The cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, with their many cultural, architectural and historical attractions, are both less than an hour from the village by bus or car, and there are several attractive towns nearby, each with its own distinctive character.
The nearest town to Skirling House is Biggar, a town notable for its shops and museums. Biggar High Street is worth a stroll for its many independent retailers, coffee shops and pubs. The independent bookseller Atkinson Pryce has a great choice of new and second hand books as well as coffee and comfy seats for browsing. There are some excellent gift shops and two delicatessens both of which serve a good cup of coffee. There are no fewer than five clothes shops and a very tempting shoe and handbag store. Local Taylor’s ice-cream and a great selection of chocolates are to be found at Cones and Candies, and there are several independent food stores. Add to this Boa’s, the ironmonger that stocks everything and award winning public toilets and how can you miss out on the Biggar shopping experience.
Moat Park Heritage Centre is the flagship of Biggar Museum Trust. It covers the early history of the Clyde and Tweed valleys from their formation and early times of Iron Age and Roman Soldiers. It was a group from the Museum who discovered the earliest recorded settlement in Scotland near Biggar, dating from some 14,000 years ago. Rather more recent on display is the unique 'Menzies Moffat' patchwork, a magnificent Victorian piece nine feet by eight feet with over eighty colourful figures meticulously stitched into place by an eccentric tailor during the Crimean war.
Gladstone Court Museum recreates life in the town during the 19th century and comprises a range of shops and workshops from the period, featuring trades such as clock making, joinery, shoemaking, and dressmaking, printing and banking. Greenhill Covenanters House is a 17th century house in Burn Braes, which takes visitors back to “the Killing Times” of religious strife in Scotland, a period of the nation’s history of the most profound significance which still resonates in the Scottish psyche to this day. On display here is a 16th Century four-poster bed, which was found in the barn at Skirling House and restored. Brownsbank Cottage, a mile and a half out of Biggar, was the home of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid and his wife Valda from 1952 until their deaths in 1978 and 1989 respectively. Biggar Museum Trust has restored the cottage to the way it was (artifacts and books included) during their long stay.
For enthusiasts of old technology, the Biggar Gasworks Museum, the national museum of the gas industry in Scotland, demonstrates each phase of the fascinating process of turning coal into gas. On some days the plant can be seen in operation. Biggar was the home of Thomas Blackwood Murray, co-founder of Albion Motors in 1889, and is where he built and tested the first Albion car. The Biggar Albion Museum houses several vehicles built by Albion Motors.
The town also houses the thriving Victorian Purves Puppet Theatre, unique in Scotland, which has an international reputation for its productions and hosts a spectacular exhibition of puppets. For ten days in October, Biggar Little Festival stages theatrical and comedy performances, jazz, folk, and classical music and several art exhibitions. There are many and varied workshops for adults and children, meet the author sessions, and on the first Sunday, Biggar Day Out with a craft and food fair, beer festival, street entertainment, art exhibitions and lots of shops open. For full details see the website at www.biggar-little-festival.com.
Peebles is an ancient and elegant Royal Burgh set beside the River Tweed. It has been named the “Top Independent Retail Town” in Scotland because of the wide range of distinctive shopping opportunities. (We can certainly recommend Forsyth’s the butcher, where we buy our bacon, black pudding and sausages.) It is also a centre for the performing arts, with the Eastgate Theatre and Arts Centre welcoming touring theatre and dance companies, hosting concerts and mounting exhibitions of art and craft work throughout the year. Three miles to the east of the town is the internationally recognised Glentress Mountain Bike centre, which offers some of the best (if at times a little unnerving) mountain biking in the United Kingdom. It’s one way of working off a Skirling House breakfast, we suppose.
When visiting Peebles you must visit The Cocoa Black Chocolate Shop and Café with chocolates and patisserie made by Ruth Hinks in her chocolate factory just up the road. Ruth’s patisserie making skills won her gold in the culinary Olympics, and she willingly shares these skills in her Chocolate school. There are classes ranging from two day professional courses to chocolate making demonstrations of an hour and a half, and including almost everything in between. But if that sounds too much like hard work visit the café enjoy the cakes and come away with some of the tempting chocolates. (Bob undertook the 2 day course recently so look out for some extra special desserts this year.)
Moffat is a charming town just three minutes off the M74 motorway. In former times it was a spa town, and there’s a museum to recall those days. Today the town has a wide variety of shops selling books, fine produce and fragrances. People in Moffat take great pride in their gardens, and the hanging baskets in the town add a really welcoming touch. On a somewhat larger scale the Community Nature Reserve, recently established, comprises three distinct habitat areas: a large pond with trees, a flooded meadow and an agricultural field.
Moffat is also the starting point for one of the most picturesque journeys in Southern Scotland. If you take the road to Selkirk you will go through the finest U-shaped valley in Southern Scotland to arrive at the Grey Mare’s Tail, a quite spectacular waterfall. Further on you come to two lochs, the Loch of the Lowes and St. Mary's Loch. Between the two is Tibbie Shiel's Inn, a cafe, with a most impressive statue of James Hogg, “the Ettrick Shepherd” who wrote “Confessions of a Justified Sinner”, a classic which only had to wait for a mere century or so before becoming a best seller. From St Mary’s Loch you can either turn north into Tweedsmuir and see the Devil’s Beef Tub, an intriguing bit of geology, or else carry on to Peebles, which is also a good shopping town.
Thornhill in Nithsdale, close to Drumlanrig Castle is a fine example of an 18th Century planned village. Situated on the main road to Kilmarnock it still has a couple of former coaching inns, together with some good shops for browsing. It’s not far from Ellisland Farm, once farmed with no great success by Robert Burns, which has been turned into a popular museum and visitor attraction and is well worth a visit.