Review: The Elphinstone Hotel, Biggar
THERE IS something to be said at the thought of staying at a traditional coaching inn. Once a vital part of Europe’s inland transport infrastructure before the development of the railway network, they provided a resting point for both people and horses. In the 19th century, throughout Britain’s towns and villages the clatter of hooves resonated through the air as coaches carried both wayfarers and the mail. Food, drink and accommodation awaited the weary after enduring the day-long rigours of the road.
The range and variety of inns were vast, and fortunately for today’s weary travellers, many of the picturesque establishments have survived, albeit with the grateful addition of modern touches. Many can recount tales of ghosts and highwaymen, whilst others can boast of their visitors, from the humblest of beings to lords and ladies, poets and writers.
I travelled from the rolling hills of the Lincolnshire Wolds northwards to the Scottish Borders to stay at The Elphinstone Hotel in Biggar, a coaching inn with an illustrious history dating back over 400 years. Owners Robert and Janette Allen, along with their son Michael, have been at the heart of the business for over 25 years and offer a warm and friendly welcome, whether a visitor or local. It was pleasing to see how the family pride themselves on the continued patronage of a busy local trade with a high level of repeat custom. For, even as I arrived late afternoon, there was a buzz about the place, with what I took to be locals gathered inside from an otherwise miserable afternoon with overcast clouds and a light drizzle dampening my arrival.
Situated in the Southern Uplands and a royal burgh since 1451, the market town of Biggar still retains its medieval layout. The main street is lined with centuries-old houses and Biggar Kirk dates from the 16th century, having been built by the Flemming family. The town lies on the A72 Clyde Valley Tourist Route and is often viewed as South Lanarkshire’s gateway to the Borders. Nestling near the River Clyde amidst rolling hills, it offers visitors attractive spectacular views of Tinto Hill, the highest in South Lanarkshire.
After dropping off my overnight bag, I took a leisurely walk along the town’s wide main street, past shops that included an award-winning grocers, a famous ice cream and chocolate shop, an award-winning fish and chip shop and a good mix of book, toy and craft shops, bakeries and florists. Yes, Biggar can certainly boast an illustrious history.
One of its main attractions is the Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum, which opened in late summer 2015, and brings together the principal collections of Biggar Museum Trust into a purpose-built, fully accessible museum on the High Street in the centre of the town.
The author John Buchan, who wrote 50 books including the well-known novels Greenmantle, Prester John, Witchwood and perhaps most famous of all, The Thirty Nine Steps, was born in Perth, but spent much of his childhood in the village of Broughton near Biggar, where there is a museum commemorating his work.
The literary connections continue, as the poet Christopher Grieve, better known under the pen name Hugh MacDairmid, lived just outside Biggar in Brownsbank Cottage for the last 26 years of his life. The cottage today is used as a base for a writer-in-residence for most of the year.
As a stepped back in the lounge bar, the room was already filling up with diners. My room was at the back of the hotel, one of 11 en suite bedrooms. Mine came complete with a king-size bed and bunk beds, so clearly one of the three family rooms. It was simply furnished, with traditional, ageing furniture, nothing too fancy, but appropriate all the same. There were tea and coffee making facilities, a wall-mounted television, easy chairs and table, in fact, everything you would need for a pleasant overnight stay.
Five of the bedrooms are in an extension which is now 10 years old, whilst the rest of the bedrooms are housed in the original building.
The owners, ‘Custodians of the Elph’ as they like to call themselves, clearly place much focus on dining, sourcing quality fresh local produce wherever possible, with a range of specials changing on a weekly basis, and served in a friendly, efficient manner. The suppliers include the butcher, William Ovens, The Orchard for fuit, vegetables and fish, and Taylors of Biggar for ice cream. There then remains the tantalising prospect of sourcing from Scotland’s wonderful larder. There is also an excellent choice of wines.
I noted Cullen Skink on the menu as a starter for dinner, traditional Scottish smoked haddock, potato, leek and cream chowder. There was also haggis from the local butcher, deep fried in crisp panko breadcrumbs and served with the chef’s own creamy pepper sauce. I opted for the chilli and mango king prawns, coated in a chilli and mango jam, in a crispy breadcrumb (£5.95).
For mains I chose a fillet steak (£21.95), again locally sourced and hung for a minimum of three weeks, served with a pepper sauce (£2.75) and fries.
Food is served in all areas of the hotel, with the restaurant and lounge areas remaining the most popular for regulars of the establishment. There was a steady stream of diners to-ing and fro-ing throughout my meal, which was pleasing to see, and a clear testament to the quality of the food.
Rates for two sharing a family room at The Elphinstone Hotel are £92 (£12 supplement for each additional person). A double/twin room is £79 per room (Sunday-Thursday) and £82 (Friday-Saturday). A single is £56 (Sunday to Thursday) and £59 (Friday to Saturday). For an overnight or mini break in this part of Scotland, The Elphinstone has much to offer.
The Elphinstone Hotel, 145 High St, Biggar ML12 6DL
Tel: 01899 220044