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.