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.