There are few things finer than a good pub. Happily, Scotland’s littered with them. Just about every town has at least one cozy watering hole for locals and travelers alike and often a handful to choose from. Even the forlorn and unpeopled glens and hills often have, as their sole outpost of civilization, a fine institution of the dram and pint, places like the Grouse Inn and the Old Forge. Indeed, finding a fine Scottish pub is not hard.
Finding a pub that beguiles you for a lifetime, that draws you back across oceans and seas to step through that doorway to a tin-ceilinged, peat-smoky memory of old, where a healthy dose of camaraderie is doled out to every patron, well, that is a bit harder. Those pubs are the rare pubs.
Luckily, I enjoy a drink now and then, and I’ve put many miles on these dogs doing this work for you. Oh sure, it’s hard, hard work, but of all the things I’ve done in my travels around Scotland, sitting at the bar is often the most productive (again, happily). Chatting with strangers becomes second nature the higher the ABV of your drink, and more often than not people are happy to forget their worries for a moment and discuss the things they’re proud of, that a stranger shows an honest interest in.
Today I’m continuing my Best of Scotland series with five pubs all you wandering barflies cannot miss in Scotland.
Port Charlotte Hotel, Islay
Islay is a dream for the whisky fanatic. With seven working distilleries – soon to be eight – even Islay’s notoriously windy, wet weather might seem like a version of Elysium. With all that liquid gold flowing, it’s no great leap to imagine this island possessing a good pub or two.
The Port Charlotte Hotel, just down the road from Bruichladdich distillery, offers everything you could want in a pub and then a little bit more. Countless bottles of Islay whisky line the beautiful bar’s upper and back shelves, and there’s always a few local real ales ready to pull. The seating in the bar is perfectly snug, though more curls around the side and toward the back where diners can watch seabirds hovering over Loch Indaal and Bowmore in the distance. The food is nothing to sneeze at it, either, as I enjoyed a hearty seafood stew that chased the cold from my bones.
Port Charlotte Hotel hosts weekly trad sessions where local musicians claim a corner of the bar and play to their hearts’ (or livers’) content while patrons cram in around the scene for a healthy dose of craic.
Stein Inn, Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is deceptively huge, and driving hither and yon in Skye’s vast back country can take far longer than a map might indicate. Almost invariably, these drives are worth it – Skye is a gorgeous place when the weather is right. One such drive will take you to one of my all-time favorite pubs: Stein Inn.
The Waternish Peninsula, the “middle finger” along the northern coast of Skye, is one of those classically Scottish windswept and desolate places, so I was very pleasantly surprised to stumble through the Stein Inn’s heavy wooden doors one cold and rainy spring day. The interior is a vision from the golden age of seafarers. Rigging ropes and other nautical accoutrements decorate the wood-paneled bar, while off to the side an amazing see-through peat fireplace nominally separates the two seating areas.
The carved wooden sign anchored on the white-washed walls above the door outside says “1790.” You can feel the time travel here. I can confirm that, as their Web site says, it is a thirsty traveler’s dream.
The Bow Bar, Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s pub scene is an embarrassment of riches. This list could well have been filled with this great city’s pubs, but the one that stands out above all the rest is The Bow Bar (for more great pubs in Edinburgh, check out my pub crawl). The Bow Bar is a traditional Scottish pub, which, beyond amazing selections of whisky and real ale, means you won’t find televisions or music playing. It’s all drinks and words here.
The Bow Bar’s blue facade looks out upon Edinburgh’s most magical street, West Bow/Victoria, in the heart of the Old Town, while inside you’ll find burnished brass, attractively worn wooden tables and chairs, and a beautiful, bright room with a classic tin ceiling.
Every time I visit Edinburgh, the Bow Bar is my first stop. So many good memories were born here for me – it’s where I first truly developed a taste for whisky and an appreciation for the “whisky of the day” special – and you can rely on the bartenders to pull an excellent pint. Love ya, Bow.
The Bon Accord, Glasgow
Glasgow’s pub scene stands neck and neck with Edinburgh’s, as my pub crawl around Glasgow’s West End shows. Of all the pubs I visited in Glasgow, a number which I won’t divulge, I still dream of returning to Paul McDonagh’s The Bon Accord. What an amazing place. I mean, look at that wall of whisky. You won’t be expected to squint your way to a choice, thankfully, as Paul has his entire whisky list on a couple of iPads.
The Bon Accord‘s coziness is built of polished wood, shining glass, and comfy leather, which makes it one of those places I have an extremely hard time leaving. Talking with Paul and the other patrons, you get the feeling that things are right in the world, at least here. In that sense, The Bon Accord is a sanctuary, a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of Glasgow and the perfect place to start, end, or spend your evening.
Give the food a chance, too, as the steak and ale pie really hit the spot after a long day boozing around west Glasgow.
The Highlander Inn, Craigellachie
Like Islay, Scotland’s Speyside region is holy ground for whisky connoisseurs, and, as a result, there’s no shortage of mind-blowing pubs. Happy bartenders proudly serve their local products to the droves of visitors who pass through Speyside each year. While you can’t go wrong stopping at The Mash Tun in Aberlour or The Quaich Bar just across the street, I really love the homey atmosphere of The Highlander Inn in Craigellachie.
Craigellachie is a little town in the very center of whisky’s Bermuda Triangle, with Macallan, Aberlour, Glenfiddich, and Balvenie all within spitting distance. When you arrive to The Highlander Inn, head down the tartan-covered stairs to the lower-level bar where you’ll find snug booths, windows overlooking the River Spey, and a mammoth list of options to quench your thirst.
You might consider staying at The Highlander Inn, too, because, honestly, who wants to be the designated driver in Speyside?
Photo of the Highlander Inn by marty jenkins via Flickr/Creative Commons