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
I've written a few guides to Outlander filming locations in Scotland and if you're a fan you might be pleased to know more are on the way. I know many of you are travelling to Scotland to visit some of these locations for yourself and have created special boards on Pinterest to help with your itinerary. To make your planning that bit easier I have created some Outlander location images in optimal Pinterest size, ready to be shared with a quick click. If this proves a popular way to gather up that all important Outlander information I will create a few more so please let me know if this helps with your vacation planning or just satisfies your Outlander lust ;-)
Incidentally I'll be creating my own Outlander board on Pinterest very shortly so you might want to join me at https://uk.pinterest.com/scotadventures/. Happy Pinning!
Outlander fans can recreate one of the first scenes of the show by standing at the Bruce fountain in Falkland town centre and looking up to the window of Mrs Baird's B&B just as the ghost of Jamie did in the first episode. Mrs Baird's is in fact The Covenanter Hotel so you can go inside and enjoy a drink if you need a refreshment to quell all the excitement!
Fort William sits nestled beneath the rugged peaks of the Northwest Highlands, with Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, a constant fixture over the town. Each year it celebrates everything great about the outdoors and wild mountain culture through art, photography, film, workshops and well known names in the world of adventure at The Fort William Mountain Festival.
This year I was invited to experience some of what the festival has to offer and also to explore what else there is to do in Fort William in the winter. As it turns out there is a surprising amount of ways to fill your time (you can read some of my recommendations here) and combining a winter break with some of the festival events meant I enjoyed a diverse range of activities during my three days there.
I got my first feel for the festival at the launch night which officially kicked off with a torch-lit descent of Aonach Mor on ski, board and mountain bike before everyone gathered in the warmth of The Pinemartin Cafe at the Nevis Range. Here we were treated to a series of short films and talks before providing an audience for the BBC's Adventure Show live with presenters Dougie Vipond, Cameron McNeish and Michael Stewart keeping us entertained with their witty banter. I also have to give a special shout out to the Scottish stovies served up during the interval, they were amazing!
When winter arrives in Scotland I always find myself drawn north to the Highlands. The mountains seem that bit bigger with their snowy peaks than they do with their green summer coats; the quiet loch surfaces reflect the landscape like mirrors and although many attractions close their doors for some seasonal respite, a whole new world of outdoor adventure opens up.
One of the best places to base yourself for what is arguably the most spectacular Scottish season, is Fort William. The town is the beating heart of the Lochaber region, dubbed the Outdoor Capital of the UK due to the large number of adventurous activities available. While it is popular with tourists in the summer, the area also has plenty to offer visitors in the off-peak season. I visited in February and easily filled the 3 days I spent there, so here are 10 of my recommendations for winter activities in the Fort William area and you might be glad to know not all of them involve being outdoors!
1. Skiing and Snowboarding
One of the most popular winter pastimes in Fort William is a trip to go skiing or snowboarding at the Nevis Range just outside of the town. With an extensive network of graded runs and the off-piste expanse of the Back Corries all under the shadow of Ben Nevis, it is easy to see why this is a popular haunt for snow-sport lovers. It is also the newest resort in Scotland and if taking to the slope on skis is not your thing or you want to try something a bit different, the Nevis Range also offers other fun winter activities including sledging, snowshoeing and even snow biking.
Alternatively, Glencoe Mountain Resort, Scotland's oldest resort can be reached in under an hour by car from Fort William.
Both resorts provide lessons and equipment hire, so even complete beginners can turn up and have some fun on the slopes.
2. Wildlife Spotting
If you want to spot the Scottish big five (golden eagle, red deer, red squirrel, common seal and European otter), Fort William and the surrounding area is one of the few places in Scotland that offers the possibility of seeing all five in one day.
Of course it always helps to have an expert on hand to point you in the right direction and a guided wildlife safari with Ian MacLeod from Wild West will not only greatly improve your chances of seeing these iconic species for yourself but also teach you about the history, culture, language and geology of the region.
Thanks to Ian I discovered a great spot that has been set up especially for watching red squirrels just next to the car park at Glen Righ. I have driven by there on the way to Fort William so many times without realising this wee hidden wildlife gem existed, needless to say I will be stopping off there in the future.
Being situated in the Outdoor Capital of the UK, it is not surprising that the walking possibilities around Fort William are only limited by your imagination. Although winter hill-walking requires some experience and equipment, there are plenty of low level walks that will reward you with stunning snowy mountain vistas and walking around Fort William you are never far from a great view of Ben Nevis towering over the town.
My personal favourite winter walk is through Glen Nevis to Steall Falls, you can read about that and a couple of walks I did in the area here.
