When Mary Martin beganworking at Whitsons Bar in Leith in 1963 it’s unlikely she would ever have imagined she would still be there 54 years later – the longest serving barmaid in Edinburgh.
What started as a job to help boost her young family’s income following their move from Leith to Silverknowes ended up with her becoming something of an institution in the pub that is now called Wilkies. She was a famously caring, popular and fun-loving woman who loved a laugh and valued her many long-term friends, but she took no prisoners when it came to unruly customers, deploying that famous Leith directness that earned her no end of respect.
Mary Heriot Willis was born in Leith to Bill, a docker, and Jess, a domestic assistant. The family – with Mary’s little sister Elizabeth – lived on Henderson Street, not far from the bar Mary would end up working in for five decades. Although times were tough, she had a very happy childhood, with an upbringing that put a firm emphasis on the value of honesty, trust and respect.
She formed some strong friendships which continued throughout her life, Henderson Street providing a solid community where everyone knew each other and looked out for their friends and neighbours. She never forgot the importance of friendship, and would later instil those values in her own family.
She loved her teenage years, during which she loved spending time cycling, socialising and dancing at the Eldorado in Leith. It was at the dance that she met Jimmy Martin, the son of a docker and the man who would become her husband. He was a master grocer, who later became a food distribution manager for a local wholesaler.
They were married on 25 February, 1956 at the Kirkgate Church on Henderson Street – a building that was subesequently demolished. They seemed a surprisng match in that Mary was always the one who would get up and entertain everyone, singing and dancing, while James quietly sipped his half pint in the background. But they were very happy together, particularly after the arrival of their sons Keith and James. She instilled in them a strong sense of pride, backed up by a “don’t forget that you’re no better than anybody else” message.
Before starting work at Whitsons, Mary Martin worked in the family business, TG Willis and Son butchers on Junction Bridge, as well as for Leith Provident at Telectra House, HD Wines and as a home help. One day in 1963, while her father was having a drink at Whitsons, where he had been a patron for many years, he mentioned to the then owner, Willie Whitson, that his daughter was looking for extra work. It so happened that Willie needed an extra pair of hands, and there and then Mary was offered the job – even though she wasn’t around for interview. As family folklore has it, “drink had been taken” that night.
And so began her 54 years at that well-known Leith pub (it got a mention in Irvine Welsh’s book Filth, and the author once brought the actor and star of the film adaptation, James McAvoy, to visit). Back in those early days a pint could be bought for less than 10 pence, and table service was provided. Mary loved the social aspects of working there, organising a ladies’ night, going to bingo and dancing whenever she could. As well as being extremely popular, she earned the respect of everyone, including those she barred from the pub (though it has been noted that an apology to Mary always resulted in the lifting of those bans). Everyone knew that if Mary told you you’d had enough to drink, it meant you should leave.
She adored her regulars, many of whom would come to the pub specifically to see her. And she was well-known for always taking care of people who needed help – both at work and in her home life. As her son Keith, puts it: “Her view on life was that there’s always someone less fortunate than yourself.”
Her caring side came to the fore when her husband Jimmy suffered a near-fatal car accident in 1986. He was disabled as a result of the crash and she was unstinting in her devotion to him. She never complained; she simply got on with as so many people of her generation did; they were as hardy as they were loving.
After she ostensibly retired in 1997 she spent much of her time caring for Jimmy, but after he recovered they set off on a round-the-world trip, visiting her cousins Mary and Norman in New Zealand, May and Jack in California, and her long-term pen pal Delores in Vancouver. She never properly retired though, working right up until February this year.
Despite being heartbroken by the death of her husband in 2011, after 55 years together, she maintained her “getting on with it” approach to life and focused her attention on her family. But the loss of her daughter-in-law Avril, Keith’s wife, to cancer had a huge impact on her. She had often said that Avril was the daughter she never had, and never quite understood how the younger woman was taken before her.
Mary Martin, a much-loved woman who embodied the spirit of Leith, had taken ill in recent months and died at St Columba’s Hospice in Granton on 3 July at the age of 84.
She is survived by her sons Keith and James; her grandchildren Lauren, Melissa, Mackenzie, Dylan and Lennon; and her great-grandchildren Olivia-Lily, Layla and Roman.
A celebration of her life will take place on at noon on Tuesday 18 July at Warriston crematorium.