Why Scotland's diners, greasy spoons and budget cafes have proven an unexpected lifeline

In caffs, you either talk to each other, people watch, or just sit and think.

Arriving into towns across Scotland, the demise of the high street in most places has been glaringly obvious.

Shops boarded up and others stripped with To Let signs in the window has been a regular sight in most built-up areas I have walked through. 

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High streets across the country have seen a decline in business over the years High streets across the country have seen a decline in business over the years
High streets across the country have seen a decline in business over the years | Katharine Hay

But there tends to be one place, particularly in the mornings, where the hustle and bustle of a town is concentrated in a room usually scattered with metal chairs and round tables or diner-style seating, plastic menus fanned out, and the smell of breakfast rolls and fry-ups - the local caff. 

A caff in Girvan on the South Ayrshire coast A caff in Girvan on the South Ayrshire coast
A caff in Girvan on the South Ayrshire coast | Katharine Hay

Caff, greasy spoon, diner, whatever you want to call it, is somewhere you can count on to find a place to sit, have a hot meal and socialise without breaking the bank. There are, of course, other cafes from the chains to the independents in towns of different sizes that have a similar offering when it comes to having a bite to eat.

Simpsons Bakery in Girvan Simpsons Bakery in Girvan
Simpsons Bakery in Girvan | Katharine Hay

But there’s something unique about the caff: they’re inexpensive and unpretentious - two traits that don’t interrupt their purpose of being a place to chill. Unlike in some places where you find yourself squinting at the menu board noticing that a cup of tea can cost the same as a pint, which then puts you in an awkward position where you contemplate leaving but instead panic-buy some random pastry that costs more than the tea and is either too sickly or definitely not freshly-baked as was perhaps claimed.

In the age of coffee shops flooding city and town streets, you’re hard-pressed to find a hot drink and a bite to eat that won’t swallow an entire £10 note, and the rest. Some of them won’t even take that anyway as they’ve gone cashless.

Maly's Cafe in Girvan, a popular caff that was busy with local residents in a street where the impact of the decline in high streets across the country is raw  Maly's Cafe in Girvan, a popular caff that was busy with local residents in a street where the impact of the decline in high streets across the country is raw
Maly's Cafe in Girvan, a popular caff that was busy with local residents in a street where the impact of the decline in high streets across the country is raw | Katharine Hay

On a personal note, eating on the road can be expensive too, so the local caffs have been a bit of a lifeline for me going from town to town.

But I am not only thinking about my stomach when it comes to the caff. On long-distance solo walks, you can get a bit lonely from time to time, and with caffs comes a strong social element.

Whether someone is sat alone or in a group, at a neighbouring table or working behind the counter, people talk to each other.

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Like in other cafes, you can keep to yourself if you wish. But what other cafes don’t often have is the level of intimacy there is in caffs. They feel more open, like places where you can just hang out without judgement and linger without feeling like you might have to be moved on.

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Having said that, you would probably get looks if you pulled out a laptop in a caff - something that is becoming all the more common in the more modern cafes of today. I don’t have anything wrong with that, and duck into those places from time to time where you see a flat white and a Danish pastry at each hand either side of a laptop. But there’s no place for it in a caff. At least that’s how I felt when I tried to work in one in Girvan on the South Ayrshire coast. It just felt wrong. In caffs, you either talk to each other, people watch, or just sit and think.

I asked a few people in several caffs what they meant to them. They did tend to be an older demographic, and the most common response was “somewhere to come and have a chat”. In Girvan, one staff member told me caffs tend to be the only place some of the local, elderly pensioners will have to talk to others and have an affordable hot meal.

Despite their distinct character and importance in the community, which I think fuels the resilience of those still going in dying high streets, the cafe chain giants, or the more ‘hipster’ cafes of today, are the dominant force, putting caffs in a precarious position. I would encourage anyone who slightly winces at the cost of a cuppa when out and about to try out the nearest caff instead.

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