The Outdoor Capital website also has a selection of recommended walks for different abilities and if that's not enough the nearby Nevis Range has 25 miles of forest trails to explore.
It's not every day you get invited on a trip to a mystery destination in Scotland (well I certainly don't!), so needless to say when I received such an invite from VisitScotland, I immediately cleared my diary and packed my bag for all eventualities. Okay they did specify dress cosy and warm but that seemed a bit vague so I stuffed my rucksack with as many clothes as I could fit, although the fact that one of the zips burst was a sign that I might have packed a few things too many, oops! The trip was a media event to coincide with the launch of their new global marketing campaign 'Scotland - A Spirit of its Own'.
In search of some top secret #ScotSpirit I boarded a minivan in Glasgow, accompanied by a group of journalists and bloggers from around the UK and Ireland and we quickly set off towards our still undisclosed destination.
I was delighted when we eventually stopped and I realised we were in the depths of Galloway Forest Park in a stunning spot overlooking Loch Riecawr. It seemed rather fitting that our secret destination turned out to be in Dumfries and Galloway, a region which still remains secret to many tourists despite it being rich with scenery and steeped in history. Our immersive local experience provided an opportunity to discover some of the elements that make up the Dumfries and Galloway #ScotSpirit.
After a quick chance to stretch our legs, a children's playpark provided a viewpoint and variety of unconventional seating for the group to sit quietly, while we were encouraged to reflect and inhale the unique detail of the surrounding landscape, looking for original photography ideas rather than randomly clicking away with our cameras and phones. Thankfully we had some expert advice on hand from one of the park's new Dark Sky Rangers, Morag Paterson, who handily also happens to be a professional photographer and artist.
In 2009 Galloway Forest Park gained status as an International Dark Sky Park, the only one in the UK and only one of four in the Western world. In a bid to increase tourism to the area in the quieter months, four Biosphere Dark Sky Rangers, from a variety of backgrounds, have been trained to use their personal specialisms in a way that will encourage wider use of the park, with photography being just one of the activities on offer.
Getting a literal flavour of an area, is an essential ingredient to any immersive local experience but how do you provide an authentic fine dining setting in the middle of a remote and commercially undeveloped forest? Well naturally you deliver the restaurant to the park! This is much easier when the restaurant happens to be a converted shipping container on wheels pulled by a tractor.
Once you realise it is one of the latest brainwaves from brothers, Tom and Dick Lewis, of the family run Mhor brand, the quirkiness of it all makes perfect sense. Owners of a hill farm in Perthshire, an esteemed hotel, motel, fish restaurant and bakery among other smaller ventures, a transportable eatery seems like a perfect addition to the family.
However, it is also their passion for local produce that made them the perfect hosts for the evening and both brothers were on hand to tell us more about the ingredients behind the delicious dishes which were either sourced from within 30 minutes of our location or raised on their own farm.
Back in 2014 I wrote a blog on 10 quirky places you can stay the night in Scotland and it seems that lots of you love staying in unique accommodation as much as I do as the blog continues to be very popular.
Since then I've stayed in a few more unusual places and even managed to spend the night at one of the recommendations on my list.
I thought it was about time I shared some of the new quirky accommodation choices that I have discovered that I would personally love to try out and have complied an updated list with 10 more quirky places you can spend the night in Scotland.
1. Float you boat on board The Four Sisters Boatel in Edinburgh
Moored on the Union Canal, this static luxury houseboat has been purpose built to offer self catering accommodation with a difference in the heart of Edinburgh. Visit website.
2. Stay in a High Seas Hobbits home in The Shire (Aberdeenshire to be precise!)
These hobbit pods in Rosehearty provide everything you need for a luxury glamping holiday with the bonus of dramatic cliff top scenery on the doorstep. Visit website.
3. Relive your childhood by swinging from a Treehouse in East Lothian
These en-suite Treehouses have been designed to offer the highest degree of space and comfort, with sea views from the deck above and swings at the rear. Visit Website.
4. Follow the whisky trail from Barley Bothy near Huntly
Situated on a farm in a field of barley grown for malting whisky, this upcycled tin shed provides all the comforts you need while allowing you to get back to nature. Visit website.
5. Take command of the Gatehouse at Ayton Castle in Eyemouth
This impressive pink sandstone holiday cottage is actually the gatehouse at the entrance to Ayton Castle. Guests have access to the extensive castle grounds including a river walk along the Eye Water. Visit website.
***UPDATE DECEMBER 2016*** After several failed attempts to redevelop the land, Polphail has now been demolished to make way for housing and a distillery. I'm glad I got to visit when I did before this piece of Scotland's history vanished forever.
