Edinburgh has a pub for all occasions: some of them are old, some are new, most are haunted (if you believe that sort of thing) but all have a story to tell.
Here’s our selection of 14 of the city’s drinking holes, with a bit of knowledge to wow your mates next time you’re sober enough to remember…
The Golf Tavern
Between Tollcross and Bruntsfield, in a tangle of buildings that were once an outlying settlement called Wrightshouses, The Golf Tavern is the world’s oldest functioning clubhouse. The golf course on Bruntsfield Links is one of the earliest in the world, with suggestions that James IV himself may have played here in the early 16th Century. The tavern, which dates from 1456, has surely seen its share of birdies and bogies and is still the place from which you can hire clubs and balls to play a round for free on the Bruntsfield Links today.
The Conan Doyle
You don’t have to be Sherlock to work out that this establishment is named after one of Edinburgh’s famous literary sons, but you may not know it stand just yards from where the great man was born, on Picardy Place. Unfortunately the building itself was demolished in the 1960s, but a statue of Holmes stands on roughly the spot where the building stood. (Extra pub quiz trivia: rather than having a double-barrelled surname, Conan was in fact Arthur Doyle’s middle name.)
The Canons’ Gait
The Canongate section of the Royal Mile was so named for being the route walked by the canons from Holyrood Abbey to St Giles Cathedral, and the Canons’ Gait proudly references these historic (and grammatical) origins. Canongate, as it became, remained a separate town from Edinburgh until being integrated into the city in 1865.
No1. High Street
Another Royal Mile institution, above the doorway to No1. High Street you’ll spy a figure bearing a bow. He represents the Royal Company of Archers, a group of men who since 1822 have been the official bodyguards to the reigning monarch in Scotland. They practice their bow skills regularly in the gardens of Holyrood Palace, and are still assigned as official protectors to HRH the Queen on her regular visits to Scotland.
The World’s End
Standing at the junction which marked the main gateway into Edinburgh for centuries, this ominous sounding watering hole commemorates the fact that many of Edinburgh’s citizens were unable to pay the toll levied on people entering the city. For them, unable to pay the price of re-entry, they simply couldn’t afford to leave town. This was, in every sense, the limit of their world. Today the World’s End is just about half-way between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood.
As well as being the highest pub in Edinburgh (that might win you vital points in a pub quiz sometime), the Ensign Ewart commemorates a hero who almost single-handedly won the battle of Waterloo for the British in 1815. It was Charles Ewart who seized the French flag on the battlefield, and its golden eagle has since been integrated into the emblem of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Ewart died in 1846 and after a burial in England was exhumed and re-interred in a ceremonial grave on Edinburgh Castle’s esplanade.
The Bow Bar
A pub that isn’t as old as it looks, the Bow Bar is featured here for its position on the street. Taking its name from the West Bow, the original main road up from the Grassmarket to the Royal Mile, immediately to the pub’s left (as you face it) the street changes name and becomes Victoria Street. This area was subject to redevelopment in the 1830s, and the West Bow was knocked through to join with George IV Bridge. The original top of West Bow survives as Upper Bow today, but Victoria Street was renamed in honour of the new monarch when she came to the throne in 1837.
Deacon Brodie’s Tavern
Another of the city’s eponymous pubs, named for Deacon William Brodie, the legendary local baddie who helped to inspire Robert Louis Stevenson to create the definitive split personality horror trope of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Brodie was a locksmith and council member by day, and ran a gang of thieves by night – the pub’s double-sided signs illustrate both sides to the man’s character. His business premises were in Brodie’s Close, across the road from the pub.
The White Hart Inn
Often cited as the oldest pub in Edinburgh, dating from 1516, the majority of the building above ground level dates from 1740. The White Hart itself is named after the stag which led King David I to build Holyrood Abbey in 1128 – a stag’s head with a cross between its antlers is the official symbol of Holyrood. Robert Burns famously stayed for a week in 1791, and may have written his famous poem Ae Fond Kiss whilst lodging here.
The Jolly Judge
Hidden down an alleyway off the Lawnmarket, the Jolly Judge is an unassuming prospect from the outside, but inside offers an ‘olde worlde’ drinking experience, transporting you back to another age. The lane on which it stands is James Court, celebrated as a well-heeled address following its construction in the 1720s, and once lived in by such luminaries as the philosopher David Hume, and author James Boswell, who entertained the celebrated Dr Samuel Johnston in lodgings here.
A small but perfectly formed venue near the university quarter for live folk and acoustic music, the Captain’s Bar is sneaking into this list on the basis of being underneath the rooms where Scotland’s worst poet died… A plaque above the adjacent doorway confirms that William McGonagall expired here in 1902, before being buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Famous for his excruciating rhyming poems/doggerel, McGonagall also inspired JK Rowling to name a Hogwarts professor in his memory.
The Last Drop
Another of the Grassmarket’s popular haunts (so to speak) the The Last Drop is named for the tradition of giving convicted criminals a final dram of whisky before their execution on the nearby gallows – the Scottish equivalent of a condemned man eating a hearty breakfast. It’s certainly an atmospheric venue in which to down spirits, and is popularly said to be haunted by the ghost of a little girl, possibly one of the former tenants of the housing which formerly stood on this side.
Another of the Royal Mile’s historic public houses, the Tolbooth Tavern is on the ground floor of the 16th Century tolbooth. This distinctive building today houses the People’s Story museum on its upper floors, but over its years the tolbooth also served as a prison, where Oliver Cromwell imprisoned Scottish enemies of the English state in the 1650s. Today the tavern is reputed to be haunted by a variety of spirits, including (perhaps) the ghost of one Lewis Bellenden, a suspect warlock who died here after undergoing a traumatic attempt to exorcise him…
An honourable mention
Special mention for making us laugh goes to the Royal Mile Tavern for their canny/brazen attempts to lure visitors into their establishment. One of their front windows has gold lettering declaring: ‘Mary Queen of Scots probably drank here’, whilst on the other window: ‘John Knox probably drank here too’. Aye, did he, aye?
Liked this? Try these:
The best ‘proper’ pubs in Edinburgh (Part II)
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All images: Gareth Davies