Tucked away in a corner of South Lanarkshire, Biggar is a small town with a huge history and a good selection of locally-owned artisan shops – and, the reason for my being here – the Elphinstone Hotel.
It’s situated on what is known as the old peddlers way between Edinburgh and the south-west of Scotland and is reputed to be one of the oldest roads in the country!
The Elphinstone Hotel may actually be standing on the site of an older establishment owned by one Bessie Bertram who, it is reputed, gave lodging to King James IV in 1504. Amazingly, in 1947 after demolishing some older outbuildings, a workman found a groat from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
By the end of the 18th century, the hotel’s name had changed to the Wigtoun arms after the then owners, the Flemings of Boghall Castle were made the Earls of Wigtoun. The estate passed to a descendant, Lord Elphinstone and the name subsequently changed to its current one. It is fondly referred to by the locals as the ‘Elph’.
But, enough of the history lesson folks, let’s get to it.
Located just off the Main Street that runs through the town, parking is limited to approximately eight spaces directly outside the front door, however, if those are full, then directly across the street there are two other public car parks with ample spaces including marked disabled bays.
In terms of disabled access, please bear in mind the age of the place. This is an old coaching inn and the building has a lot of stairs and narrow corridors and is therefore unsuitable for wheelchair users. Entry is via a street level main door to the ground floor bar area.
While you might be expecting a reception desk because it has the term ‘hotel’ you won’t find one and guest check-in is carried out at the bar. I would actually regard this as being more of an inn with rooms as opposed to a hotel. The lounge bar area is a very homely room with an open fire providing for a welcoming environment on a cold winter’s day. There are a few tables accommodating lunchtime diners in an open plan design and will accommodate any dining room overspill. The overall design is very typical of the period – whitewashed walls, black wooden beams, horse brasses, a brick fireplace and a stone-fronted bar.
Myself and Mrs M were warmly welcomed by a young lady who checked us in and directed us to room nine which was up three flights of stairs and along three corridors.
We were also given details of breakfast times, and advised where it was served and given an option to book a time slot between 7.30 and 9.30am the following Sunday morning. She also offered to book us a table in the dining room later that evening.
One thing of note throughout the weekend, and I can’t review the place without mentioning it – the staff. Most of them appear to be school-age, yet despite their obvious youth, all of them, without exception, were exceptionally friendly, helpful, and professional. It’s a pleasure to say that they not only broke but completely trashed the sometimes held assumption that youngsters are lazy, surly, unhelpful youths who wouldn’t thank you for a part-time job. A big round of applause to all of them, and to the hotel for employing so many from a small town which, I suspect, does not provide many opportunities for part-time youth employment.
The lounge bar area caters to the lunchtime trade with a bar meals menu which is also available in the public bar next door, and what appears to be the ‘regular’ for a fair proportion of the town if the number crammed in on my visit was anything to go by. As I touched on earlier, if you don’t want the formality of the dining room, you can eat off the main evening menu in the bar. And talking about dining. We were sat in the bar enjoying a drink and between 6 and 6.45pm when the number of diners went from 2 to 42, with a number then having to be turned away at the door. My food review can be found here: Food – Biggar: The Elphinstone Hotel. Good, honest, home-cooked meals using local produce.
I know of many award-winning restaurant managers that would give up a right arm to be this busy on a Saturday evening in May, and the tourist season hasn’t even started yet! I wouldn’t fancy your chances of getting a table as a walk-in so I suggest you pre-book. But, and despite it being so busy, there was still an overall smooth professional slickness to the operation.
The staff are all very attentive to their diners, but without being intrusive while a gentleman, I assumed to be the restaurant manager kept an overview of all that was going on. It was only later in the evening it transpired that this was actually the owner himself. There was little doubt that he employs a hands-on managerial style, yet in chatting to some of the staff, it was obvious that he engenders a great deal of respect from them.
Despite the period architecture, the place is still bang-up-to-date with orders being taken on digital tablets and printed directly in the kitchen, and free wifi throughout the building. Making a connection was simple with no annoying passwords you forgot to obtain at check-in and was stable with no drop-outs.
So, up three flights of stairs and along a few corridors we eventually reached room nine at the back of the hotel. On entry it became obvious that this is one of the hotels family rooms, containing a double bed and a set of bunks. The room is L-shaped and even with all the beds is still a huge space. Two leather armchairs and a coffee table with relevant local information sat by the window which overlooks the hotel’s beer garden. The room had plenty of storage space, presumably because it’s a family size room for four.
