For a town of its size, Biggar has long offered visitors a remarkable choice of museums. In July 2015 the Biggar & Upper Clydesdale Museum brought two of them together under one roof when it opened its doors for the first time. The museum stands towards the top end of the High Street and occupies premises previously used as a garage, albeit with a large purpose-built extension to the rear. The result is a truly outstanding museum that is worth travelling a considerable distance to see; and a surprisingly large one. The interior belies the modest scale of the frontage in a truly Tardis-like way.
The museum has its own car park, and further parking is available nearby. Beyond the entrance door is a reception area and shop, and beyond that the museum begins to open out. Biggar & Upper Clydesdale Museum can be thought of as being divided into two very distinct parts. The front half of the museum is occupied by a series of displays about the history of Biggar and Upper Clydesdale, from its geological origins until much more recently, taking in everything from prehistoric settlement to the establishment of the First Polish Rifle Brigade in Biggar in 1942.
The quality of the layout, display and interpretation is all you might hope for from a modern and professionally developed museum and the result is a series of attractive and engaging areas it is a joy to explore. Some of the objects will be familiar to those who had previously visited Biggar's (now closed) Moat Park Heritage Centre, but the huge advances made in the way they are displayed really helps bring the area's history to life.
Every visitor will have their own favourite areas and objects. For us, among the highlights are a series of magnificent models which show examples of buildings in use in Upper Clydesdale over the past two thousand years. These include everything from Iron Age and Roman forts to a crannog, a broch, a motte, Boghall Castle, and a bastle house. A bastle house? It was a surprise to us to find that these defensive structures existed this far north, but it seems that five have been discovered in Upper Clydesdale. But if we had to pick a single star of the show, it would be the superb model of a 12th century motte, which shows a type of structure relatively common in the area, but which are extremely difficult to visualise when you visit.
The front half of the museum is also home to a series of full size models of notable people. These include Baldwin of Biggar, who built a large motte in Biggar in the 12th century and became Sheriff of Lanarkshire; Mary Fleming, a local noblwoman who became a member of the household of Mary Queen of Scots; and John Fleming, the 5th Lord Fleming, her brother. At the other end of the size scale, a display of Polish Army uniforms contains four tiny Polish soldier dolls, made by Poles stationed in Biggar during WWII.
The rear half of the museum is home to "Gladstone Court" where streets and alleys of recreated shops bring to life 150 years of commercial enterprise in Biggar. We found ourselves highly impressed when we visited Biggar's (now closed) Gladstone Court Museum a few years earlier. And it was excellent: but it is amazing to see how much better this approach now works when laid out in a purpose-designed building, complete with ample rooflights.
What is particularly nice is the fact that visitors can go into the printers, the apothecary, the shoemaker, the toy shop, and any of the many other shops in Gladstone Court. The result is a highly immersive experience as the Biggar & Upper Clydesdale Museum turns out to be a Tardis in more ways than one. For us a particularly fascinating area was a re-creation of the manual telephone exchange that connected Biggar to the outside world between 1931 and 1973.
The story of how Biggar, uniquely as far as we know for a town of its size, came to preserve so much of its past is nearly as interesting as the museum itself. It is largely the story of the efforts of one man, Brian Lambie. He was born in 1930 and ran his family's ironmongers shop in the town, later becoming Provost of Biggar. His efforts to collect artefacts from a fast-disappearing past in the years after WWII resulted in the establishment of no fewer than six museums in and around Biggar, including Gladstone Court Museum, Moat Park Heritage Centre, the Covenanter's House, Biggar Gasworks, and the predecessor of the John Buchan Story in Peebles.
Brian Lambie also founded the Biggar Museums Trust, which has carried on his work, and which was instrumental in raising the considerable funds necessary for the development of the new Biggar & Upper Clydesdale Museum. Sadly Brian Lambie died on 27 December 2014, so never lived to see work on the museum come to fruition. It is nonetheless a fitting tribute to him.