“THE Scotia?” says Wullie. “This isnae jist a pub. Issa a way of life.” Although he topples backwards into a urinal shortly after making this declaration, there is no denying its heartfelt sincerity, and – though Wullie slurs his words – no difficulty in grasping his meaning. You could fall for The Scotia no bother.
Recently named as one of Britain’s best 100 bars, it is a cherished Glasgow institution, known for its association with radical politics and the arts. Patrons have included Stan Laurel, Woody Guthrie, James Kelman and Jimmy Reid. It is one of the best places in the city for the craic. And you’re guaranteed some entertaining tales.
“This pub’s like the foreign legion. Ah come here tae forget.”
“We’ve had a horse in here, drinking. It was a wedding reception. They brought the horse in, the horse got drunk, whereupon it went out and collapsed in the road. The council had to get a crane to lift it.”
“Jesus liked a guid bevvy. Read the Bible. He didnae turn water intae Lucozade, did he?”
It’s a very long time since I last spent an entire day in the pub, and there has never before been an occasion when I did so without taking a drink. So Friday in The Scotia is unusual. It is like going on a bender without the bend; or, to use the Glaswegian, a rerr terr withoot the terr. This is a pub, however, in which it can be advantageous to remain sober, the better to appreciate the pageant of punters and the patter.
One man, swaying slightly, boasts of his triumph in the Scotch pie eating competition. “Thirty-two ah ate. In three minutes. Ah never left ma hoose fur three days efter it.”
The Scotia is on Stockwell Street, by the Clyde, and has been since 1792. It claims to be the oldest pub in Glasgow, and certainly seems to exist at a remove from the contemporary world. Almost five years after the smoking ban, there are still brass match-strikers screwed to the front of the bar. It is a case of an object outliving the usefulness of its function. The same could not be said of The Scotia as a whole, however. This is a pub with a purpose beyond slaking thirst. It is a kind of ersatz university. You come here and learn, from your elders, the etiquette of drinking and the whole old-fashioned business of how to be a man. You can also learn a lot about music, poetry, politics and so on. Some pubs are full of closed minds; The Scotia expands them.
It is also the sort of Cheers-like establishment in which everybody knows your name, and the bar staff – under the guidance of estimable manager Mary Rafferty – know how you take your whisky, and whether your wife wants a straw with her Smirnoff Ice.
If Glasgow is the British city with the greatest concentration of pub philosophers, The Scotia is the Glaswegian answer to the Akademia of ancient Athens. Here, deep thinkers and deeper drinkers put the “tot” into Aristotle, the “tonic” into platonic. Conversations veer from the political to the personal, but tend to give football a wide berth. Celtic and Rangers are considered a bore; you are more likely to find punters debating the relative merits of Marx and Engels. One regular, a staunch Communist, was known as The Last Of Stalin’s Tanks. The Scotia is a place where causes are taken up. “Without this pub there would be no devolution,” says John Mooney, a retired police officer, admitting no hyperbole.
At lunchtime, I fall into conversation with Joe McAtamney, 74, and his friend John Cousins, 76. Joe is a folk singer who was introduced to that music in the early 1960s by the now legendary performer Hamish Imlach, with whom he worked selling electric fires. John is a “proud anarchist”, sitting at a pub table with a copy of the Daily Record. They first met in here and now meet up twice a week to set the world to rights over a bowl of soup. “You never know who you are going to be standing next to at the bar,” says John. “It could be a guy who has done a PhD in this and that, or a guy who busks up on Buchanan Street.”
This social mix is key to The Scotia’s ambience and success. The singer-songwriter Frank O’ Hagan, 59, has been performing here for over a decade. A retired lecturer in history and classics, he has a Friday night residency. “The Scotia is a fascinating kaleidoscope of influences,” he says. “That sounds a bit corny, but it’s true. People here are interested in issues of poverty, human rights, racism. There’s a love of culture and a great spirit of fun.”
