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Biggar, Lanarkshire

Historical Description

BIGGAR, a parish and market-town, in the Upper ward of the county of Lanark, 12 miles (S. E.) from Lanark, and on the road from Dumfries to the city of Edinburgh; containing 1865 inhabitants, of whom 1395 are in the town. The original name of this place, as it occurs in several ancient charters, is generally written Biger or Bigre. It is supposed to have been derived from the nature of the ground on which the castle of the Biggar family was situated (in the centre of a soft morass), and to have been thence applied to the whole of the parish. From the same circumstance, the castle assumed the name of Boghall. The manor was granted by David I. to Baldwin, a Flemish leader, whose descendants still retain the surname of Fleming; they appear to claim a remote antiquity, and the name of Baldwin de Biger appears in testimony to a charter, prior to the year 1160. Some accounts, chiefly traditional, are still retained of a battle fought at this place between the English forces under Edward I., and the Scots commanded by Wallace, in which the former were defeated; and though not authenticated by any historian of acknowledged authority, the probability of the event is partly strengthened by the frequent discovery of broken armour in a field near the town; by the name of a rivulet called the Red Syke, running through the supposed field of battle, and so named from the slaughter of the day; and by the evident remains of an encampment in the immediate neighbourhood. On this occasion, Wallace is said to have gained admission into the enemy's camp disguised as a dealer in provisions, and, after having ascertained their numbers and order, to have been pursued in his retreat to the bridge over the Biggar water, when, turning on his pursuers, he put the most forward of them to death, and made his escape to his army, who were encamped on the heights of Tinto. A wooden bridge over the Biggar is still called the "Cadger's Brig"; and on the north side of Bizzyberry are a hollow in a rock, and a spring, which are called respectively Wallace's Seat and Well. The Scottish array under Sir Simon Fraser is said to have rendezvoused here, the night previous to the victory of Roslin, in 1302; and Edward II., on his invasion of Scotland, in 1310, spent the first week of October at this place, while attempting to pass through Selkirk to Renfrew. In 1651, after Cromwell's victory at Perth, the Scottish army, passing by Biggar, at that time garrisoned by the English, summoned the place to surrender; and in 1715, Lockhart of Carnwath, the younger, raised a troop for the service of the Pretender, which, after remaining for some time here, marched to Dumfries, and joined the forces under Lord Kenmure.

The TOWN is finely situated on the Biggar water, by which it is divided into two very unequal parts, the smaller forming a beautiful and picturesque suburb, communicating with the town by a neat bridge. The houses in this suburb are built on the sloping declivities, and on the brow, of the right bank of the rivulet, and have hanging gardens extending to the water's edge; the opposite bank is crowned with venerable trees. Biggar consists of one wide street, regularly built, and from its situation on rising ground, commands an extensive and varied view; most of the houses are of respectable appearance, and within the last few years several new and handsome houses have been erected. There is a scientific institution, founded in the year 1839, and having a library of 220 volumes, mostly of works on science: the members meet during winter once a month, when a popular lecture on science is delivered, and a discussion ensues. A public library was established in 1791, which contains about 800 volumes. Another was opened in 1800, which has a collection of more than 500; and a third, exclusively a theological library, was founded in 1807, and has about 700 volumes. Attached to the parish school is a fourth library, instituted in 1828, and now containing 500 volumes. A public newsroom was opened in 1828; but it met with little support, and was consequently discontinued.

The trade consists chiefly in the sale of merchandise for the supply of the parish and surrounding district, and in the weaving of cloth, in which latter about 200 of the inhabitants are employed. A branch of the Commercial Bank was established in 1833, and a building erected for its use, which adds much to the appearance of the town; and a branch of the Western Bank of Scotland has since been established. A savings' bank was opened in 1832, for the accommodation of the agricultural labourers and others; there are about 460 depositors, and the amount of deposits is about £3500. The market is on Thursday. Fairs are held at Candlemas, for hiring servants; at Midsummer, for the sale of wool; and on the last Thursday in October (O. S.), for horses and black-cattle; all of which are numerously attended. An act of parliament was passed in 1847, authorizing the construction of a branch railway from the great Caledonian line at Symington to Biggar and Broughton. The inhabitants, in 1451, received from James II. a charter erecting the town into a free burgh of barony, and granting a weekly market and other privileges, which grants were renewed at intervals down to the year 1662.

