‘Pubs are about company, not getting drunk’

Gone are the days when we flocked to the local for spiritual sustenance as much as the beer. But a few proper pubs can still pride themselves on serving camaraderie, consolation and even culture by the pint, writes Peter Ross

Smokers pop outside the Port O' Leith for a cigarette. Picture: Alex Hewitt

IT IS teatime in Edinburgh and a dozen or so young women, a hen party from Fife, are dancing on top of a bar to LeAnn Rimes’s Can’t Fight The Moonlight, fascinators bobbing and twinkling in the glitterball gleam, high heels stomping by the Guinness taps.

The air smells of bevvy and scent. Punters whistle and clap. Barmaids cup their ears for orders. “Cannae beat it,” says a middle-aged man called Kevin, pint in hand, who has come in to drink away the lonely hours until he next sees his girl in Las Vegas. “This is the Port O’ Love during the day, eh? But it can be the Port O’ Grief by the end of the night.”

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We are in the Port O’ Leith, a pub on Constitution Street, not far from the docks. More than a pub, really, this is a gang, a tribe, a faith. The Port O’ Love and the Port O’ Grief are affectionate nicknames among the regulars, a good number of whom have found the former and drowned the latter, and vice-versa, many times within these narrow walls.

A day at the Port o' Leith bar. Picture: Alex Hewitt

Pubs in Scotland, proper pubs, are a dying breed. Across the UK, there are 26 bars closing each week; in Scotland, the net rate of closure is six a week. An unprecedented decline.

There are at present something in the region of 16,000 licensed premises in Scotland, roughly a quarter of which are in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The businesses closing tend to be those bars which have failed to cope with the smoking ban and have been unable or unwilling to shift their emphasis to food. These are the thrawn nicotine-howffs and the gastropub refuseniks; in other words, pubs which have remained as pubs once were – largely male, largely working class, a little rough around the edges.

No big loss, you might say. But there is an argument that in losing pubs we are losing important elements of Scottish culture, something of the shared experiences and memories which bind us together. New research by the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) reveals that pubs are still used across Britain to mark rites of passage. More than a third of us have wet the baby’s head in the pub; almost half of us have attended a wake there; one in five met our current partner over drinks. Sex and death and a swift half. There is a huge amount of negative publicity around alcohol, much of it justified, but isn’t there a more positive story – a hidden narrative with beer on its breath – waiting to be told?

“There is a cultural space that pubs occupy that nothing else touches,” says Mark Dodds, a former landlord whose pub went out of business in 2011. He is now attempting to crowdfund the People’s Pub Partnership, an initiative intended to see failed or failing pubs refurbished and run according to principles which would make them profitable and of benefit to the communities they serve.

“Pubs are similar to churches, post offices and schools – they occupy a very unusual part of our psyche,” Dodds continues. “The big pub companies don’t understand the cultural importance or the social capital. By stripping out all the financial value, the pubs have gradually become unattractive places, so people have abandoned them. This is private equity greed which has no interest in communities, heritage or tradition. This is a cultural crime on a scale unprecedented since the reformation of the monasteries.”

An interesting comparison. In fact, Britain’s love affair with going out for a drink appears to pre-date Henry VIII by quite some way – all the way back to the Roman occupation and the introduction of inns. In 1604, three inns in Scotland were the first in this country to be properly licensed: The Crook Inn, Tweedsmuir; King’s House, Glencoe; and the Spread Eagle, Jedburgh.

Anyone interested in Britain’s bar culture would do well to read The Pub And The People, an exhaustive and highly entertaining study of drinking establishments in the late 1930s, carried out by the Mass Observation social research organisation.

The book is full of vivid period detail, all cloth caps, pints of mild (each drunk, on average, in 17.5 minutes), and women of easy virtue who can, we are informed, be seduced after two bottles of stout. “A man is playing the piano briskly,” reads one account. “On the music stand is a newspaper, open at the sports page, which he is reading. A hunchback, brown suit, bow tie, sings about love.”

The Pub And The People is by no means out of date. Its analysis of the meaning and importance of pubs is just as valid now. “It is no more true to say that people go to public houses to drink than it is to say that they go to private houses to eat and sleep.” Well, exactly. Pubs at their best are not about drinking; they offer a profound immersion in a world of storytelling, character and sense of place.