Scotland has it's fair share of abandoned buildings in various states of neglect and spanning every era. It isn't short of crumbling townships either, many of which fell victim to the Highland Clearances. Yet even in a country full of deserted stone shells, Polphail Village is unique.
A relatively modern development at a mere 40 years young, it was built to accommodate 500 workers for a nearby oil platform construction yard but the village was never occupied. Despite the oil boom of the 1970s, logistical problems with the location meant no orders were ever placed and the yard never went into production.
Instead it has spent the last four decades at the mercy of nature, providing a home to a colony of bats and a blank canvas for street artists.
Despite it's scenic position on the shores of Loch Fyne, various plans to redevelop the land have all fallen through and it is hard to disagree with those that feel the village is a blight on an otherwise picturesque landscape. The ever expanding modern Portavadie Marina with it's elegant finishes sits on the doorstep of Polphail providing a stark architectural contrast. Yet there is something eerily fascinating about the dilapidated grey buildings with their artistically applied graffiti make-up, which provide an alluring appeal to the creative and curious.
A walk around the site provides a time capsule glimpse of a world that never was, with washing machines never used, beds never slept in and doors never opened. A waste of money, a sad place, hauntingly creepy, a health and safety hazard; Polphail is all of these things and yet it is also a uniquely intriguing place that continues to radiate a mysterious draw.
Scotland lends itself to campervan road-trips, small enough to navigate with ease but big enough to provide a variety of breathtaking landscapes and plenty of adventure. Scotland is a country where you don't have to travel far from civilization to discover areas that are not only free of people but feel like a forgotten wilderness. In my opinion the ideal way to explore these scenic, natural playgrounds is in the relative luxury of a modern campervan. Much more than a bed on wheels, they provide the freedom to roam wherever you fancy, the freedom to park among the mountains while you stick the kettle on for a cup of tea or the freedom to stop and watch the final rays of a sunset before climbing under your cosy duvet for the night.
When Rockin Vans offered me the use of one of their new funky VW campervans to head off on a Scottish road-trip I jumped at the chance. Having hired from them several years ago I already knew they were a great little Scottish company and I was delighted to see how much they had expanded and updated their vans since I first used them, a sign they are obviously doing something right!
With so many destinations to choose from I decided to venture into the unknown and embark on my first visit to the Isle of Mull. 2015 seemed to have a reoccurring theme for me of visiting new Scottish Islands and with two weeks left until the end of the year, adding another Island to my collection seemed a fitting final adventure. Another reason that attracted me to Mull was the recent introduction of the reduced RET ferry fares by CalMac which makes visiting many of the Scottish islands very affordable even with a campervan.
After picking up a dog friendly funky bright orange VW from the Rockin Vans headquarters, I headed back to my home on Bute to pack a few essentials and when I wasn't looking Mr Adventures Around Scotland had managed to sneak onboard while Willow, my lurcher, was giving me an expectant look, I guess they were looking forward to the road-trip too!
DAY 1 - ISLE OF BUTE TO ARDFERN
We set off as the sun began to rise with streaks of gold criss-crossing the horizon as we left Rhubodach and took the short ferry crossing over the Kyles of Bute. Although Mull was our ultimate destination, having a campervan makes it just as much about the journey and we decided to take the road less travelled along Argyll's Secret Coast. Taking another ferry from Portavadie across Loch Fyne brought us to the picturesque village of Tarbert where we savoured the therapeutic view of colourful fishing boats bobbing in the harbour as I popped the kettle on for the first cup of tea for the day, this has to be one of my favourite things about travelling in a campervan.
Fully refreshed we carried on north with a quick a stop at Ardrishaig to walk part of the Crinan Canal before continuing to Kilmartin Glen, the perfect place to enjoy a lunch break. This is one of the most historically rich areas of Scotland, with an abundance of standing stones, burial cairns, stone carvings and Dunadd Fort, once the power stronghold of the Kingdom of Dalriada. It is possible to climb to the top of the fort although the route is rocky and steep in places but well worth the effort if you are able. Look out for the notice boards which describe features of note and explain how the fort would have originally looked.
The view from the top down the ancient glen and across to the Isle of Jura is spectacular. As I stood alone, gazing around and imagining the people that once inhabited the land before me, my thoughts were interrupted by an almighty boom of thunder that seemed to go on forever! I couldn't help thinking that the powerful roar across the mysterious glen was some sort of message from the ancient world.
I quickly slipped and slid down the hillside, reaching the sanctuary of the van just as battering hail began to bounce off the ground and with darkness starting to descend, it seemed an appropriate time to find our campsite for the night further along the road in Ardfern.
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