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Friday, 19 February 2010

Return of the MacCools

MacSorley's 42 Jamaica Street Glasgow

The Scottish cringe is renowned at home and well beyond our border. Blame Brigadoon, The White Heather Club, STV Hogmanay shows, the Kailyard literary tradition and all the rest. Here in the Lowlands there is an accompanying disdain for the seeming lack of cool associated with anything Highland or Island. It’s Teuchter this, teuchter that…
Things are changing in this town though. Various pubs with Gaelic associations have either appeared or long-standing venues have re-asserted their aims. Ben Nevis on Argyle Street was refurbished in ’99 after lying derelict for many years. Using traditional Scottish materials but with a contemporary design it re-defined the look and feel of a Highland pub in Glasgow. It is situated in the traditional Highland area of Yorkhill/Kelvingrove, an area where the Park Bar and the Islay Inn – finally settling down after numerous incarnations – also do their thing upholding Highland hospitality. Every weekend they play host to various Scottish folk bands such as Gunna Sound and Crooked Reel.
The Lismore (Lios Mor) in Partick also offers a refuge for homesick Highland and Islanders or just those seeking a well-priced drink in a place with genuine atmosphere. It may have lost some of its atmosphere over the last five years but still retains its unique dedication to the main characters behind the Highland clearances. Located within the gents’ toilet, a plaque informs you of their role in the despicable forced emigration of whole communities and then if you’re in need of relief you can offer them your respects via the urinal.
Up the other end of Byres Road OranMor was born 2004. This Gaelic-inspired Arts emporium hosts a club, brasserie and huge bar as well as space for gigs, weddings and plays. It has revolutionised drinking in this part of the world, with its late licence in the bar till 2am and the scale of its operations. All these places have succeeded in breaking out of the narrow category of being just whisky bars.
A common denominator in this Gaelic revival in the west of the city is multiple bar owner Colin Beattie. Having overseen the refurbs of the Lismore and Ben Nevis he now leases them, devoting his main energies to OranMor.
In the city centre it is the similarly focussed efforts of drink-trade veterans that have produced results in another traditional Highland area of Glasgow. Virtually sandwiched by those twin beacons of Glasgow cool The Arches and Sub Club, MacSorley’s pub sits on the corner of Jamaica and Midland streets.
Two blocks away is the Heilan Man’s Umbrella, the covered stretch of Argyle Street under Central Station, and the renowned meeting place for those arriving in Glasgow from up north.
MacSorley’s has been trading under one name or other since the 1860s. Around the turn of the century it became MacSorley’s – after new owner the eponymous Philip- and established itself as a sophisticated establishment serving some of the best cocktails in the land.
A Malcolm McIntyre of Stornoway took over in 1910, also owning the Imperial Hotel in that town. It is believed that this encouraged the use of the pub by Hebrideans employed as merchant seamen and from the nearby tram depot.
During the 1980s it masqueraded as Montego Bay but has since returned as MacSorley’s Music Bar, owned by the Sub Club’s co-directors Paul Crawford and Mike Grieve.
As part of their re-invigoration of the place as a pre-Sub joint they enlisted the help of Glasgow interior designers Timorous Beasties and their familiar style of wallpaper was one of the first things we noticed when we entered the pub on a recent Saturday night. The involvement of the famous interior design duo is unsurprising not only because they are still seen as being at the cutting edge but also as they are still known to enjoy Sundays at Sub Club.
Another eye-grabber is the original etched glass windows. These were one of the features giving the pub a reputation as a historical pub worth a visit. From the original plans it also can be seen to have the relatively unusual features of a manager’s office and separate luncheon bar.
Today’s layout seems to preclude these interesting details. The bar sits in the middle of the floor, an almost complete island bar, a horseshoe with the open end leading through to a staff area. Adjacent to this, stairs lead up to the eating area, which gives diners an open view over the rest of the pub, and where food from the “Scottish larder” keeps up the Highland tradition.
Above the counter replica gas lamps burn a little too brightly, but they at least give you a good view of the ornate mustard ceiling inlaid between the cornicing.
Much has been made of the use of Harris Tweed in the refurbishment. The influence of the Blythswood Square Hotel’s decision to use the tweed readily acknowledged. At the Blythswood the fabric is black, here more stone grey, and used to cover the chairs and stools as well as handrails and banister. Here it has been employed sparingly unlike the hotel. Also it seems to be a softer weave rendering it more comfortable especially for the ladies in skirts.
The operations manager Mike Donald is from Stornoway and his family have worked in the tailoring and weaving industries in that part of the world. To take the connection even further, he himself managed a small clothes shop in the Merchant City before joining the Sub Club family. All this has echoes with past associations, and it seems that he was the prime force behind the use of Harris Tweed from Lewis. The recently re-opened Shawbost mill owned by Harris Tweed Hebrides provides the fabric.
Of course the use of traditional materials and references to the past, provide no guarantee of the end product being effective. The Blythswood while a stylish venue over-played the tweed as it did with the red lighting. Other bars that have undergone Scottish revivals have employed materials such as slate, stone and copper in more subtle thus more effective ways.
Donald believes that there has been a bridge built between what you could call the modern and the Edwardian, between, for example, the wallpaper and the uncovered original mosaic flooring. He believes the Harris Tweed provides the link. Loyalty to your homeland is commendable but the right appearance of a pub only comes with coherence.
For example the carpet, which covers half the floor area beside the stairs to the restaurant, is rather scrappy looking, especially beside the quality of the tweed and the 1899 originality of the mosaic flooring. Incidentally, before entering that evening I had believed that the mosaic sat below the level of the rest of the floor. That is wrong and the actual mosaic is rather disappointing, the pattern smoothed or faded to almost obscurity. Still, at least you know you are looking at history.
And the lamps at the bar, while attractive, are too bright and made the candles, placed clumsily on our table halfway through our evening, redundant.
We had arrived as a band was packing up their things near the main window. Confirmation of the pub’s nature as a music bar, in case we hadn’t believed the publicity. This added to my feeling as the night wore on that this place has a similar vibe to that of The Admiral bar half a mile away up towards the hotel and call centre area of the city.
There were probably less students in here than The Admiral, but a good mix of musos, serious drinkers, clubbers of differing experience and the kind of colourful characters encountered south of Argyle Street.
This place will probably get less office workers too, but a good pub needs more than just those two groups to become something special.
So, Scottish is back. The Gaelic influence is back. Our heritage is back. Great.
Hold on though, just a minute. The Sub Club itself is due for a refurbishment. If that renowned club- in some folk’s eyes Glasgow’s greatest immovable cultural export- takes some design lessons from its sister pub, we may just have impetus behind this home-sourced renaissance. The revival may become a new tradition, one that can inspire the drinkers of the future.

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