Smell that salty sea air? Nothing marries with the maritime better than a pint or a dram in a seadog’s shanty. What better place to continue my series of Savage Pub Crawls than in Leith, Edinburgh’s seaside aspect? Leith wasn’t always part of the city of Edinburgh – it was a distinct village until 1920 – and it retains a unique feel to this day. I don’t know if this was a lawless place full of bawdy sailors and freebooting pirates, but I can imagine it so.
Many know Leith as the downtrodden ulcer full of addicts and punks portrayed in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, but Leith is undergoing a process of rejuvenation that has landed it some of the finest restaurants and condos in all of Edinburgh. It’s a bit trendy right now. As you would expect, there are also plenty of bars littering Leith’s winding streets, though more than a few are a bit seedy.
That’s where I come in.
Start: Giles Street and Henderson Street
Several buses from Edinburgh drop off on the corner of Giles Street and Henderson Street. It’s a block or two from the pretty Water of Leith and, to be honest, there are some less than savory tenement-esque buildings nearby. So, uh, why start here? Because it’s literally at our first destination: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society at Leith
Exit the bus and look for the brick arch leading to the Vaults and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS). This is the “very curious society’s” headquarters, and it should be a pilgrimage for all whisky lovers. The SMWS is a membership society but you can get a day pass to the society’s rooms here in Leith and on Queen Street in Edinburgh for £10. Pay the charge and enter into the lavish bar area with sky-high ceilings, rich leather chairs, and mahogany furniture. The enormous room makes you feel like you’re a part of something special and you are – for today at least. Notice all the identical whisky bottles behind the bar. The SMWS buys individual casks from distilleries across Scotland and bottles them in their unadulterated, cask-strength form. This is whisky at its purest and most delicious. Pick a dram that sounds fun (they all have imaginative names like “Floaty and Relaxing” to preserve the distilleries’ anonymity) and settle in to a lounge chair. Don’t stay too long, though, or you won’t make it to our next few stops!
Malt & Hops
Exit the SMWS and head northeast on Henderson Street toward the Water of Leith. The road will turn into Shore, and a block from busy Bernard Street you’ll find our second stop: Malt & Hops. This one-room freehouse dates from the mid-18th century and features garlands of hops draped from the ceiling and a coal fireplace protected by a simple iron grate. Malt & Hops has a great real ale selection and serves up standard Scottish bar food classics like stovies and toasties. This is a classic sailor hangout with such an air of authenticity it puts other pubs to shame. It’s the perfect place to warm up with a drink on a cold and wet Sunday. Drain the glass and say goodbye to your sailor friends – our next stop is next door.
The King’s Wark
Literally next door. The King’s Wark stands on the corner of Shore and Bernard Street, my favorite intersection in Leith. Push into the navy blue pub and delight in the dressed up maritime ambience. Ships’ wheels and bare stone walls protect you from the elements while a surprising amount of light pours through the windows to glint on polished brass and wooden tables. The King’s Wark is always busy and does some excellent food, so stabilize your stomach if you enjoyed too much of the drop at the SMWS. The Wark also has excellent real ales on taps that are always fresh and clean. If there’s one pub to draw you out to Leith, this is it. Go on, stay awhile. The next and last stop on this Savage crawl around Leith brings in a bit of culture. 🙂
Port O’ Leith
Exit The King’s Wark and wobble southeast on Bernard Street (don’t cross the bridge). Take a right on Maritime Street and then a left on Maritime Lane (imaginative names, eh?). Follow this tight squeeze down the block to Constitution Street and you’ll see the red – the famous – Port O’ Leith on your left. This was one of the favorite haunts of the characters in Trainspotting, and it’s certainly one of the favorite haunts of Leith’s more intimidating denizens. Don’t be put off by the tattooed, grimacing hulks in the doorway. You’re a patron, too, though you’d do well to avoid this place during the day when surly locals mete out salty glares and instead opt for a visit at night when the place is full of mayhem and depravity. Flags and cash decorate the walls in a kind of international sailor’s trophy case. There’s a reason I took you here last – if you aren’t in the right “mindset” the Port O’ Leith can be grating. On the other hand, if you’ve been enlightened by the drop this may very well be your favorite stop on the crawl.
Finish: On a Ship at Sea
Perhaps you’ve been pressed into service aboard a north Atlantic trawler – hopefully not, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Shake off the fuzzy head and enjoy a view of Leith and Edinburgh from the Firth of Forth and ponder where, exactly, in the world you’re going.