It is a place that walks the line between respectful and cheeky; “humane irreverence” is what William McIlvanney once wrote was the defining characteristic of Glasgow, and there’s plenty of that here. John Clarke, 28, is a mechanical engineer from Perth, Australia, who has been living in Scotland for more than a year. He is known, inevitably, as “Aussie John”, and though at first he found the local dialect incomprehensible, he has since picked up the lingo. He finds “get tae fuck” an especially useful and pleasurable phrase.
Arguably, The Scotia is at its best when the weather is hellish. Inside, it’s cosy. Low ceilings and dark wood give the impression of being on board a ship, an old frigate blown by gales of laughter. The snugs, meanwhile, suggest the confessional, a suggestion that some take to heart. One big man, ducking in from the rain, wastes no time in telling me – a complete stranger – of his wife’s intimate encounter with a Scottish pop star of 1980s vintage. “Gen up,” he assures me. “I found out she was on the hook behind my back for 20 years.”
There are some real characters in here. One middle-aged man is a proper work of art; body by Rubens, face by Breugel, breath by Bacardi. Sitting at the bar there’s another guy who claims to be a distant cousin of the royal family. He’s drinking whisky and making toasts. “Our sovereign lady, Her Majesty the Queen,” he declares to no one in particular, making the sign of the cross in the air with his glass. “May the blessings of Baroness Thatcher descend upon you.”
The Scotia has its regulars. Then it has its “regular regulars” who can be relied upon to show up most days at set times. These worthies sit at the end of the bar, closest to the fag machine. Glenn Lafferty is one of them. He’s been drinking in The Scotia since the 1960s and still dresses like a mod in parka and feather-cut. He won’t say how old he is. “Naw, naw, ah don’t want the age doon at aw, man. Ah’ve got women hauf ma age, y’know? That cannae come oot.”
Glenn tells me about all the famous musicians who have performed in The Scotia, dropping in for informal sessions and playing for free. John Martyn. The Dubliners. Tom Paxton. The Incredible String Band. “The best thing ah saw was the first time Billy Connolly brought Gerry Rafferty. The three of us were in the back room. Gerry sang Paperback Writer and the hair on the back of ma neck stood up.”
Connolly is probably The Scotia’s most famous son. There’s a signed sketch of him behind the bar. The strain of Glaswegian humour which he took to the world – rough but ultimately compassionate – can trace its DNA to this pub. I ask Glenn how he got to know him. “We aw worked in the shipyards,” he explains. “Ah knew Billy Connolly through another guy who used tae pick us both up – Wee Trendy Bill Fae Maryhill.”
This atmosphere of tolerance is, I think, what makes The Scotia unique. One regular regular, a soft-spoken Irishman called Sean Harkin says that when he first moved to Glasgow 20 years ago, he identified this pub as a place where, despite his accent, he would be safe. “In other places, when you were leaving, you were sometimes asked, ‘Where are you from? Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?’ Not here.”
A woman called Cath, here on her work’s Christmas night out, is wearing a lace flower in her hair. “As a female, it’s never threatening here at all,” she says, “even when there’s lots of people in here who are completely pissed.”
The Scotia cherishes its characters. At 10.15pm, who should walk through the door but Jack McLean, the journalist known as the Urban Voltaire, a well-known figure in Glasgow’s pubs. The crowd parts for him, Moses in a fedora. “Therr’s the talent in,” says a man. “Stand aside.” McLean, without removing his overcoat, joins Frank O’Hagan’s band on harmonica for superb renditions of I’m A King Bee and Tequila. Before the applause has died down, he has tipped back his dram, tipped forward his hat, and is back out through the doors, a Pall Mall lighting his way.
By midnight, it’s all over. Another day in The Scotia. I walk out past the whisky glinting gold in the gantry, past the photos of Che Guevara, past the framed poem by Tom Leonard, past the red-faced guy who has been shoving money into the puggy since tea-time and never had a pay-out. I walk out past the bevvy merchants and patter merchants, past the maudlin and ecstatic, past the chancers, dancers and too-pissed-to-romance-hers. I walk out into the cold Glasgow night and I admire the wisdom of the pub’s former owner Brendan McLaughlin who, quite rightly, loves this place.
“The real story of The Scotia bar,” he told me, “is The Scotia bar.”