Looking at the Biggar picture Catriona Thomson discovers this town's wartime Polish connections and what this historic coaching inn has to offer the hungry visitor today

Political shenanigans and recent European events have got me thinking; perhaps we might have forgotten our own recent history.

For instance, Bill (90) our sprightly neighbour, recalls as a lad gawping, at German prisoners of war near Penicuik during the war. Today you can’t find a sign of the camp’s existence, in the lea of the peaceful Pentlands.

I’m wondering what else am I blissfully unaware of. So investigating more, I discover Biggar was home to several thousand of our allied Polish troops for a time. The de facto prime minister in exile, General Sikorski, even visited in 1940.

The first Polish Brigade was headquartered in huts at Biggar Primary School and there was a march-past of the troops in the High Street for the visit.

So no more excuses, I’m off to do a spot of sleuthing and have a mooch around the town before popping into The Elphinstone Hotel for some nosh.

The current “Custodians of The Elph”, are Robert and Janette Allen, who are keen to uphold the place’s 300-years-plus reputation for a warm welcome and good service.

On the outside of the old coaching inn we spot a plaque celebrating the town’s wartime Polish visitors, and on it are the words of General Sikorski, himself.

“The rivers of Polish tears and blood, will not be shed in vain. Providence has brought us to Great Britain. In these fateful days, we stand by Great Britain until victory brings a reconstruction of Europe”

I couldn’t agree more.

Wartime investigations almost over we head inside and take a pew, and hunker down close to the roaring open fire.

We’re instantly relaxed as this is not some uber fancy establishment; sometimes basic is best.

On the wall are photographs of the Hogmanay Biggar bonfire. This is an annual event where a massive blaze is lit in front of the Corn Exchange on the High Street, and it’s always a flaming success.

We order bread and olives for a starter, mainly because I have read about a touching leaving note left behind by a couple of the Poles during the war.

“We were in many countries and we ate the bread of many nations through long years of war and exile. Some bread was tough and some was salty, some was bitter and some stuck in our throats, for the bread of an exile in a foreign land does not often taste sweet.

“Your bread was the best, for it was given willingly and with a kind heart and not like a pittance but like a loaf shared with a brother and friend. You didn’t even know us and yet you treated us like brothers.”

No, I’m not welling up, I think I might have got a tiny speck of dust in my eye.

 

 

The fella opts for breaded haggis croquettes for his starter which is served with red onion relish and dressed with red stemmed salad leaves. It doesn’t set the heather alight, but is perfectly passable fare.

The menu features a pretty extensive selection of international dishes. I’m tempted by the impressive sounding Elphinstone falafel and spinach burger, but it’s sadly not available.

However, there is an acceptable alternative of red lentil and chickpea daal.

It arrives, a Munro-like mountain of fluffy white rice, surrounded by vegetables galore, including spiced cauliflower, butternut squash, tomatoes and peas.

The carnivores in the party opted for a generously cut slab of prime bacon steak, served with double fried eggs complete with golden yolks, salad and chips.

Younger daughter gets stuck into a medium rare rib eye steak. She is a big fan of this rib cut of beef because the rich marbling of fat keeps the meat moist when cooked.

The dish passes her discerning eye, with tender, well-aged beef and the all important crispy caramelised sear marks, chips and a healthy salad making up her plateful.

Pudding disaster is avoided for the grown-ups, thanks to a speedy trip to the shops by a waitress for more supplies.

Luckily there is no rationing, and we lose no time diving into our chocolate honeycomb explosion.

This is a taste straight out of our childhoods; with grins from ear to ear, and two spoons grasped tightly, the race is on to find out who would reach the bottom of the sundae glass first.

Taylor’s of Biggar ice cream and rich chocolate sauce plus whipped cream equals bliss. Elsewhere a classic sticky toffee pudding is demolished by the wee one, another empty bowl success.

We’ve had a lovely day investigating our local history and a return visit may be on the cards – “we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

Elphinstone Hotel Biggar

145 High Street, Biggar ML12 6DL
(01899 220044, www.elphinstonehotel.co.uk)

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About The Author

Catriona Thomson

Catriona is Deputy Picture Editor at the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday.

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