Scotland #4: the familiarity of Fort William

When we arrived at Fort William we recognised the atmosphere of the town immediately: it’s like Penzance.

Driz­zle, mist, guest­hous­es, coun­cil estates and, of course, pubs.

The tricky thing about run­ning a pub in a town like Fort William is that for half the year, there’s too much of a par­tic­u­lar type of busi­ness: tourists who often don’t know how it all works and prob­a­bly want din­ner.

Then, for the remain­ing six months, there’s not enough busi­ness. You’re left with a hand­ful of locals rat­tling round most­ly emp­ty pubs, if they can afford to go out at all giv­en the sea­son­al nature of the employ­ment mar­ket.

Also, a focus on local brew­eries, poten­tial­ly laud­able, too often means mediocre beer, or worse.

In this kind of envi­ron­ment, prop­er pubs can strug­gle to find a real iden­ti­ty, or deliv­er con­sis­tent cus­tomer ser­vice.

After a quick rec­ce, we decid­ed we might as well tack­le #Every­Pu­bIn­Fortwilliam and we think we man­aged it.

A collage of pubs in Fort William.

The one every­body rec­om­mend­ed was The Grog & Gru­el. We did­n’t have a good time on our vis­it between grumpy ser­vice, fart­ing dogs and pass-agg encoun­ters with Cana­di­an tourists deter­mined to nab our space. But it’s cer­tain­ly a nice look­ing, pub­by pub, and we can imag­ine hav­ing fun there under dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances.

The Vol­un­teer Arms has a neat, tra­di­tion­al pub exte­ri­or with notes on the archi­tec­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance of the inte­ri­or. In fact, inside, we found it pret­ty plain and pleas­ing­ly down-to-earth. A friend­ly wel­come on the first vis­it brought us back twice more, even though the beer was noth­ing spe­cial (a great excuse to drink Ten­nen­t’s). The appeal, we think, was that it felt like a city pub trans­plant­ed to the High­lands, and the bal­ance of vis­i­tors and locals felt right.

The Ben Nevis kept try­ing to make us Dine but when we caved into pres­sure and ordered food, brought us the wrong stuff. We came twice, though, lured by a view over Loch Linnhe and a nice, man­age­able selec­tion of whisky served in fan­cy glass­ware.

The first time we tried to vis­it the Mary­burgh we were all but chased off by a strange man who blocked the alley­way to the door and stared us out with an unnerv­ing Pen­ny­wise grin. The sec­ond time, we had to dash through a cur­tain of water from a bro­ken gut­ter above the entrance. It was­n’t real­ly worth the effort – this win­dow­less base­ment isn’t a pub for out-of-town­ers and we only spoiled the mood with our anoraks and Eng­lish accents. Still, more Ten­nen­t’s.

The Crofter was a bit Wether­spoony, but less slick. Some­one growled at us because we blocked access to his vap­ing kit on the bar for two sec­onds while we ordered our drinks. The bar staff seemed to have end-of-the-sea­son ennui despite it being ear­ly June. We drank Ten­nen­t’s.

Cob­b’s is a strange look­ing mod­ern pub by the rail­way sta­tion, above an out­door sup­plies shop. We did­n’t expect much from it but found not only good beer (Cairn­gorm Trade Winds) and friend­ly ser­vice but also a high stan­dard of per­formed bar chat among the reg­u­lars: “He was an engi­neer before he retired. Any bridge you’ve ever heard of that fell down, he designed it.” The inte­ri­or was­n’t any­thing spe­cial except that when the sun hit the sky­light just right, it picked out one old gent at the bar with a heav­en­ly beam.

Gar­ri­son West fan­cies itself a bit – all gin, craft lager and boardgames. We vis­it­ed in the after­noon lull and found it friend­ly enough, if half asleep. The large range of beer seemed to have been cho­sen based on local­ness and the ‘craft­ness’ of the brand­ing rather than any assess­ment of qual­i­ty.

Final­ly, the ele­phant in the room: the local Wether­spoon branch, The Great Glen. It was per­ma­nent­ly busy, from break­fast to clos­ing, with locals and tourists. What did it do well? A huge sign in mul­ti­ple lan­guages explain­ing the order­ing process by the door. Vast amounts of seat­ing, albeit cramped in places. Huge win­dows avoid­ing that sense of leap­ing over a cliff-edge on choos­ing to enter. Orders by app, avoid­ing the need to speak to staff at all – handy if your Eng­lish isn’t great. On the down­side? It could have been in Teign­mouth or Ten­by, despite the typ­i­cal­ly care­ful appli­ca­tion of Gael­ic on signs.

Over­all, we’d say Fort William isn’t a place you come espe­cial­ly for pubs or beer, though there’s enough choice that you’re bound to find one or two that will do the job between ram­bles.

Scotland #3: Tennent’s Lager

Tennent’s has been producing lager since the 1880s and Scotland became a lager drinking nation long before England.

