It’s no secret that Edinburgh’s Old Town pubs and Southside pubs are dripping with visible character, but many of these drinking dens are extremely old with centuries of fascinating events waiting to be unearthed by the curious. Vibrant literary scenes seem to grow out of strong pub cultures (or is it the other way around?), and Edinburgh’s literary history is littered with heavyweights like Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ian Rankin. Both subjects are dear to my heart and a large part of why I love visiting Edinburgh. So when I heard of the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour – a walking tour that combines pub lore, literature, history, and a healthy smattering of witty snark – there was no question how I would occupy one of my nights in Edinburgh.
During my stint in Edinburgh I was effectively doing the poor-man’s literary pub tour: Shambling from pub to pub and reading the work of Edinburgh’s literary sons in their native surroundings. The official literary pub tour gave me the chance to inject an air of respectability into activities some might call malingering.
The tour kicked off at The Beehive Inn down in the Old Town’s atmospheric Grassmarket, just below the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle. In days of yore this area was home to cattle and horse markets, not to mention public executions. The only thing being executed now was the start of the tour as our small group shuffled upstairs above the bar where our guides, the hilarious and well-versed Clart and McBrain, rolled into their spiel while we sipped pints. These days the Beehive is a typical Grassmarket bar, meaning it’s generally the haunt of backpackers and tourists, but its history goes back to the 16th century when it was a coaching inn. In the centuries since, both Robert Burns and William Wordsworth have frequented the place.
After leaving naught but the foam in our glasses, we trudged out into the chilly March night and hiked up the stair to Johnston Terrace, around The Hub, and over the Lawnmarket to our next stop. Ensign Ewart is the closest pub to Edinburgh Castle and it fronts on the Royal Mile. Clart and McBrain regaled us with tales of the pub’s patrons, which included Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, and even a ghost story or two. The interior had a dim, cozy feel that was perfect for this blustery Sunday night.
In between pubs our guides stopped in closes and courtyards to share more of Edinburgh’s ridiculously rich history with their trademark humor and snipes. We walked through Milne’s Court and proceeded down the Royal Mile to James’ Court where we found our third stop: The Jolly Judge. I’m well-acquainted with the Judge, but I think it’s on the tour only because it’s a great little bar and proximal to some of the stories the guides wished to tell. The lot of us ordered pints and went back outside for more history and shivering.
We faced a long walk to The Café Royal in New Town, our final stop on the tour. Down the Royal Mile, over The Mound, and along Princes Street, we trekked with a spooky, wind-blown moon overhead. The Café Royal is fairly difficult to find (Google Maps is wrong), but I’d been there a couple weeks earlier when I had drinks with Ian Rankin and I knew the way.
We gathered around Clart and McBrain outside the pub as they relayed the vibrant history of this particular region of New Town. The Abbotsford, The Guildford Arms, and The Café Royal form a nice literary triangle near the West Register House. These pubs saw the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Virginia Woolf, and George Bernard Shaw. One can only imagine how many book and poem ideas were hatched in these drinking houses.
The tour finished up inside The Café Royal’s sumptuous and period bar where many of the tour-goers took their fourth drink. The two-hour tour had taken us from the Grassmarket down the Royal Mile and into New Town. Great pubs, very funny guides, interesting historical tidbits, and a guided walking tour of the city is a package I can’t recommend highly enough. In fact, it’s perfect for first-time visitors to Edinburgh and even old salts like me.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary tour from the Scottish Literary Tour Trust. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.