5 Edinburgh Pubs I Can’t Wait to Visit

by Keith Savage · 22 comments

The Bow Bar, Edinburgh

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

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.

Bow Bar

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!

Original photos by gorriti, bods, jovike, exitlines, and byronv2, respectively via Flickr under Creative Commons

MarkNo Gravatar February 12, 2011 at 9:58 AM

Some good choices there Keith – apart from the White Hart which I think is fairly average. I tend to avoid the Grassmarket and Cowgate (too many hen and stag parties and binge drinkers) although the Last Drop is alright on a weekday night.

Would suggest a wander down to the Shore at Leith for some interesting pubs – my favourite is the Malt and Hops ( http://www.barcalisa.com/ ) but there are a wide variety of pubs down there and good restaurants too. The King’s Wark pub is pleasant and does good pub food if you want to combine pubbing and eating. 🙂

Elsewhere try the Cumberland Bar in the New Town; the Guildford Arms and Cafe Royal just off Princes Street; Halfway House in Fleshmarket Close; the Kenilworth on Rose Street; Cloisters and Blue Blazer in/near Tollcross and the infamous Canny Man’s in Morningside. 🙂

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 12, 2011 at 10:46 AM

I’ve noticed the hen and stag parties on Grassmarket as well. I’ve been to The White Hart before, but never with a historical interest in mind.

Thanks for the great recommendations! Of those pubs you listed, I’ve only been to Cloisters and it has a good ale selection and a nice, homey feel. Adding these to my list.

JaneNo Gravatar January 31, 2011 at 1:08 PM

These are cool places to visit, my hubby would love a pub hopping in our next trip. Nice info!

GrayNo Gravatar January 28, 2011 at 11:47 AM

One of the coolest things about pubs in the UK is the long and colorful history they generally have. Who wouldn’t want to go sit in the same pub Wordsworth and Burns did? I went to a pub in London where Karl Marx used to hang out. It looked as though the furnishings hadn’t been changed out since then, but that was part of why it was cool. Besides, pubs are the best places to meet the locals.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 28, 2011 at 2:16 PM

Absolutely. I’m developing an idea for a post that basically asserts that UK pubs are a nexus of culture. As for your experience at the pub where Karl Marx hung out – why update something if it doesn’t need updating?

Niall McTeagueNo Gravatar January 27, 2011 at 1:33 PM

Well said Mr Wallace.
I like Bennets too by the Kings.(maybe not the one in Glasgow!)
Excellent project and site Keith. I travel much throughout Scotland for art and photography. Maybe bump into you in some drinking den in Wester Ross!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 27, 2011 at 2:54 PM

Hey Niall, thanks for the pub recommendation. I checked out your site and love your paintings. That would be great to meet up on the road – I’ll be traveling all over Scotland this year.

Zablon MukubaNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 11:41 PM

i never knew England had such old bars. there is so much history to those bars. personaly when i go to a bar, i dont look at its history but its prices

Willie WallaceNo Gravatar January 26, 2011 at 5:51 AM

OOOOOOHHHHHHH….. I waited Zablon, after hearing the terse indrawing of breath from all around, but it seems I am going to be the first to mention to you that Edinburgh is not in England, but Scotland. Easy mistake to make when most people, even many English people, think of the two countries as being part of England. However, the beleagured 5 million of us scraping an existence up here, dominated by a Westminster Government which we most certainly didn’t vote for, would like you to know when we welcome you to our country, that we are a wee bit different from everybody else and part of that is being a different country.

From the land that has had the same national flag longer than any other country in the world, I greet you :o)


Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 26, 2011 at 11:27 AM

Possibly the greatest comment ever recorded on Traveling Savage.

Willie WallaceNo Gravatar January 27, 2011 at 1:56 PM


Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 26, 2011 at 11:27 AM

Duly noted, I should have made it more clear where, exactly, Edinburgh is located. No question that price matters as well, but the joy of pubs is moreso in the atmosphere than in the cups.

AndrewNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 4:02 PM

The story of the stag with the flaming cross immediately reminds me of the logo for the Jaegermeister bottles. Hmm. wonder if it happened in Germany too or is the same legend. Or some sort of creepy coincidence. I remember going to a different pub that had something to do with deer antlers, but it wasn’t Grassmarket. It was straight down the kingsway away from the Castle.
I will have to look in my pictures, but I may have a picture of the Bow Bar.
For new year’s eve eve, we went into a few of the pubs on Haymarket that were pretty cool. Then to some thing that really could have been a sports bar in the US. They even gave us beer in plastic cups. I don’t remember the name but wouldn’t recommend them anyway.

I am totally stoked to see your posts on these places. Pubs ahoy.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 4:49 PM

I hadn’t thought of Jaegermeister, but you’re right on the money. According to Wikipedia, the stag logo is a reference to the stories of Saint Hubertus and Saint Eustace, the patron saints of hunters. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the King David myth is linked with these saints.

AnthonyNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 1:40 PM

Matt’s already beaten me to it-Thistle Street Bar, I can certainly concur it’s a lovely pub. Are you doing anything for “Burns” night tonight?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 2:05 PM

I would suggest haggis and readings of Burns’ by the firelight, but I doubt my wife will go for that. Instead, I’ll toast the old poet with a dram of Balvenie 15 Year Single Cask.

MattNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 1:05 PM

This post just brings me back to Edinburgh mate – you picked a pretty solid selection, though I’m afraid you missed a couple. Alas, you’ll simply have to find time to enjoy a couple more pints.

Just down the street from The Oxford Bar on Thistle Street is the Thistle Street Bar – it sits a couple doors down from a wonderful wee flat I lived in for about four months. Thistle Street Bar doesn’t necessarily have the history you point out in your other selections, but it’s filled with a great selection of whiskys and very friendly (read: often drunk) regulars. I was one of them for four months in 2008.

If you drink in one pub when you’re in Edinburgh, it’s got to be the Halfway House – while the Sheep Heid (get to Duddingston by climbing over Arthur’s Seat – you’ll be well ready for a pint when you finish) stands the claim to Edinburgh’s oldest pub, the Halfway House is the Edinburgh’s smallest pub. In addition to a great crew of regulars, you’ll find a constantly rotating selection of proper, Scottish real cask ales. It’s been ranked the CAMRA Real Ale Pub of the Year for obvious reasons.

If you go – and you will – say hello to Linda (bar manager) and Al (regular). I worked there for months.

Lastly, finish a night at The Royal Oak – it’s one of the greatest places to catch traditional music on the weekends. Show up early if you want a seat!

Enjoy it – can’t wait to read about your experiences.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 2:24 PM

Matt – Hugely appreciate these detailed suggestions! I will indeed visit them.

I noticed in a post you wrote about Edinburgh pubs, that you lived in the city for a year – what brought (and kept) you there?

CAMRA is another topic I’d like to learn more about, but everyone I’ve contacted so far has failed to return a message.

Thanks again!

NickNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 9:44 AM

Excellent list. I’ve been to three of these and have wanted to hit up the Sheeps Heid for a while. I like the Queens Arms and the bar at the Cameo Cinema. Also, Willie Wallace made a good suggestion with Port of Leith – there are always a few interesting characters there.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 2:04 PM

Hey Nick, thanks for the recommendations! Nice to hear the positive feedback on Leith as I haven’t been there in my four previous trips to Edinburgh and I’m planning to rectify that on this trip.

Willie WallaceNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 5:51 AM

Hi again Keith,

I shouldn’t say this, but one of the nicest bars in Edinburgh (shouldn’t say it because I won’t be able to get in the door now), is the Half Way House. I’d say this is the smallest pub in Edinburgh, but they have about four (Scottish) real ales on offer (changing all the time) and do various Scottish dishes for light meals – Stovies (mutton and potato hash or stew), Cullen Skink (smoked haddock soupy chowder), Haggis, Black Boar Sausages, etc. Seating for about 22, plus 4 at the bar, friendly staff and it’s situated somewhere you really have to look for it. Halfway down/up the Fleshmarket Close, a combined alley/stairway which leads from the High Street (Royal Mile), via Cockburn Street to Market Street, which is beside Waverley Rail Station. You will like it, I am sure! There’s a few crackers down in the Port of Leith, too, Willie

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 25, 2011 at 9:19 AM

Sounds excellent – you aren’t, by chance, on the Half Way House’s marketing board, are you? 🙂 I’ve heard of this pub and it’s going on the list. Thanks Willie!

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