The PARISH, which borders on the county of Peebles, is about six miles and a half in length, and varies very greatly in breadth, being of triangular form, and comprising about 7370 acres, chiefly pasture land. Its surface is generally hilly, though comprising a considerable proportion of level ground, particularly towards the south, where is a plain of large extent; the hills are of little height, and the acclivities, being gentle, afford excellent pasture. The principal stream is the Biggar water, which rises on the north side of the parish, and after a course of nearly two miles, intersects the town, and flows along a fine open vale, to the river Tweed; the Candy burn rises in the north-east portion of the parish, which it separates from the county of Peebles, and falls after a course of three miles into the Biggar water. The scenery is considerably diversified; and the approach to the town by the Carnwath road presents to the view a combination of picturesque features. In this parish the soil is various: above 1000 acres are of a clayey nature, on a substratum of clay or gravel; between 2000 and 3000 are a light black loam, resting upon whinstone, and the remainder sandy, and black loam inclining to peat-moss. The system of agriculture is greatly improved, and green crops have been introduced with success; the chief produce in grain consists of oats: much attention is paid to the management of the dairy, and to the improvement of live stock. The cattle are mostly a cross between the native and the Ayrshire breed, which latter is every day becoming more predominant; many sheep are pastured on the hills and acclivities, and the principal stock regularly reared are of the old Tweeddale breed. Great progress has been made in draining and inclosing the lands. Two mills for oats and barley have been erected, and there are not less than twenty-five threshing-machines, one of which, constructed by Mr. Watts, has the water-wheel fifty feet below the level of the barn, and 120 feet distant from it, the power being communicated to the machinery by shafts acting on an inclined plane. The annual value of real property in the parish is £7329. About 950 acres are in plantations, chiefly Scotch fir, in the management of which much improvement has been made by the introduction of a new method of pruning; and on the several farmsteads are numerous fine specimens of hard-wood trees, which are better adapted to the soil, and are consequently growing gradually into use in the more recent plantations. Of these, the ash and elm seem to thrive best; and the beech and the plane also answer well. Among the various mansions are, Edmonston, a castellated structure, pleasingly situated in a secluded vale near the east end of the parish; Biggar Park and Cambus-Wallace, both handsome residences in the immediate vicinity of the town; and Carwood, a spacious mansion, lately erected, surrounded by young and thriving plantations.

The origin of the parish is rather obscure; but it appears that a chaplaincy was founded here in expiation of the murder of John, Lord Fleming, chamberlain of Scotland, who was assassinated in 1524 by John Tweedie of Drummelzier, his son, and other accomplices. For this purpose, an assythment in lands was given to Malcolm, Lord Fleming, son of the murdered lord, with £10 per annum granted in mortmain, for the support of a chaplain, to pray and sing mass for the soul of the deceased in the parish church of Biggar, which Malcolm in 1545 made collegiate, and endowed for a provost, eight canons and prebendaries, and four choristers, with six aged poor men. On this occasion, the church of Thankertoun, which had previously been bestowed on the abbey of Kelso by one of his predecessors, was given up to Malcolm by the monks, and annexed to the collegiate church. The parish is now in the presbytery of Biggar, synod of Lothian and Tweeddale, and in the patronage of the family of Fleming; the minister's stipend is £263. 4. 7., with a manse, and a glebe valued at £30 per annum. Biggar church, erected in 1545, was formerly an elegant and venerable cruciform structure in the later English style, with a tower which was not finished, as the Reformation occurred while the building was in progress. This structure, though complete in every other respect, and uninjured by time, has been dreadfully mutilated. The western porch, the vestry communicating with the chancel, and having a richly groined roof, the buttresses that supported the north wall of the nave, and the arched gateway leading into the churchyard, though perfectly entire, and beautiful specimens of architecture, were all taken down about fifty or sixty years since, and the materials sold for £7, to defray some parochial expenses. At the same time, the interior of the church underwent a similar lamentable devastation; the organ-gallery was removed, and the richly-groined roof of the chancel, which was embellished with gilt tracery, was destroyed, and replaced with lath and plaster, seemingly for no better reason than to make it correspond with the roofs of the aisles and nave. Latterly, the church has received an addition of 120 sittings, by the erection of a gallery; it has been also newly-seated, and affords considerable accommodation. There are places of worship for the United Presbyterian Synod and United Original Seceders. The parochial school affords education to about 180 scholars; the master has a salary of £34. 4. 4. per annum, about £75 fees, and a house and garden.

At the western extremity of the town is a large mound, more than 300 feet in circumference at the base, 150 feet on the summit, and thirty-six feet in height, supposed to have been in ancient times a seat for the administration of justice; it appears to have been also used as a beacon, and to have formed one of a chain extending across the vale between the Clyde and the Tweed. There are several remains of encampments, one of which, about half a mile from the town, is 180 feet in circumference, defended by a deep moat and double rampart; and near Candy bank is another, of oval form. On the banks of Oldshields are some Druidical remains consisting of four upright stones, near which arrow-heads of flint have been found; and on the lands of Carwood, two Roman vessels of bronze were discovered in a moss: one, having a handle and three legs, holds about two quarts, and the other, less elegant in form, about eight quarts. The venerable remains of the castle of Boghall, which gave so great an interest to the scenery of the beautiful vale in which they were situated, have been almost demolished, for the sake of the stone; and little more is left than a small angular tower, serving to mark the site. The late Dr. A. Brown, Professor of Rhetoric in the University of Edinburgh, and Robert Forsyth, Esq., an eminent advocate, were natives of the parish; and many of the landed proprietors have been eminently distinguished in the annals of their country.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis