than an hour on the M74 motorway from Glasgow, a combined visit to Leadhills and Wanlockhead makes an ideal day trip. This is an area that definitely doesn't get the attention it deserves on the Scottish visitor trail despite having plenty of history and numerous unique attractions.
As heading off the typical tourist route in Scotland is my speciality, I decided to leave Glasgow behind and head south to make a day of it among the beauty of the Lowther Hills. To say it was a unique adventure is an understatement and the locals I encountered were as friendly and passionate about their area as they come.
If you're looking for a day out with a difference, I highly recommend the short detour from the motorway to visit these two distinctive Scottish villages. If you still need convincing, here is a summary of what I got up to along with a few more ideas for exploring these underrated regions -
Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway
My first stop, and one of my main reasons for visiting Leadhills, was to take a trip on the Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway. It is Britain's highest narrow gauge adhesion railway at almost 1500 ft above sea level and was built on the original track bed of the Caledonian Railway which closed in 1938.
During the summer months you can take a 25 minute rail journey to the village of Wanlockhead, although disappointingly on the Saturday that I arrived there were no trains running. Despite checking ahead as advised on social media and on the website there was no mention of a closure and there were several other disappointed visitors that turned up while I was there. I'm assuming this is down to the fact that the railway is run by volunteers, so just be aware that checking ahead does not guarantee the train will be running when you get there.
However, I did enjoy looking around the small station and the signal box, there is also a rather unique toilet which is basically a shed on the platform with a toilet inside! If all had went to plan, the train would have taken me on a journey along a line that connects Scotland's two highest villages, passing the disused Glengonnar Mine along the way.
Leadhills Railway is an interesting wee place and the train journey is still something I would love to do so I'll try again at some point in the future and report back with more info.
Hopetoun Arms - the highest residential hotel in Scotland
As Leadhills is Scotland's second highest village it might not come as a surprise that it is home to the highest residential hotel in Scotland at 1297 ft above sea level. As my plans for the day had gone awry, I decided the Hopetoun Arms was a good place to get a cup of tea and reassess my itinerary. I hadn't actually made any real plans for the day other than taking the railway to the mining museum, however the hotel staff came to my rescue and provided me with a leaflet for the Leadhills Heritage Trail. It piqued my interest and I decided that it would be next on my agenda, but not before I finished my generous serving of tea.
The Hopetoun Arms is a family run hotel with a homely atmosphere, with historic charm and period features. This year it has also won the Scottish heat of the 'Window with a View' contest after a guest submitted a photograph from his bedroom view overlooking the village and the surrounding Lowther Hills. You'll have to book a stay and decide for yourself if the hotel has the best view in all of Scotland.
Leadhills Heritage Trail
Thanks to the Leadhills Heritage Trail leaflet, I spent the next hour on an interesting saunter through the village. If you don't manage to pick up a leaflet, there is a board with a map of the route just opposite the hotel, although it doesn't have as much information on it.
The circular trail is marked with 9 points of interest and one of the more notable sites is the grave of John Taylor who is recorded as having died in 1770 at 137 years of age! There were poor birth records at the time and his age was calculated by his personal recollection of an eclipse of the sun in 1652. Accurate or not, he sounds like an interesting character and his story has made him a local legend.
Other attractions along the way include the Leadhills Miners Library (see below), the village square and the curfew bell which was rung to inform minors of shift changes and accidents.
The Leadhills Heritage Trail is an easy walk and helps to bring the story of the village to life. It also encourages you to explore some of the backstreets and historical objects which you might otherwise miss.
If you are looking for a historical escape within an hours drive of Glasgow or Edinburgh, Biggar might just be the ideal place for you. Add in a large dose of lush, green hills and a higher than average ratio of award-winning local businesses and a short break in this characterful South Lanarkshire town will easily satisfy most needs.
The area in and around Biggar occupies an important strategic position between the rivers Tweed and Clyde, which has resulted in people settling here since prehistoric times. In the 14th Century, the Fleming family were given lands in the area by Robert the Bruce, whose cause they had supported. The Flemings later built Boghall Castle, one of the largest and most imposing castles in the south of Scotland and a few remains from the building can still be seen today. The Flemings found themselves on the wrong side in the 16th Century, when they supported Mary, Queen of Scots, and their lands were given over to the Elphinstone family.
Biggar was also a principal stopping off point on the old Pedlars' Way from Edinburgh to the South West of Scotland which attracted everyone from royalty to hawkers and some famous names in Scottish history including the usual suspects, William Wallace, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Robert Burns, have all been associated with the town.
Sitting on the Northern edge of the Southern Uplands and surrounded by rolling hills, a visit here also offers the promise of a rural escape with a variety of countryside walks starting nearby and the many independent stores will also cater to those in need of a shopping fix!
To help make the most of your stay I've devised a suggested a 2 day itinerary to help you discover the best of Biggar.
MORNING - VISIT THE EXCELLENT BIGGAR MUSEUM
Definitely not stuffy and boring, The Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum is a recent addition to the town and what a fabulous addition it is! The light, bright and imaginative displays span 14,000 years of Biggar's rich archaeological, social and historical heritage. I particularly loved exploring Gladstone Court at the back of the museum, where old shops, businesses and even a working telephone exchange have been recreated. Great value at £5 entry and a fantastic introduction to the history of the town, a must do during your visit!
Biggar High Street is not particularly long, yet it is bursting with awards and pride. Reflecting its history as a busy and significant market town, most of the businesses remain independent. It seems that every other window proudly displays at least one certificate (often several) for a recently won accolade. From ice-cream to books, the range of honoured businesses are as diverse as their awards,
I popped in to Biggar Flavour, the local bakery which as you might now have guessed, has won several awards. I was in a cake heaven dilemma with over 50 types of freshly baked goodies to choose from with so many flavours I'd never seen before. Gooseberry and Hazelnut and Carrot and Courgette cakes are just some of the more unusual creations on offer! I opted for a lemon coconut bar which went down a treat with a cup of tea in my hotel room later :-)
GRAB SOME LUNCH AT A LOCAL CAFE
When you're all shopped out head for lunch at one of the local cafes. I managed to get a seat at The Olive Tree, a local deli with a few tables. I opted for whisky and marmalade pate on toast which was served with sun dried tomatoes, a light and tasty combination. This is also a good place to pick up a bottle or two of Broughton Ale which is brewed in the neighbouring village.
If you can't get a table here then there are plenty other choices for lunch along the High Street.
AFTERNOON - EXPLORE THE HERITAGE TRAIL
I really believe that the best way to get to know a place is on foot, wandering along the streets, taking your time to look up at the buildings and probing all the dark nooks and crannies. The Biggar Heritage Trail is a great resource that encourages you to explore and learn about the history, characters and legends that are interwoven in the fabric of this picturesque market town. The trail is easy to follow in an afternoon and a few of the interesting places to look out for include
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