Tea and coffee making facilities are provided along with bottled water and some biscuits to accompany your cuppa. There are two flatscreen televisions which were wall-mounted, one facing the double bed and another, the bunk beds.
The room has a large bathroom which is well appointed. There are plenty of towels and it looked as if it had recently been refurbished with a new suite and wallcoverings. It was spotlessly clean and showed no signs of any black mould on the bath/shower seals. Complimentary Arran Aromatics soap, shampoo and shower gel were also provided. The bathroom has a small cabinet underneath the sink for storage as well as an illuminated mirror with shaver point above. The hotel also supports the charity Water Aid and requests that you consider whether you need fresh towels every day.
Room nine being at the back of the hotel means you won’t be bothered by traffic noise from the main road and, on the evening of our stay a Saturday in June 2019, the beer garden was relatively quiet.
One thing to keep in mind, and as touched on earlier, unlike other hotels you won’t find a residents lounge. If you don’t want to sit in the room then it would have to be the lounge bar area.
The place is scrupulously clean, well-maintained, freshly decorated and is obviously well looked after by its owners, Robert, Janette, and Michael Allen. It features a Scottish Tourist Board three-star award, a TripAdvisor certificate of excellence, and was a winner of the Lanarkshire Business Excellence awards as well as holding a visit Scotland “Taste our Best” food certificate.
The Allen family have remained largely true to the buildings original design in any renovations, footprint and style, being one of the oldest public houses in Biggar. Robert Allen told me that he had worked in the hotel between 1986 and 1996 when he and his family then bought it. They have remained as owners since that date and feel it is important to upgrade and maintain as necessary without interfering too much with the 400-year history and overall original design and feel of the building. They regard their tenure as merely custodians of this ‘old lady’ and hope to pass it on in a better condition than when they took charge.
This family-run establishment has a mission statement that reads: “At The Elphinstone Hotel our dedicated team are committed to the ideals and values of customer service. We at all times take pride in ourselves and in our ability and desire to serve our customers well. We take responsibility for our own actions and in doing so we create a positive environment for our team that work here, and also, very importantly for our customers.”
Now I know what you’re thinking – twaddle, anyone can write something like this and pop it on a website for all to see, but it means nothing yet sounds great. Well, let me tell you, I saw some of that dedication and commitment to customer service on display, not just trotted out for a reviewer, so I have little doubt as to the authenticity of such a statement. In my experience, it’s only small privately owned places like this that can actually go the extra mile for their customers. You definitely won’t find it in the big chains.
The hotel has only 11 bedrooms some of which are classed as family rooms with extra beds available, all of which are en-suite. The hotel has a website which can be located by clicking here and this will give you the opportunity to view the room interiors and check the current rates prior to booking. It is ideally situated in South Lanarkshire allowing easy access to the major towns in both the East and West, Edinburgh and Glasgow. It would make an ideal stop off point for families travelling further afield, businessmen en route to other locations and tourists who simply want to enjoy the various local attractions.
It’s fair to say, that an overnight stay in a hotel, guesthouse, or bed-and-breakfast is always going to be a subjective opinion of the reviewer. On this occasion the double bed was a little on the firm side for me, however, that said, it’s the first time I’ve managed to sleep on a Sunday morning until 8.30am for a very long time, in fact around 25 years, when our first-born arrived!
We had a little noise from a party which was being held the previous evening and had moved out into the beer garden at one point. However, all the windows have been replaced with new double glazed sash windows in keeping with the original style and it’s fair to say that any noise wasn’t overly intrusive.
One thing of note was that the hotel is on the hot side and at one stage we had to open the window in the bedroom to allow some fresh air in to cool it down.
The over-bath shower the following morning was sufficiently powerful and provided a good quality hot shower. How often have you been in a hotel and find yourself either showering under the equivalent of a leaking bucket, or, that the shower head is so blocked you spend longer cleaning it than you do showering?
Check out was a very simple procedure, simply handing the key to the barman and departing.
If you’re the type of person who stays in ultramodern, chic, boutique type establishments, then forget The Elphinstone, which couldn’t be more different to some edifice built from glass and stainless steel. If that is your preferred option then I suggest you look elsewhere, however, if, like me, you’re always willing to try something new with an open mind, then perhaps the Elphinstone Hotel and its remarkable history will tick all your boxes, as it did for me.