Take The Laurieston Bar. A single-storey, flat-roofed Glasgow pub on the corner of Bridge Street and Nelson Street, it hardly looks inviting from outside. Come in off the dreich street, however, and you will find a pub unchanged in decor and atmosphere since the 1960s. Look around. There, in one corner, seated on red banquettes, are a couple of old boys, both called Archie, both from Barra, regarded within these walls as a single entity known as The Archae, with whiskies placed in front of them on a lozenge-shaped formica table. In the opposite corner, two punters with silvering quiffs read obituaries clipped from newspapers and stuck on the wood-panelled walls.

At the bar, Danny Fitzpatrick, a brickie and Govanite in a pinstripe jacket, flat cap and Zappa beard, orders a “three-courser” – pie, peas and gravy – and acknowledges that, aye, it was him who painted the portrait of John Hurt which hangs proud above the puggie. And here, just walking in the door, are a dozen or so students, dressed as penguins, their visit to the Laurieston prompted by its inclusion on the Subcrawl – a test of endurance popular in the city since 1986 in which drinkers get off at every stop on the circular underground system and have a drink in the nearest pub to each.

Young people coming to the Laurieston for the first time often ask for a shot of sambuca or a vodka and Red Bull. Hearing this, James Clancy, Jimmy, the avuncular landlord, a spry 67-year-old in shirt and tie, explains that they don’t stock such things. If they would like vodka, he suggests, they can mix it with plenty of the free Dunn’s lemonade which the pub provides in bottles.

“That’s the modern way of drinking. Just to get drunk,” he says. “So stupid. We try and keep away from all that. You’re no’ supposed to get drunk in a pub, y’know? It’s about company. The drink’s ancillary. A pub’s a living thing. My kids say this pub looks like a toilet from outside, but it’s what’s inside that matters. A pub’s all about people, characters.”

Jimmy and his younger brother John have run the Laurieston since 1982, though it dates from the 19th century. They come from a pub-owning family and have very definite ideas about the principles around which a pub should be run. Chief among these is the idea of decency. A pub should be a decent place for decent people, and the younger customers can learn this from the old hands, just as apprentices learn from a time-served master. Much of this is codified in the rituals of the pub – getting your round in, “one for yourself” and so on – but it’s also about morality and proper manhood. Alcohol, or “cheeky water” as Jimmy calls it, can be dangerous stuff, he knows. You have to be mindful of the effect it can have on certain folk.

“We don’t want people in the pub going home and knocking hell out their wives,” he says, by way of example. “If we’ve a hint that that’s the character of a guy, we’ll be watching him and trying to get rid of him. Somebody like that is a cancer; they’ll spread all over the pub, and you’ll end up with no decent people.”

It is the tragedy of the Laurieston that there was a murder here 13 years ago. The bar manager was stabbed and killed. Wickedness walked in off the street and, refused service, struck a deadly blow. Everyone was devastated. John was for bricking the Laurieston up, but it has remained open and become a beacon of sorts; a bridge over cheeky water, an exemplar of what a pub ought to be.

Pubs can be vital to communities. The Old Forge in Knoydart, for example, is a sort of clearing house for gossip and hard information in an area of 85 square miles with a population of just 100. If you want to contact a ghillie or a stalker, you’ll reach them best by leaving a message behind the bar to be picked up when they pop in on the way home from the hill; and, in the absence of local mobile reception, the pub’s VHF ship-to-shore radio has proved invaluable in medical and boating emergencies.

The Crown And Anchor in Aberdeen, located hard by the harbour is, as a result of shipping and the oil industry, Scotland’s most cosmopolitan pub, a place where you are as likely to hear Danish spoken as Doric, as likely to clink glasses with Bjørn as Boaby.

All this is presided over by Val Morrison, a barmaid in her early sixties who combines a queenly presence with a quinely warmth, treating her regulars as if they were sometimes wayward sons, scolding and mammying as each situation requires. The Crown And Anchor typifies a curious fact about pubs – they are profit-making enterprises which, often, we do not regard as commercial at all.

“It’s not commercial to me,” Val agrees. “The people who come into the pub are my life. Regardless of whether they’re on boats, on rigs, whether they’re millionaires, they’re just people coming in to see you, to sit with you, and to join in with the pub. Some people are lonely and they haven’t got anybody else. Even if they just sit and grunt at you over the bar, at least you’re there for them.”

Tweedsmuir’s Crook Inn, which, remember, was one of the first three pubs in Scotland to be licensed, served its locals and visitors for almost 400 years until its closure in 2006. Robert Burns wrote Sic A Wife As Willie Had in the bar. It had been the scene for generations of celebrations and commiserations, and provided employment to many young people. When it shut, the area felt it as a tremendous loss. The school had closed a while back, now here was the closure of the inn and the post office which was run from the premises. The nearest pub is 14 miles away in Biggar, the nearest shop eight miles distant. A village that was already remote now felt cut adrift. People started moving out of the area. Houses and local businesses went on the market.

