17/06/2016
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A history of Edinburgh pubs

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Jack Gillon explores the history of pubs in Edinburgh, from upmarket inns where business was carried out in the 1700s, to the racier downmarket pubs patronised by members of notorious drinking clubs, before a new ‘golden age’ revolutionised Edinburgh’s pubs.

Pubs have been the main focus of conviviality in Edinburgh for centuries. It was the teeming nature of life in 18th century Edinburgh that elevated the Old Town’s taverns to a critical role in the city’s social life and there was ‘no superabundance of sobriety in the town’ – in 1740, there were no fewer than 240 premises with drink licenses in the Old Town.

Intemperance was the rule and no man of the day thought himself able to dispense with the Meridian’ (the drink taken at midday) – a ‘cauld cock and a feather’ was the euphemism for a glass of brandy and a bunch of raisins, a particular favourite at the meridian. Much of the business life of the city was carried out in taverns and it was even normal for doctors to consult their patients in a laigh house.

The Bacchanalian revelry centred on the many dining and drinking clubs that thrived in the town. Many of these were quite civilised, however, some were notorious – the young blades of the Sweating Club would get as intoxicated as possible while still able to stand and head out at midnight to assault innocent passers-by, chasing and jostling them until they perspired.

According to Robert Chambers in his Traditions of Edinburgh, in the early years of the nineteenth century ‘ it was unsafe to walk the streets of Edinburgh at night on account of the numerous drunken parties of young men who then reeled about, bent on mischief.’

These early Edinburgh were ‘in courts and closes away from the public thoroughfare and often presented narrow and stifling accommodation’. They had a ‘coarse and darksome snugness which was courted by their worshippers’.

A GOLDEN AGE

The earlier basic taverns were swept away during the period 1880–1910, which is generally recognised as the golden age of pub design. New licensing regulations required any place selling alcohol to be licensed and the authorities encouraged open planning in pubs which, combined with the addition of island bars, enabled staff to closely supervise customers.

The evils of drink were also associated with many social problems – the Edinburgh Temperance Society was formed in 1883. Pub owners responded by investing in extremely grand premises that moved their establishments upmarket from the dingy drinking dens of earlier years.

These new pubs were festooned with an abundance of spectacular decoration to attract customers into their shining interiors which were festooned with richly ornamented facades, brightly coloured tiles, richly carved wooden panelling; decorative glass,  mirrors, and sumptuous ornate plasterwork. They glistened at night, offering a warm and welcome escape from the Scottish weather and often inferior housing conditions of the time.

Edinburgh now has around 700 pubs – one for every 700 inhabitants – the greatest concentration of drinking establishments per square mile than any other city in Europe. They range from centuries old traditional watering holes to chic new bars.

Jack Gillon is the author of Edinburgh Pubs, published by Amberley Publishing and available from Amazon. The book explores dozens of Edinburgh pubs which are still in use today, many of which are recognised as ‘architectural gems’.  

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