“A Scot of poetic temperament, and without religious exultation, drops as if by nature into the public house; but what else is a man to do in this dog’s weather.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson’s got a point, though even when the weather is good you’re likely to find more than a few souls loitering about the local pub.
Scots have some pretty handy customs for making their presence in a pub socially acceptable at any time of day: farmers get to enjoy their “mornings,” that wee dram before heading out to the fields, and not that long ago businessfolk had every right to stop in at a pub for a noontime “meridian” when a thirst arose during the lunch hour.
Then there’s the weather. Yes it rains a lot, it’s all true. When the fading of the light typically coincides with the filling of the glass, pub attendance can be easily chalked up to routine or simple confusion (e.g., it sure feels like night).
Look, I just wrote a post about pubs I’m eager to visit – I understand this gravitation to local watering holes. But the pubs of Scotland are so much more than simply a place to drain away a pint or sip a dram.
A pub, in fact, functions as a nexus of Scottish culture.
Among the gleaming brass bar fittings and shining mirrored gantries, the separate strands of history, music, drink, and, most important of all, people come together to create a cultural Celtic knot.
Since Roman times, pubs, or tabernae as they were known, have played an integral role as the gathering place for communities as well as the accommodation for passing travelers. In some pubs I’ve visited, like The Abbotsford, there is a cloying sense of accumulated history seeping from the very walls, like the ghost of cigarette smoke. In Edinburgh, as in other parts of Scotland, many pubs have been in business for hundreds of years and have provided the background scene for royalty, famous artists, and infamous criminals. Pubs are generally proud of this heritage, and many showcase pictures, paintings, informational plaques, and the original fittings. Living history like this makes you feel alive.
A pub isn’t just a structure with comfy furniture and a roaring fireplace. That’s called a house. A pub adds alcoholic beverages, which nicely grease patrons’ wheels. And my goodness, I challenge the world to identify a higher quality drinking culture than that of the Scottish. Before you test me, know that I’ve seen Zane Lamprey’s entire Three Sheets series. Scotland is the home of the most complex, broad-ranging, and delightful liquor on the planet: single malt whisky. You could spend a lifetime trying to taste every style (believe me, I’ll do my best), but then you’d miss Scotland’s excellent brewing scene. I need to restrain myself from expounding on these beverages, but I’ll get deeper into these topics in the future.
I associate Scottish pubs with traditional Scottish folk music, but pubs didn’t always welcome the sound of reels and strathspeys within their walls. Stop in to so-called “traditional pubs” like The Bow Bar or The Abbotsford and you’ll find them noticeably lacking music. It seems the conjoining of pubs with traditional music came into its own during the 1960s folk revival, though I would welcome confirmation on this point. Today, folk music is common in pubs, and listening to it is like an umbilical cord to the past, like the culture audibilized. Perhaps it’s only natural for the soul to show when you throw folks in a warm room and plop some pints in their hands.
But it’s only human nature when that nature is, by and large, a warm, welcoming, friendly one. Those musicians in the pub could just as easily play in someone’s house, but they’ve chosen to share the music. Scotland’s people create a culture of friendliness. All the history and drinks and music would be for naught without the people to create them. In this sense, pubs act as a stage for Scottish culture, a place where you can at least spectate on the flow and flavor of life if not be party to new experiences, new friends, and new histories.
Have you enjoyed Scotland’s pub culture? How about the pubs of other countries? What memories have you kept from these experiences?