We knew we want­ed to drink at least one pint of Ten­nen­t’s on our trip to Scot­land but did­n’t expect to like it quite as much as we did.

Despite the ubiq­ui­ty of Ten­nen­t’s brand­ing around Glas­gow – big red Ts jut out from pub fas­cias all over the place –it actu­al­ly took us a lit­tle while to find the oppor­tu­ni­ty: either the pubs we found our­selves in had some­thing else we want­ed to try, or they had no Ten­nen­t’s tap at all, replac­ing it with some­thing more upmar­ket from brew­eries such as Innis & Gunn or Williams Bros.

We had our first taste at The Pot Still in cen­tral Glas­gow, served in tall, brand­ed glass­ware with a whip of shav­ing-cream foam, and bub­bling furi­ous­ly.

What were our expec­ta­tions? Low, if we’re hon­est. We’d noticed a cou­ple of oth­er fussy bug­gers express­ing affec­tion for it but won­dered how much that might be down to con­trari­ness or sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty.

But we liked it.

Now, we choose our words care­ful­ly: liked, not loved. It’s good, not great. We enjoyed it but it did­n’t make our toes curl with delight.

Isn’t that enough, though? To be able to go into almost any pub and order a pint of 4% lager for a rea­son­able price and enjoy drink­ing it?

We asked our Twit­ter fol­low­ers what they thought and their col­lec­tive judge­ment, though it falls on the wrong side of the mid­dle line to ours, feels fair:

Espe­cial­ly com­pared to Fos­ter’s:

Tast­ing notes feel redun­dant as it’s hard­ly a deep or com­plex beer, but we’ll try: it’s more sweet than bit­ter but in a whole­some way that sug­gests grain, not sug­ar; the high car­bon­a­tion stops it feel­ing sticky; and there’s some­times a wisp of lemon zest about it.

After our ini­tial encounter, we found our­selves order­ing it even when there were oth­er options. After a long day walk­ing in the sun, it was per­fect – gets to your thirst, fast. In a ques­tion­able pub which looked like it need­ed hos­ing down, it was a safe option, and tast­ed just as good. It cer­tain­ly suit­ed watch­ing Scot­land v. Eng­land on a big screen in a pub in Fort William. In Spoons, it beat Carls­berg’s relaunched ‘Dan­ish Pil­sner’ hands down, though the lat­ter was just fine.

Of course this pos­i­tive reac­tion is part­ly down to us tak­ing plea­sure in drink­ing a local prod­uct on hol­i­day but, look, you know us by now – these days, we don’t force our­selves to drink things that aren’t actu­al­ly giv­ing us plea­sure.

And Ten­nen­t’s Lager did.

Scotland #2: A tiny taster of Edinburgh

We spent a day in Edinburgh – just enough time to be intrigued but not enough to claim that we’ve even begun to understand it. But, anyway, here a few impressions.

First, Edinburgh’s pubs, based on the two we drank in and a few more we peered at, feel more like Eng­lish pubs than those in Glas­gow.

The Stock­bridge Tap, with two reformed vikings behind the bar, could have been in Bris­tol, not least because of the pres­ence of Tiny Rebel, Elec­tric Bear and oth­er famil­iar names on draught.

The Stockbridge Tap.

There were some Scot­tish beers – Swan­nay Island Hop­ping on cask, for exam­ple, and Cross­bor­ders Heavy on keg – but we got the impres­sion those were for the ben­e­fit of vis­i­tors like us. The Heavy was our favourite beer of the day, though, bundling cher­ry with choco­late with the dark crust of a day-old rye loaf.

Crash­ing a get-togeth­er of local beer geeks we heard Eng­lish, Aus­tralian, Amer­i­can and French accents, and con­tributed our own chat about the West Coun­try and Waltham­stow to this off-brand blend.

The Guildford Arms.

On the way back to the sta­tion, tanks dan­ger­ous­ly full, we stopped at the Guild­ford Arms which had caught our eye as we rushed past it ear­li­er in the day. It’s at the junc­tion of a pas­sage­way and a back­street, like many of the best pubs, and projects a dis­tinct gin palace ener­gy. A handy board out­side tells the sto­ry:

In the peri­od 1880–1910 a unique breed of lux­u­ri­ous pubs were built. This coin­cid­ed with major changes to the city includ­ing the demo­li­tion of old build­ings like The Turf Hotel and The Bridge Hotel… Curi­ous­ly, and per­haps as a reac­tion to it, pubs like The Guild­ford Arms were built dur­ing the height of the tem­per­ance move­ment: their opu­lent char­ac­ter was in marked con­trast to the dark and dingy bars of Edin­burgh where the ceil­ings were not often beyond the reach of a man’s arm.

Though we chick­ened out of try­ing to cov­er Scot­land in the 80,000 words of 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub that real­ly does seem a famil­iar nar­ra­tive.

