Scotland #1: Glimpses of Glasgow

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.

Glasgow Bars.

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.

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.

Glasgow pubs.

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 brewery.

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.


Our Patre­on sup­port­ers got dai­ly updates on this trip and saw us process our expe­ri­ences live. If you like the sound of that sort of bonus mate­r­i­al then do con­sid­er sign­ing up.

6 thoughts on “Scotland #1: Glimpses of Glasgow”

  1. The State Bar in Hol­land Street is clear­ly the best real ale pub in Glas­gow as shown by the num­ber of times it has been named Glas­gow CAM­RA’s pub of the year. I sug­gest you check it out next time.

  2. Did nobody rec­om­mend the Horse­shoe? I’ve always thought it was a Glas­gow must, and handy for the train.

  3. Agree with most of these reviews. It’s a shame about Black­fri­ars’ decline; it used to be so reli­able. WEST is end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing, in terms of beer, inte­ri­or and archi­tec­ture. Shilling Brew­ing in the City Cen­tre near Nel­son Man­dela Place is also a fas­ci­nat­ing room, a grand old bank. Their own beers are good but may not thrill but they have a good selec­tion of Scot­tish and oth­er craft beers. They gen­er­al­ly have a Pilot beer on tap. Check out the toi­lets in the vaults. McChuils on the edge of the Mer­chant City had a great sort of punk/alternative music/low-lev­el crim­i­nal­i­ty vibe with an array of char­ac­ters but with main­stream beers when I lived there. Not sure what it’s like now. The des­ti­na­tion craft beer sites like Dry­gate are fair­ly mediocre though.

  4. I don’t think The Horse­shoe is that great real­ly. Agree that Inn Deep is over­priced (though nice on a warm day for sit­ting out­side). If you are head­ing back I would rec­om­mend Three Judges (you can com­bine that on a lit­tle trek with Ten­nants bar, Inn Deep, Ubiq­ui­tous Chip, Curlers Rest, Brel, Brew­dog and 78 bar if look­ing for a good lit­tle crawl in the West end. Dry­gate, while their own beer can be hit or miss, is a real­ly good tap room.

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