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Friday, 23 December 2011

This is not the Xmas issue...

Though not for PC reasons . Rather it is to celebrate an older tradition, the Midwinter festival. At this dark time of year folk living in northern Europe, and probably anywhere else far from the equator, have for millennia needed a knees-up to help them through the winter. The pagans were doing it long before anyone else, and I’ve a soft spot for them, we hedonists should stick together.

In this spirit I’m looking to recommend the best bars and other drinking holes for this time of year. This can mean the cosiest, the warmest, the most comfortable, or just those that have an appropriate atmosphere for when it’s cold, wet, icy and generally vicious outside. It’s obvious to think of country pubs and wayside inns in this way but city hostelries also have charm this time of year.


In either town or country big windows are out. Sorry all you modern pub designers following this trend. Big windows are for summer. For letting in light. In winter they are largely useless. Condensation makes them even worse. For example, Uisge Beatha although never a huge favourite of mine, had a winter refuge feel with tiny windows, fireplaces, old paintings and stag heads. Now it’s The Dram, a tasteful refurb with little character and floor to ceiling windows.

There are plenty of good alternatives in the Woodlands Road area that do deliver in the winter. The Caernarvon on St. Georges Road with its two rare snugs is a esteemed traditional howff, whereas newcomer The Drake in a corner basement nearby is a modern hybrid with food as important as drink. It has the feel of a large front room though, complete with fireplace.

Further west, The Belle (previously The Western) on Great Western Road is a new-fashioned local, which is small and warm and stocks a varied beer selection. It’s a casual joint, in contrast to Oran Mor’s Wine/Cocktail Bar just up the road. A fairly recent addition to the mega-venue’s repertoire it packs a better atmosphere than the jaded main bar, mainly due to its small size, curved bar and creative winter cocktails.

Down in Partick, the Liosmore (one of Colin Beattie’s earlier works) continues to show the newer Highland-derived bars in Glasgow the way. Traditional materials shaped into a contemporary, non-faddy interior. And a good mix of old and new Partick. Christmas (there, I said it) is a good time to re-acquaint oneself with old faces and old stories.

The Victoria, a few hundred yards along Dumbarton Road, may seem an odd choice. But its small, smart front bar and interior colouring just somehow fit with the sights, smells and tone of this time of year.

In town itself, the Renfield Bar is the ‘genuine’ article re. the Highland look. I’ve stayed in a few bothies in my time and this place replicates them as closely as is possible in a city centre. But perhaps it is just too couthy (and dusty) for most punters even though, or perhaps because, it is well appointed with fireplaces.

The Tolbooth at Glasgow Cross has one of the best-preserved Edwardian gantries in the city, and at the right time and the right night you may get a glimpse of how Glasgow used to drink and be merry. Once again, for some reason of conviviality, a corner site somehow fits with the theme I’m endeavouring to explore.

The Old Smiddy in deepest Cathcart, has more obvious claims to be included. Looking for all the world like a coaching inn, if you ignore the cluster of housing adjacent, it could (at a stretch) be straight off a Christmas card, if you add snow, a full-to-bursting horse-drawn coach and period costume. Inside, the timbered ceiling and window seats are good but the rest of the design is a little disappointing.

Up North

The Moulin Inn in Perthshire actually is, or rather was, a real old coaching inn. Claiming origin of 1695 it is at the heart of the village of Moulin just beside Pitlochry. It has many great features, see my earlier blog post, and worthy of visit for food, drink and fireplace.

Remaining out of town and city, I also recommend the Cluanie Inn. At least fifteen miles from any population it proclaims the virtue of isolation. A comfortable wee bar on two levels has provided walkers, motorists, cyclists, and all-round adventurers with sustenance and cheer for many years. And it sits at the side of the best long road in Scotland.


Moving to the Capital (one day I might if I get desperate) I will ignore The Royal Mile and environs. Principally because almost all the pubs round there are good in winter. It’s the history you see. But I will mention the Bow Bar. Mainly because it is on Victoria Street, the curved street with a number of little shops straight out of Dickens (think of The Old Curiosity Shop). And Dickens means Xmas, surely?

No, the New Town is where I’ll look. The Star Bar is a hard to find tiny wee place with a compact beer garden. Outdoor areas might seem redundant this season, but still worth a mention. Kay’s is, like The Star Bar, situated by a mews, but it is a more sophisticated bar, specialising in speciality(!) drinks particularly real ale. Another tiny space, warmth is guaranteed. The barrels bear testament to its previous incarnation as a wine importing premises. If I hadn’t picked these two I could have picked any number of other little boltholes in this part of Edinburgh.

Over the other side of the mountain sits Duddingston’s finest, The Sheep Heid Inn. The capital’s oldest hostelry will get a blog post all of its own some time soon, but suffice to say it has a special atmosphere, only enhanced by snowy weather.

Down in Leith, Carrier’s Quarters qualifies because of its quirky shape, snug and back room. And along to the west on Commercial Street past the Michelin-starred eateries, Bond No.9 is one of the places I would teleport myself to if I needed a festive drink right that minute.

But it doesn’t really fit with the understated and traditional nature of most of the bars above, so it may appear in my next blog, which will feature a bit more glitz and celebration in the run up to Hogmanay. That is, time and BT permitting…


  1. Glad to see Moulin Inn in there, lovely fires and beer.

  2. Yes, it isn't a pseudo-country inn, it's the real thing. Best place in or near Pitlochry.