Travel: Biggar

Shieldhill Castle.  www.crimsonedge.co.uk
Shieldhill Castle. www.crimsonedge.co.uk
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WITH seven museums and a historic castle to stay in, Biggar is a treat for time travellers

Stepping back into the past” is a phrase that’s over-used by museums up and down the country. But the Gladstone Court museum in Biggar allows visitors to – literally – take a walk down memory lane.

The small-but-perfectly-formed attraction features about a dozen recreations of Victorian shops and businesses, including a bank, a chemist and the local printer’s workshop. All of the old bottles and jars and packages and posters really bring the Victorian era to life.

Gladstone Court, which opened to the public in 1968, is one of seven small museums founded by local historian Brian Lambie in the South Lanarkshire village. Together, the museums cover a variety of subjects – from geology and social history at the Moat Park Heritage Centre in a converted church, through to religious fervour at the Greenhill Covenanters’ House, which was carried brick-by-brick from nearby Wiston and reassembled in Biggar in 1975.

They make for an eclectic mix. One of my favourites is Biggar Gas Works, which closed in 1973 when North Sea gas was piped into the village.

Plans are now afoot to build a larger museum in the town after the local community raised more than £400,000 to buy a former filling station in the village square. If they can recreate the magic of Gladstone Court, the new attraction is sure to be a winner.

One of the sites – the Albion Museum – has even been spun off from the main trust and is now run by another charity. Albion was founded in Biggar in 1899 to build motor cars but moved through to Glasgow after its focus shifted to buses and other heavy vehicles, and the company stayed on the west coast until it shut its Scotstoun factory in 1988.

The archive in Biggar contains documents and films relating to the company, while the museum has a number of engines and vehicles on display, including a bus used in the television series Dr Finlay’s Casebook.

The area’s rich history doesn’t end at the village boundary though. A short distance from Biggar lies Shieldhill Castle, a family-run hotel that reopened in May following a massive refit. Before being turned into a hotel in 1959, the castle was home to the Chancellor family for more than 750 years.

At the top of the castle’s curving tower sits one of two honeymoon suites, which bears the name of the Chancellor family. Though the castle may be steeped in history, the refurbishment didn’t skimp on modern touches, with the suite boasting a giant Jacuzzi and a massive flat-
screen television.

There are 16 bedrooms in the hotel and a further ten in the converted coach house and stable yard, which are fitted out in a more modern style. Though the public rooms have all the features you would expect from a castle – including a suit of armour – the hotel still manages to retain a homely feeling, with the family’s two cats wandering about.

Don’t be fooled by the simple descriptions of the dishes on the menu; the food at the hotel was excellent, with a Friday night rump steak being one of 
the highlights for me. The dish was nicely presented on a wooden board with a separate jug of sauce and a pot of fries. A baked Alaska and a trio of strawberry desserts were two other stand-out dishes.

Staying in a castle conjures up an endless series of images, from medieval knights jousting on horseback through to suckling pigs spit-roasting on an open fire in a Great Hall. Though many of the laird’s favourite activities may have fallen by the wayside, one sport of kings has lived on in the form of falconry.

Rhuallan Raptors, based between Biggar and Lanark, offers a range of activities from two-hour hawk walks through to half or full days out spent with their falcons, owls and other birds of prey. The company laid on a demonstration for us on the lawn at Shieldhill and the birds were brilliant, especially the barn owl, which – as the sun began to set and its ghostly white feathers were bathed in an orange glow – was a particular crowd-pleaser.

THE FACTS

Shieldhill Castle Hotel, Shieldhill Road, Biggar, www.shieldhillcastlehotel.co.uk, B&B starts from £95. The hotel is offering readers a one-night stay for two people with a three-course dinner and breakfast for £99 (normal price £185) until 3 November; Rhuallan Raptors, www.rhuallanraptors.com