The Nexus of Scottish Culture…Pubs?

by Keith Savage · 11 comments

The Mash Tun, Aberlour, Scotland

“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?

AhimsaNo Gravatar February 15, 2011 at 8:21 PM

Oh yeah Deacon Brodies was ace. And Sneaky Petes saw a couple of wild nights as well.

AhimsaNo Gravatar February 15, 2011 at 8:02 PM

I don’t think they’re still there, but when I lived in the UK my favorites were the Eerie Pubs. There was one for Burke and Hare, another for Jeckyll and Hyde, and another for Maggie Dickson. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such great atmosphere in a pub again.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 15, 2011 at 8:16 PM

Maggie Dickson’s is still there on the Grassmarket, not sure about the other two. Don’t forget Deacon Brodie’s!

MarkNo Gravatar February 12, 2011 at 9:44 AM

If you want a good trad session in Edinburgh then I would suggest The Tass, Royal Oak, Captain’s Rest and Sandy Bell’s (most nights) and the Antiquary (Stockbridge) on Thursday nights (probably my favourite folk session in Edinburgh)

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 12, 2011 at 10:48 AM

Ooh, the Antiquary recommendation is great – thanks! I’ve enjoyed the sessions at Sandy Bell’s in the past. Really love that pub.

AndrewNo Gravatar February 3, 2011 at 3:56 PM

I quite like a pub whose only music is the voices in conversation and laughter. It makes it feel more personable. It is sometimes hard enough to hear things through the cacophony and drink without an extra layer of sound. Though I remember one night in a pub in Edinburgh (near our hotel so out from the town a ways) where part of our group was dancing with locals and ordering up random eighties songs on the oddly places jukebox. It was a great thing ti see.
My local Irish does have some music, but I enjoy being in there better without it.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 3, 2011 at 5:22 PM

I don’t mind traditional pubs, but I absolutely love a pub with traditional Scottish music. I always seek out trad when I’m in Scotland.

MikeachimNo Gravatar February 3, 2011 at 3:24 PM

Scottish pubs can be all these things, aye. And also a survival measure. You’ll know from Orkney that when the long nights draw in and the winds start howling, there’s nowhere warmer than a pub. My 3 seasons up there (Westray) as an archaeologist were essentially pub crawls punctuated by bouts of manic work. Although crawl isn’t really the word, maybe “lurch”, there were only two pubs.

Scottish pubs can be gorgeous, and utterly invaluable for getting your head round local life. But they can occasionally be utterly grim. (Which is itself always a fun thing to experience, if only because you know it’ll end soon). There was one pub in Rosemarkie, the Black Isle, that was filled with people who all went silent when my Dad and I walked in, and hissed quietly when he spoke with an English accent. And it had what appeared to be a 45,000 Watt bulb hanging at eye level in the middle of the room, so bright it appeared to be burning shadows into the wallpaper.

I have never, ever drunk a half-pint of Diet Coke so fast in my life.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 3, 2011 at 5:20 PM

Mike, I had no idea you spent that amount of time in Orkney – as an archaeologist no less. Was it as amazing as it sounds? I spent part of my honeymoon on Westray, in a little self-catering cottage not far from the Noup Head lighthouse. I’m sure you spent some time at the Pierowall Hotel – really excellent fish and chips.

Yes, not all pubs are bastions of thriving culture; some are simply full of drunk, leering bastards. Your story sounds like a scene from a future horror flick. Somehow it seems like bringing an English accent into that place might yield the least friendly reception of all.

I’ve been to some pretty dire pubs during my adventures in Scotland. The ones that stick in my mind were along the Whisky Trail, in Huntly and Keith. Ooh, there’s was a really interesting one in Kirkwall where people told us not to go. The thing is, we had just come from said place. It’s always fun to experience the rougher side because it makes everyday life seem so joyous.

MikeachimNo Gravatar February 3, 2011 at 5:37 PM

Ahhh. Bis Geos, eh? 🙂 Stayed there myself. Lovely establishment, lovely people, with an amazing view across to Mainland…

And yup, the Pierowall Hotel for the fish & chips. Bang on. With occasional forays over the hills to Cleaton House (which sadly isn’t quite so stellar with the food nowadays, apparently – new ownership. Must test it out next time I’m up).

Yep, I worked there for 3 seasons, as an archaeology student and then as a graduate. It’s a fascinating job, but also incredibly hard work. My knees never quite recovered. But I’d do it again, if I could afford it. The dig I worked on was this one: And the James Gerrard that’s on the later site report? You’ll see him calling by my blog with the nickname “Jimbo”. Don’t tell him I told you. 😉

There’s plenty of thoroughly disreputable pubs in Scotland, it’s a fact. But in my (admittedly limited) experience, they’re always the ones that end up charming you the most. 😉

The fun of it is trying them all. I envy you the opportunity….

MikeachimNo Gravatar February 3, 2011 at 5:41 PM

Oh, and I don’t know if you read the piece I was lucky enough to have read out at TBEX ’10 – it’s about Kirkwall. 🙂

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