Many beats to the bar

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In a humble howff in the Old Town, the heart of Edinburgh’s folk scene is alive and well. Now the Royal Oak is launching its own CD, complete with sleevenotes by Ian Rankin, says Jim Gilchrist

IT’S a typical night at the Royal Oak: nine o’clock and already the little bar is buzzing. In the corner, Ross Galloway gives powerful voice to one of his own songs. There will be many more, as the night promises to be long and convivial – although on this occasion, “typical” is perhaps not entirely accurate. Tonight sees the launch of the pub’s own CD, featuring 14 singers and groups who frequent the hostelry, boasting sleeve notes by that chronicler of Edinburgh’s underbelly, Ian Rankin.

It’s not every day that a pub releases its own 20-track album, never mind one with sleevenotes by a best-selling crime novelist – but then the Royal Oak is no ordinary pub. Walk into the little bar off Edinburgh’s Infirmary Street, to be immediately confronted by its glittering gantry, and you’ll find that there is no sign of a jukebox, no “puggie” (fruit machine), and the TV, if on at all, is on mute. Instead, the air is full of conversation and, as likely as not, singing. Downstairs, in a minute lounge sometimes claimed as the world’s smallest folk club, a busy Fringe schedule is well underway.

The Royal Oak: Best of Folk, featuring song-writers such as Galloway and Alan Hunter, as well as the current line-up of Aberfeldy, comes well endorsed by Rankin, a connoisseur of the city’s more traditional howffs. He likes them “small, intimate and filled with regulars. But I also like a bit of chat and a bit of music (and I have a dislike of puggies and doormen both).”

Rankin’s love of music is well-known – he has worked with fellow Fifer Jackie Leven and with former Arab Strap singer Aidan Moffat – and he has written “the Oak” into some of his Rebus novels, including one piquant occasion when the world-weary DI walks into the pub and is aghast to find his arch-nemesis, Big Ger Cafferty, whom he thought safely behind bars, regaling the company with a song.

“If I’ve got visitors, especially writers from other places,” Rankin tells me, “I always like to take them to the Royal Oak. I think the last writer I took in there was Ian McEwan, with his wife and family. They seemed to love it.”

If the author of Atonement was a Royal Oak convert, there are also plenty of others. The 21-year-old producer of the CD, Calum Wood, who also works part-time at the bar, first crossed the pub’s timbered threshold when he came to Edinburgh as a student. “This is a place where everyone is equal and everyone speaks to everyone else,” he says.

After some tentative recording of Ross Galloway, says Wood, who issued the album on his emergent Magic Park label, “I realised that every night of the week there was this sort of standard, and I wanted to document it”.

An unchanging haven of drouthy conviviality, the Oak has become something of a bulwark against an encroaching tide of pub revisionism. Within five minutes’ walk, the old Holyrood Tavern is currently being made over, the once characterful local of Stewart’s is now the Brass Monkey, while just across the street from it, Rutherfords, where a young student by the name of Robert Louis Stevenson once contemplated his future and “passionately hoped (if I did not take to drink) I should possibly write one little book”, is also in the throes of a revamp.

Some regulars reckon only the pub’s diminutive size has saved it from a similar fate. “I think if you changed the Oak it would go right downhill,” says another regular on the album, Alan Hunter. “The Oak’s just the Oak. Anyone who’s anyone on the folk scene comes in here at some time or another.”

“I think it really is the number-one pub in Scotland for folk singing,” he adds, emphasising the “singing”, with a nod to the city’s other great folk bar, the more instrumentally inclined Sandy Bells.

“This kind of pub has been a dying breed since I first came to Edinburgh in the 1970s,” says Rankin. “But there’s always a clientele for an old-fashioned pub. It’s a bit like collecting vinyl records – there might not be many of them left, but we treasure them.”

&#149 The Royal Oak: Best of Folk is on Magic Park Records. For details, see www.royal-oak-folk.com

EXTRACT

Taken from Ian Rankin’s sleeve notes for the album Folk At The Oak

I’ve had many a good night at Edinburgh’s Royal Oak. I like my pubs small, intimate, and filled with regulars. But I also like a bit of chat and a bit of music (and I have a dislike of puggies and doormen both). The Royal Oak fulfils this remit -- and then some. I even placed it in one of my books. Detective Inspector John Rebus is on his way home one evening but decides to have a nightcap. He’s shocked to walk in to the Royal Oak and find that his nemesis is singing a song there. As far as Rebus was aware, Big Ger Cafferty (the gangster who owns Edinburgh) was in jail for the duration. But Cafferty has been released and the Oak is his first stop. I forget now what song he sings -- I think it was Rabbie Burns -- but he points to the sense of true democracy in the bar: if you have a song in your heart and a burning desire to belt it out, no one’s going to stop you.

(But you better be good, mind.)

Ian Rankin

Edinburgh

April 2008