When you’ve heard a pub exists that has been open since the mid-14th century, you climb mountains to get to it. Literally, that’s what I did.
After ascending Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, I descended its southeast face into the time-locked village of Duddingston where stands the most ancient Sheep Heid Inn. A rain had started falling and, as usual, I had arrived before the pub had opened its doors for the day. I took a few moments to acquaint myself with Duddingston’s cobbled streets and antiquated kirkyard before the Sheep Heid’s (pronounced heed) green doors were finally thrown open and I was allowed to bear witness to centuries of strange, fascinating, and often bizarre knick-knacks.
The Sheep Heid Inn is believed to have been founded around 1360 in the village of Duddingston, which, at that time, was separate from Edinburgh and exactly halfway between the royal residences of Holyrood Palace and Craigmillar Castle. Mary, Queen of Scots and her son, King James VI, are said to have stopped at the Sheep Heid Inn many times on their journeys between these royal enclaves. One of the origin stories for the quirky name of this pub explains how King James presented the pub’s landlord with an ornate ram’s head snuffbox in 1580 as a show of gratitude for the excellence of his establishment.
That royal snuff box anchored the bar’s gantry for 300 years before it was sold to the Earl of Rosebery. The current ram’s head snuff box is a 19th-century replica of the original that, I’m sure, retains all of its creepiness.
As I browse the Inn’s dark, atmospheric interior I’m joined by the (now former) landlord, DJ Johnston-Smith, who turns out to be a font of local knowledge (and social historian, I learn later). He’s not one afraid to get his hands dirty as during a break in our conversation he’s forced to physically toss out a particularly drunk and troublesome patron – at 1pm, no less.
DJ tells me another story explaining the pub’s name. The farmers of Duddingston used to graze their sheep along the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, and when it was time for slaughter the carcasses would be taken to the Fleshmarket in Edinburgh while the heads were left in the village.
Seems nobody wanted them.
Well, the Scots are known for their thriftiness and ability to transmute unsavories into surprisingly delicious dishes (see Haggis), and it turns out The Sheep Heid Inn would singe the sheep heads and make a sweet broth with them.
DJ swears it’s delicious. Unfortunately, creating the broth is a time-intensive process reserved for special occasions and not available for me to give it a try.
I stop sweating.
DJ guides me through a series of halls and ancient passages to The Sheep Heid’s skittle alley. What? You’ve never heard of skittles? Skittles is an old ancestor of bowling that began life as a European lawn game and remains popular in the UK to this day as an indoor pub game. Though, to be honest, this is the only skittle alley I’ve ever seen in Scotland so perhaps it’s more of an English game. Nonetheless, I could easily see the enjoyment of downing a few pints while skittling at the same pub as the Scottish kings and queens of old.
The sheer amount of memorabilia, plaques, relics, trophies, knick-knacks, trifles, and frippery on the walls cannot be conveyed through pictures or text (though I just did my best). It is a living museum that serves alcohol, and that is tried and true business idea that clearly withstands the test of time.
I consider The Sheep Heid Inn a must-visit stop on any trip to Edinburgh. It fits perfectly with a strenuous day out on Arthur’s Seat or the Salisbury Crags, and the atmosphere of Duddingston is in many ways similar to Dean Village. I can’t explain how these pockets of lost ages remain in existence in the midst of a major city, but it’s a big part of why Edinburgh is my favorite city in the world.
Addendum: Since publishing this post, it has come to my attention that The Sheep Heid Inn of today is very different from the one portrayed in this article. I last visited The Sheep Heid nearly two years ago, before it was taken over by new management and refurbished. Unfortunately, much of the kitsch that gave the pub its character is gone. If you happen to visit the inn, please do let me know your thoughts.