The sad truth is that I’d probably spend most of my time in pubs if it wasn’t such an obvious badge of creepiness. But unlike dirty Dick in the corner (there’s actually a pub in Edinburgh by the name of Dirty Dick’s…) furtively peering over his pint, I’m more likely to be sitting at the bar chatting with whoever’s next to me while I coax a buzz to life. It pains me to have to fabricate a reason to spend the daylight hours in dark pubs, or to reassure myself that it’s okay to have a pint because it’s now the PM half of the day, but it’s pain willingly taken.
Call it masochism. Call it a flimsy excuse to have a drink whenever it feels right (read: most of the time). Call it alcoholism. Actually, don’t call it that.
I’m quite discerning (read: most of the time) about where and what I drink. Sports bars, clubs, and brand new watering holes are fine to grab a drink with a friend, but they don’t captivate me the way truly historic pubs do. Some might say it borders on snobbery, but the truth is I’m simply a romantic trying to capture the essence of ages past. The ornate etching of tin ceilings, the crackling of logs in stone fireplace, the smell of aged leather and wood, the feel of a once-smooth bar top worn with lines – these enchanting sensations are sending me off on a tour of Edinburgh’s historic pubs.
Who will I meet and what will I learn along the way? The beauty at this point is in the mystery, but there are five pubs I’m really looking forward to visiting!
Sheep Heid Inn
The Sheep Heid Inn is a bit off the beaten path in Duddingston, but when I read that it has been around since 1360 it jumped to number one on my must-visit pub list (which really only exists in my head). The history is a bit cloudy before tales of Mary Queen of Scots and her son James VI enter the picture as patrons of the establishment, but I bet there are many stories to be told that might clarify that early period.
Apparently the pub has a skittle alley, too, which has nothing to do with tasting the rainbow. Skittles seems to be another, much cooler name for bowling, and patrons have been playing here since the 16th century. As for the name, it’s believed that James VI presented the owner with a taxidermied ram’s head as a thank you for good times. I think we should bring back this tradition.
The White Hart Inn
In the shadow of Edinburgh castle, the Grassmarket is lined with pubs and restaurants that are popular with stag and hen (bachelor and bachelorette) parties, and one establishment, The White Hart Inn, has a freaky possessed stag adorning the front entryway. The inn is named after a myth in which King David I came upon a massive white stag while hunting. After being thrown from his horse and then pursued by the demonic beast, he prayed to God and a fiery cross appeared between the stag’s antlers before the animal vanished. Naturally, the next logical step would be to open a pub venerating said stag.
The pub was built in 1740 and some of the foundation dates from the early 16th century, but the coolest part is that both Robert Burns and William Wordsworth were known to have visited the inn. It’s also the spot where the body-snatchers Burke and Hare were known to peer over pints, and, related or not, it is considered to be the most haunted pub in the city.
The Abbotsford is a traditional pub in Edinburgh’s New Town named after Sir Walter Scott’s estate in Roxburghshire. To be honest, I don’t know what features characterize a traditional pub but they’re always very bright and devoid of music. The Abbotsford was built in 1902 during a kind of golden age of Edinburgh pubs and it’s full of opulent trappings. Sarah and I had a drink here several years ago during a stop on a literary pub tour, and it’s a big reason why I’m eager to get back there and learn more about its connection (if any) to Sir Walter Scott.
The Oxford Bar
The Oxford Bar is probably most well-known today as the haunt of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus. Operating as a pub since 1811, many authors and actors have called its walls home in the last 200 years. I’d never heard of it (shame on me) until I started researching Edinburgh’s authors, but now I’m looking forward to enjoying a pint or three in this New Town spot. The interior of the pub looks more like the front room of a house than the opulence of pubs like The Abbotsford or Café Royal.
So the Bow Bar isn’t really old and I’ve actually been there several times. I still can’t wait to visit it. The Bow’s bright blue frontage peeps out from Victoria St. (aka West Bow), one of my favorite streets in the city for its characterful shops and the elevated walkway that runs on top of the buildings on one side. The Bow Bar is a traditional pub in the style of The Abbotsford. While it looks old, it has actually recycled fixtures and furniture from previous pubs. The Bow has an incredible selection of whisky and I still remember having my first ever dram of Laphroaig here.
Expect more information on each of these pubs after I visit them this March!
Have you got a pub I absolutely must visit? Have you enjoyed a drink at any of these establishments? Let me know in the comments!