Others, though, decided to take action. A campaign to save the pub met with success last year when £160,000 was raised to purchase the premises. Now the plan is to reopen the Crook, offering accommodation, a shop, and of course a bar. “It’s about saving the community really,” 
says Duncan Davidson of the Save The Crook campaign. “To have a sustainable community, we need a sustainable pub.”

It is fascinating, this idea of pub as hub. To really understand what a pub can mean to the people who drink in it, we must return to where we came in – the Port O’ Leith. A remarkable place: a single narrow room, the ceiling swagged in nautical flags, the Port has been for many years the favourite berth of visiting sailors and functioned, in pre-euro days, as an unofficial bureau de change.

It is now the popular haunt of local drinkers, be they true Leithers or those incomers to the area known as Leithiopians. Either way, the pub is not quite part of Leith and certainly not Edinburgh; it is an independent republic within an independent republic, a free state for those in altered states. It attracts an odd mix of bohemians and boozehounds; some hard, some camp, all rubbing along.

“There’s nowhere else like this in the world,” says Ricardo, a plump bald regular who introduces himself as an ordained priest. “Some people are frightened to come in here. They say it’s rough.” His friend Fi shakes her head. “The Port is not rough. This is just a big family. Out of all the pubs in the whole bloody world, I feel safest here.”

At the bar sits Willie, a labourer, with a pint and a story. A Kirkcaldy native, he first came to the Port some 17 years ago. He was working on a building across the road when a load of spiders fell on him, which did nothing for his arachnophobia. Wandering over to the pub with a bad case of the shakes, he was handed a large brandy, and has been coming back ever since.

“You try finding another pub in Edinburgh that’s gay and Fifer tolerant,” laughs his pal, Stevie.

Hours disappear in the Port. You go in at lunchtime and check your watch to discover last orders looming. Framed on the wall is a Scotsman crossword which was being filled in by a regular, Percy, when he keeled over at the bar and died of a heart attack; he was midway through completing 14 Down: “Lotus Eaters”.

Folk drink heavily here, but what you hear again and again is that it’s the pub not the alcohol that’s addictive. “You can lose your life in the Port,” says a young man called Robbie Rankin, not without ambivalence. “It’s like a vortex. You get sucked in.”

The lights dim. The place is packed. Workers, shirkers, lurkers, twerkers. Someone puts Chelsea Dagger on the jukebox. There are piss-artists and pick-up artists; faux hers in faux furs. A young woman with a pierced nose explains that the first time she came here she was overweight and engaged to be married, wedding booked and everything, but she saw in the Port a more exciting way of living; six months later she had lost five stone, chucked the fiancé and become a born-again Leithiopian.

Known as the Iggy Pop of the Port, Robin Webb is one of those people who is extremely famous within the walls of their local and completely unknown out of it. That might be about to change, however, as he is very much the star of a new documentary, The Port, made by the young Edinburgh filmmaker Rory Stewart who, when he is not filming, and sometimes when he is, works behind the bar. Robin is in his fifties, whippet-thin with prominent ears, green saucer eyes, and a mohican haircut. “I certainly owe my sanity to the Port O’ Leith and maybe even my life,” he says. “I started going in there because I was trying to come out the closet. I was also homeless. I was living in the Botanic Gardens in the middle of February. A couple of old codgers in a gay bar told me to get myself down to the Port O’ Leith; before I knew it I was dancing on the f***ing bar, and I’ve never stopped since.”

Suddenly, somehow, it’s quarter to one in the morning. Cutting through the buzz and chat come sad piano chords and the pub is all at once singing as one: “My heart was broken…” It’s Sunshine On Leith, the Proclaimers song, the traditional end-of-night anthem. Hands are in the air, voices and glasses raised, and the room sways. “Sorrow. Sorrow. Sorrow. Sorrow.” It’s an affecting mix of melancholy and euphoria, booze and blood, love and grief. And it says it all, really, in the few minutes the music lasts, about the way a pub and its people can become something worthy of allegiance, an expression of spirit and soul.

The song ends. The lights come on. Time to drink up. To stare into the dregs at the bottom of the glass and try not to think too hard about yesterday or tomorrow.

“As long as the Port is here,” says Robin, “I’ll be here for it, as it was there for me.”