We were in Scotland for ten days. It was Ray’s first ever visit and the first Jess has made for pleasure rather than work. We took a list of pubs recommended by the Good Beer Guide and social media but otherwise, as usual, let instincts and the advice of friends guide us. What follows are some impressions – snippets and moments – and we apologise in advance if we’ve put our feet in it culturally speaking.
Our train arrived in Glasgow towards the end of Friday night, and Glasgow, it turns out, goes big on going out.
Convoys of young women and scrums of young men stumbled by, all gym-buffed and contoured, dressed for Los Angeles rather than drizzle; parties of police officers stood by, detached and dour, with vans ready to be filled.
The tang of vinegar on hot chips, iceberg shreds scattered like confetti from kebabs, chicken nuggets straight from the sack, and Buckfast from the bottle in an alleyway, by the bins.
Laughter, mostly, and yelled into the night heckles, propositions and instructions from the nightlife brigadiers who keep their gangs on course from pub to club to bar.
Indoors, bolts shot, we drifted off to the late-stage of the party, the lullaby of smashing glass, distant four-four kicks drum loops, sirens and final kerbside murmurings.
The next morning, under tweed-grey cloud and seagull bombardment, the streets were silent, but here and there were lost shoes, disgorged dinners and shards of green glass.
This is going to be fun, we thought.
Wandering about, we got the distinct feeling we’d missed our opportunity to explore the traditional Glasgow bar.
It’s as alien to us as the Tabac – another culture’s way of drinking that’s a cousin to the English pub but absolutely distinct.
Insofar as we know them at all, it’s from Scott Graham’s blog, Old Glasgow Pubs and the odd bit of research we’ve done into, for example, Alex Ferguson’s brief career as a publican. And, of course, from portrayals on TV.
Here’s pub historian Michael Slaughter on what distinguishes Scottish pubs, from the 2007 edition of Scotland’s True Heritage Pubs:
One of the most distinctive exterior features of thousands of Scottish pubs and also the most noticeable difference between them and pub in other parts of the UK is that they occupy the ground floors of tenement blocks of flats alongside a variety of shops… This means that many Scottish pubs are often little different from adjacent shop-fronts, while pubs in other parts of the UK tend to be the only building on the plot, whether freestanding or part of a terrace. In Scotland, most pubs do not have living accommodation for licensees, due to early 20th-century legislation that made Sunday opening illegal. As a result, pubs were known as lock-ups.
And that’s what we saw in Glasgow beyond the city centre: flat-faced, blank, fortified bunkers that gave little indication from outside as to whether they were still trading.
Sometimes, it seemed, the buildings into which the bars had once been integrated had disappeared, leaving only the bar, one-storey high, flat-roofed and diminished.
John’s Bar and the Empire Bar captivated us in their romantic dereliction but the closest we got to drinking anywhere like this was the sanctified, certified-safe Laurieston.
The Laurieston was the only absolute must-not-miss Glasgow pub on our own personal agenda.
It has a cult reputation and has done for some years; it’s across the road from a famous music venue; and has been written about and photographed endlessly, and makes us the 834,129th and 834,130th intrepid explorers to ‘discover’ it.
But that’s the thing – the amazing thing: it does somehow still feel untouched and authentic.
On our visit, the concentration of tourists and dabblers was low enough not to overwhelm, and, anyway, most of the slim-hipped bearded boys and quirky girls seemed integrated rather than overlaid.
We drank Fyne Ales Jarl (not authentic, but wonderful) and marvelled at the interior, trying not to look too obviously bedazzled as we nosed around photographing bits of Formica and Perspex.
The smoking area is the real oddity. How can it be legal? people ask on line. Well, how can it? Can it? Is it? We each looked in, opening the door to be greeted by guilty-looking stares through blue fog, and taking in lungfuls of air bottled in 1965.
“If you’re in Glasgow you must go to…”
We went to the Babbity Bowster because it’s in the Good Beer Guide and our friend recommended it and someone on Twitter told us to go. We loved it, though plain it was, with its Jarl, tourist-baiting fiddle music and eyepatch-wearing cowboys.
The Black Friar is in the Good Beer Guide. We didn’t love it, plain as it was, with its long silences and so-so cask ale.
The Pot Still, late at night, had a buzz and humidity we enjoyed, and a certain everyday ceremony around the serving of whisky. But everybody seemed to be Swedish or Spanish or, ugh, English, which is fine, of course, but, well…
Get to Inn Deep, someone said, so we went to Inn Deep. It’s a craft beer bar in arches on the banks of the Kelvin. We enjoyed the opportunity to try Williams Brothers beers which turn out to be much better on draft, close to home, than we’ve ever found them in bottles, but it had a distinctly Craftonian atmosphere with distinctly Scandinavian pricing.
If you’re there, Paul said, go to The Doublet, so we went to The Doublet. On a damp day, on a dull evening, it felt warm and real – nothing about it was contrived. A group of older men broadcast a free-ranging discussion about football, music, politics, wine, food and absent friends who were too stingy to buy a round which someone ought to talk to them about.
The Good Beer Guide, and only the Good Beer Guide, told us to go to The Raven. We didn’t stay long.
Everyone insisted we really, absolutely had to visit the Bon Accord, which we approached via the unpromising back door, set into a bunker. Oakham JHB, a long way from home, wasn’t the best we’ve ever had. Ray liked it when the barman called him ‘brother’. The lights were up too bright but, yes, it’s a pretty pub.
Then, before we ran out of time, we went to one last supposed must-visit, at least according to beer geeks.
WEST is a German-style brewery with a German-style beer hall in one of the most beautiful buildings we’ve ever seen.
We went with high hopes having come across St Mungo, WEST’s standard lager, at Sloan’s in the city centre, and thought it very decent.
The brewery tap is strange and almost wonderful. If Craftonia is about belonging to nowhere in particular, this is about recreating somewhere specific. Not Munich, though, but the kind of neat, respectable, will-you-be-dining beer hall you might find in Stuttgart or Dortmund.
The effect is uncanny – a real sense of having been transported across the continent and into a different culture.
German standards of service have been drilled into the staff, too, who glide purposefully in starched shirts delivering perfectly poured beers and crisp Schnitzels.
We didn’t have a beer we disliked and we were delighted by the Helles, the Dunkel and the Weizen. And for all its polite refinement, they don’t leave you thirsty: “Need another?” came about three inches from the bottom every time, and we left a little giddy.
Next: not Glasgow.
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