A Savage Pub Crawl Around Leith

by Keith Savage · 9 comments

The Water of Leith at Leith

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.

As I’ve done for Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, New Town, and Southside, I’ve prepared a simple Google map representation of the pub crawl. Thirsty yet?

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.

Camels & ChocolateNo Gravatar September 11, 2012 at 12:01 AM

I’m bookmarking all of this for my upcoming trip to Scotland. Weeeeee!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 11, 2012 at 8:46 AM

Have a great trip! How long will you be over for, and where are you going?

Mark SavageNo Gravatar September 2, 2012 at 11:35 AM

Hello there fellow Savage, and journeyman! I bring you good cheer from my corner of the globe, Central Florida, U.S. I just conducted a search for Savage Bar, thinking it would be a great place to stop for a pint should I happen to discover one nearby, and I stumbled into your whiskey driven adventures page! Ha! Chemistry and happenstance. So good to see a fellow family member still kicking it in the mother land. One fine day, I will cross the shores to enjoy a bit of whiskey with you and make some adventure or pub crawl a thing to remember. Cheers!

Lost brother in another land.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 2, 2012 at 4:09 PM

Hi Mark, excellent bit of Googling 🙂 Don’t waste any time. Stop what you’re doing and plan a trip to Scotland. Now. No, seriously, start planning. You won’t regret it.

RandyNo Gravatar July 23, 2012 at 8:39 AM

Probably not a good area to hang around during the days of impressment. In the era of wooden warships and the supremacy of the Royal Navy, gangs of sailors would roam the streets looking to kidnap unsuspecting locals for service in His Majesty’s Navy. The Kings Wark looks particularly interesting.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 23, 2012 at 9:56 AM

Interesting historical tidbit!

RandyNo Gravatar July 24, 2012 at 6:21 PM

In fact impressment was one of the root causes of the War of 1812, since British warships were constantly stopping American merchant ships looking for Royal Navy deserters, and the Yanks didn’t like it. It must have been very irritating to have a crewmen stolen from your ship without any due process at all except at gun point. I’d wager that many of those taken were actually American and not British.
So the Americans declare war and end up creating the beginnings of Canadian nationhood!! Pretty neat eh?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 24, 2012 at 8:22 PM

You wouldn’t happen to be a history teacher, would you?

HoggaNo Gravatar July 17, 2012 at 12:04 PM

I wonder if the regulars from each one ever brawl in the street?

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