Inside, it felt like a Lon­don pub: a bar at the back, not horse­shoe­ing through the cen­tre, as we gath­er is the stan­dard in Scot­land; large win­dows with ornate detail­ing rather than frost­ed slits; with all the car­pet and brown wood you could wish for.

And Fyne Ales Jarl in fine con­di­tion. This is what lured us through the door, if we’re hon­est, and we stopped for a cou­ple of rounds, watch­ing locals and Ger­man tourists nav­i­gate around each oth­er at the bar and bar­gain over table space.

Shame you didn’t make it to…”

Well, here’s the thing: we’re at peace with the idea that we can’t get to every pub in every city on every vis­it.

Cram­ming ten pubs into a sin­gle day just isn’t much fun for us any­more; we’d rather than spend two hours in one pub and three in anoth­er than just 20 min­utes each in every stop on a crawl.

We also know we’ll go back to Edin­burgh some­time and have anoth­er go.

That’s what we have to tell our­selves, any­way, or these kind of dri­ve-bys would break our hearts.

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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Scot­land #1: Glimpses of Glas­gow”

A Vicious Circle for Keg Bitter in the 1970s

Younger's Tartan beer mat.

In the early 1970s no-one was buying Younger’s Tartan keg bitter which meant it kept sitting around in pubs until it went bad. The brewery’s response? Mix it it back in and send it out again.

Good Company by Berry Ritchie.This sto­ry leapt out at us from the pages of a new acqui­si­tion for our library, Good Com­pa­ny: the sto­ry of Scot­tish & New­cas­tle, writ­ten by Berry Ritchie and pub­lished in 1999. As is the case with many brew­ery offi­cial his­to­ries the most inter­est­ing stuff isn’t the wigs and geneal­o­gy in the open­ing chap­ters, it’s the mate­r­i­al on the post-WWII peri­od. That’s because there were peo­ple around who remem­bered the events well but at the same time were no longer oblig­ed to toe a cor­po­rate line because they were retired; and plen­ty of sur­viv­ing paper­work, too. This pas­sage, cov­er­ing a vague peri­od from around 1970 until the mid­dle of the decade, seems remark­ably frank:

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Tar­tan turned out to be less than robust. Com­pared to Eng­lish bit­ters, it was on the sweet side; the post-war baby-boomers to whom [board mem­ber Tim] Lewis had appealed so suc­cess­ful­ly liked this to begin with, but as their palates matured, they switched back to more tra­di­tion­al south­ern bit­ters. The big swal­low­ers in the Mid­lands were nev­er keen; Scot­tish & New­castle’s sales­men made huge efforts to get its kegs into the large work­ing-men’s clubs  in and around Birm­ing­ham, only to see them thrown out again after a month or so.

Worse than that, falling sales result­ed in many tapped kegs being left on sale for too long, so their con­tents went off. That meant returns, which had to be sent all the way back to Edin­burgh, because that was where Cus­toms and Excise checked they were were bad enough to war­rant a refund of duty. If not, the reject­ed beer had to be reblend­ed, which did noth­ing for the flavour of the new brews. So much returned Tar­tan had to be recy­cled that it began to affect the rep­u­ta­tion of the group’s pre­mi­um beers.

Isn’t it amaz­ing that this, which reads like CAMRA pro­pa­gan­da, is from a brew­ery spon­sored pub­li­ca­tion? It’s fun­ny to think, too, that ‘it’s all slops’ was for so long a stan­dard crit­i­cism of cask ale, and mild in par­tic­u­lar, when in fact the sup­pos­ed­ly clean, space-age keg bit­ter was sub­ject to just the same com­mer­cial pres­sures.

When peo­ple talk about the dan­ger­ous influ­ence of ‘accoun­tants’ on the qual­i­ty of beer it’s just this kind of thing they have in mind. Why ‘had’?  They could pre­sum­ably have just writ­ten off the duty pay­ments and thrown the bad beer away. The deci­sion to do oth­er­wise seems remark­ably short-ter­mist but per­haps – very like­ly, in fact – at these vol­umes, on tight mar­gins, the choice was between this or going imme­di­ate­ly bust, or being tak­en over.

We’d like to think this kind of thing does­n’t go on so much today but with beer duty being yet high­er than the 1970s we would­n’t be sur­prised to find some 21st Cen­tu­ry vari­ant in play.

Fun­ni­ly enough, Ron Pat­tin­son has just post­ed about the use of ‘reprocessed beer’ at Younger’s in this peri­od with ref­er­ence to some archive paper­work. That makes us won­der if per­haps, rather than being mixed with itself, the com­par­a­tive­ly light, bland Tar­tan was hid­den in the folds of dark, even sweet­er stout and brown ale where it would be hard­er to spot.

It’s also inter­est­ing, by the way, to see fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion of the idea that Mid­lands drinkers in par­tic­u­lar were con­sid­ered to have dif­fer­ent tastes, as did young and old­er drinkers. We can’t help but think again of those soft, sweet New Eng­land IPAs.