The Living Memory Association

Edinburgh's Reminiscence Project • Established 1986

Here’s Tae Us: A Social History of Drinking in Scotland

This project originated from an idea to explore an important social and economic aspect of Edinburgh life: brewing and drink. It has been supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, along with the Scottish Brewing Archive and the City of Edinburgh Museums.

The valuable contributions from our interviewees and other sources have allowed us to record a range of experiences associated with drink and drinking, both as a source of employment and as a social lubricant. Their memories have included stories about: working in the brewing and bottling trade, family or other social events, Edinburgh pubs, attitudes towards women drinking, attendance at Temperance meetings, and even very personal experiences associated with too much drink. Here’s Tae Us records, preserves and celebrates an important area of the social history of Edinburgh.

‘I started off by walking home. Deciding to walk home with my bicycle. I had met up wi’ this lad and he said, he said how would you like to go to dance? And I was such embarrassed you see, instead of sayin’ no, I’m keeping my wages after me to give to my mum, I was so embarrassed I just said yes.

So I got all dressed up and he agreed to meet me at the Station Bar and I agreed. I started off with a pint and then I ended up on 4 pints. I tasted stout and I tasted heavy and I tasted light and I tasted beer and I tasted rum.

Och I can mind it was really the ruin of me. It put me in hospital where I got dried out and I never shouldae!’

Beer and Ale

Fleet of Campbell, Hope & King (The ‘Holy Trinity’) delivery vans, Chambers Street, 1950s

Early Scots drank fermented grain-based brews made from corn weed or coarse barley flavoured with heather, rowan or bog myrtle. Monks were the first commercial brewers. By the fifteenth century, brewing of ale for domestic consumption was mostly done by women, who would sell their ‘excess’ produce. Unregulated brewster-wives dominated the brewing trade in Edinburgh, to the annoyance of the town council.

Many of Scotland’s most famous brewing firms emerged during the eighteenth century including, Archibald Campbell’s and William Younger’s in Edinburgh; Tennent’s in Glasgow, and George Younger’s in Alloa. Technical and scientific developments contributed to the flourishing of a large number of breweries in Edinburgh. The only one left in 2007 is the Caledonian Brewery.


Women labelling whisky bottles, J G Thomson's, Leith, c1930

Whisky - or uisge beatha - was distilled for domestic consumption from early times. Excise duty was introduced in 1644 and from 1781 distilling needed a licence. Small-scale illicit production continued until the 1840s but commercial production increased with the introduction of the Coffey Patent Still in the 1830s. Several distilleries were established in Edinburgh in the 1800s including, Croft-an-Righ, Bonnington, Caledonian, Dean and Lochrin. The only one remaining in 2007 is the North British, which produces whisky for blending.

‘Ah it was grand …’

Lochrin Arms, Tollcross, 1970

‘Betty Moss down at the Old Chain Pier (Newhaven). She used to wear a silk kimono … with bamboo framed spectacles. Little old lady, shuffled around. She commanded that place. 10 o'clock on the dot, Betty fired a starting pistol a couple of times, and shuffled round the bar poking it in people’s ribs and just taking their drinks away.' (Dick Allan, born 1940s)

‘If there was nobody in the bar he would just shout - Lads, pour them and put the money in the till!’ (Davy Clark's Bar, Lady Lawson Street) (Bill Coventry, born 1933)

'The Boundary Bar, now called the City Limits. That was the boundary between Leith and Edinburgh and they had a white line down the bar and they both had different licensing hours. So what they did was they just picked up their pints and crossed the line, and the Leith Police would be pushing them onto the Edinburgh side and the Edinburgh Police would be pushing them back.' (Audrey Soutar, born 1930)

‘You could get problems in the Dundee Arms (Fountainbridge). Which got its nickname The Vietnam. That just speaks for itself. It was rough and people would get barred oot o’ there.’ (Ronnie Mackay, born 1940s) (Kate Tubb, born 1940s)

‘A lassie got physically thrown onto the pavement and, next thing, the shoes were fired out after her. It was rough.’ (Fairley’s, Leith Street)

‘All about the evils of drink.’

‘The Band o’ Hope was at the foot o’ Buchanan Street [Leith] in the big hall there. You just went in a crowd and stood waiting on the doors to open and then you were in. It was on a Friday night, silent films and the stories you got was all about the man taking a drink. He would come home and he wisnae very nice to his wife or his kids, and we was all shouting, - Boo, leave her alone. And I dare say somebody would talk about the film to you, but you wouldnae hear it for all the crowds of bairns talking to themselves.’ (Joey Robertson, born 1915)

'I was in the Good Templars: taste, touch nor handle. My parents were in it. They had speakers and once a month they’d have a wee dance or something. It was all about the evils of drink. During the Depression years they were attended by women. I went to the Band of Hope and I went to the Rechabites.’ (George Hackland, born 1920)

'Ma dad wisnae a drinker but his Saturday night entertainment was going to the pictures. Then going to the Temperance hotel and getting a pie filled wi’ peas, and he used tae bike hame eating his pie and peas. He used to call it pieses.’ (Marianne Hendry, born 1940s)

Inns, Taverns and Pubs

Barman, c.1900

‘Frae joyous tavern, reeeling drunk,
Wi’ fiery phizz and een half sunk,
Behad the bruiser, fae to a’,
That in the reek o’ gardies fa.’
Auld Reikie, Robert Fergusson, 1773

Inns or taverns offering accommodation to travellers were the earliest form of hostelry. From 1604 they were required to be licensed, and legislation was passed which attempted to control them: 10 p.m. closing time to help control the spread of plague, only genuine travellers served on Sundays, and fines for the employment of women - many inns were also brothels.

Some of Edinburgh’s oldest inns included, Fortune’s Tavern, Dawney Douglas’ Anchor Tavern, the Star and Garter, and the White Horse Inn. John Dowie’s Tavern was renowned for its food and clientele who included, Robert Burns, Robert Fergusson and Walter Scott. The White Hart (Grassmarket), Ye Olde Peacock Inn (Newhaven) and the Sheep Heid (Duddingston) are amongst the oldest public houses still in business.

The Victorian Age saw the building of ornate pubs, like the Cafe Royal, Guildford Arms and Leslie’s Bar (Causewayside). These elegant buildings used mirrors, glasswork and gas light fittings, and contrasted sharply with the darker, dingier older inns.

Until the mid twentieth century, areas known as jug or snug bars were often partitioned off for women customers. Later they used the lounge, rather than the public bar. With changing social conventions and the consequent changes in pub design, this separation of the sexes is no longer seen.

‘It’s taken its toll on ma health.’

‘I’ve got a cure: [I] don’t drink any more.’ (Bill Robertson, born 1950s)

‘Scottish & Newcastle came out with a product called Kestrel. So Tennent’s produced a lager called Charger then Kestrel became known as Celtic lager because of the green and white can. Charger was predominantly blue, so the Rangers supporters would drink Charger.’ (Ronnie Mackay, worked for Tennent’s from the 1960s)

‘My grandfather used to drink. He was a fisherman. He always walked with a roll. He was a skipper on a trawler and my mother used to take this half bottle of whisky out of his pocket every Saturday night and smash it in the sink and I mind, I’d be about eleven, I says to her, - That’s daft, mother. Why not just pour it down the sink? And my grandpa says, - Hey, your name’s no on the door. And he just went to his bed.’ (George Hackland, born 1920)

‘The only time I used to see my father drinking was New Year ’cos Hogmanay was his birthday, it was a double celebration but sadly things were wrong for him and he ended up becoming an alcoholic, lost his job as a result of it.’ (Bill McLean, born 1940s)

‘I used tae work and clock up £13 a week. I would treat maself to a half bottle of vodka. Now it’s taken its toll on ma health and as I said to maself, OK and ah took it oot o’ ma inside pocket and ah threw that bottle as far as ah could.’ (Bill Robertson, born 1950s)

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