Pints and Progress

Dave Hynes and Louise Loftus look at two inner city boroughs clinging on to their drinking culture in the face of 'regeneration', and ask how harmoniously gloss sits with grit.

Feature by Louise Loftus | 30 Jul 2008


There’s something strange happening in Leith’s pub culture at the moment. In fact, it’s been happening over the last ten years, but what started out as a few brave attempts to introduce newly-refurbished and redecorated modern bars has now developed into a full frontal attack on Leith’s traditional drinking dens.

There are still countless nods to the Leith of old, with dark, dungeonesque pubs still populating much of Leith Walk and Great Junction St. Most of these haven’t changed in years, and you see brazen-faced septuagenarians smoking outside them, as though they were gatekeepers to the old secrets of the watering-hole. They stubbornly refuse to submit to the gastro pub fever and are strictly for liquid refreshment only. Largely locals-orientated rather than all-welcoming, these are defiant drinking temples which helped sustain the stereotype of Leith as the sick man of Edinburgh. Epitomised by the likes of Balfour’s, The Spey Lounge and the unforgivably derelict Marksman, their aim is clear - renovation equates to devastation. For the publicans and punters alike these pubs offer familiarity and escape from a community in flux

So what of the new bars with their laminate-floored, airy, light and spacious preoccupation with all things miniaturist? Sofi’s, Boda Bar, Victoria and a host of others which populate the ever-changing Shore area reveal a new chapter in this community’s drinking culture. They seem gay-friendly, overtly trendy, with an emphasis on cocktails, wine lists and food on the side of gourmet. Acting as marketing vehicles for brands of exotic bottled beers, they run at an altogether faster pace than their old Leith counterparts, harbouring yuppies and businessmen on working lunches and a cheeky after work glass. However, as part of the bigger picture they help to make Leith feel the most alive and urbane part of Edinburgh to live and drink in.

That said, Leith’s imbibers have become somewhat polarised into two camps - the old and the new - with not much crossover and customer loyalty tending towards either rather than both camps. Nowhere is this contrasting ambivalence more pronounced than on Henderson Street, where the delicate pastel blue, pink-curtained Sofi’s sits proudly under the banana flats and next to Wilkies, The Trafalgar and Anderson’s - three pubs very much of the old school. Just round the corner lies the hip Waterline and very suave Bar Diesel, a symbolic testament to the extent that Leith's development sits side by side with its ingrained heritage.

Naturally, bar life in Leith is a barometer for wider changes in the community: trams, expensive housing redevelopments and corporate investment mean that Leith’s face will be unrecognisable to those who remember Sick Boy, Renton and Spud heading down to the Volunteer Arms to help their heroin-induced comedowns. While Leith stands to gain from this new chic gastro pub culture - affluence, class, panache, she will also risk losing something too - her roots and her soul.


If there is one lesson that all encompassing goliath Tesco was taught last year, it was that Partick, that little burgh of Glasgow, will not tolerate bullies lightly.

Partick locals were, and I quote, ‘raging’ when Tesco demolished the Old Partick Railway ticket office at 7am on a Sunday morning, without permission. Enraged, residents launched a campaign against the giant which included petitions, seed bombs and …erm… breaking the world record for group massage. Eighteen months on the store is yet to get its way. So what is it about this Glasgow village that illicits such a strong sense of community? What is it that residents want to protect? Just what is it about Partick?

‘Shieldinch’, the fictional Glasgow burgh in which BBC Scotland's River City is set, found its inspiration in Partick. The show’s creator Stephen Greenhorn wanted ‘to tell a story about a working class community swept up in development and gentrification - some embracing the change and others quite fearful'. Swept up it is. And yet, as development in Partick continues unceasingly, somehow the community holds together. Mecca bingo sits incongruously, but contentedly, alongside small businesses like Glamorous Geggies: ‘the finest cosmetic dental technician in the world’.

Then there are the Partick locals, for local people. The Lismore, with its stained glass windows and fishing regalia was made for endless afternoons, drinking malt of the month and quietly watching the tennis. Or endless evenings drinking Guinness and maybe being privy to one of the impromptu folk singalongs. That other Partick cornerstone, the Three Judges, which looks just like a pub ought to look - all art deco lighting and well worn wood. A Partick favourite because it serves up speciality ales with names like ‘Rambler’ and ‘Bees Knees', it is well known for inciting booze snobbery. A mostly-over-70 contingent traipse along on Sunday to listen to jazz.

It may feel at times that there is no limit to the West End’s appetite for the sun-dried and hand-made, the home-grown and over-priced. But in Partick this pseudo-gentrification is tempered with a working class realism. So that even while the trendiness of Hyndland seeps downhill with cheeky young upstarts like the Rio café, with its candy-coloured 50s diner cool, there will always be doomsday relics like the Hayburn Vaults and the Quarter Gill to keep it in line. And to laugh, good-naturedly, at its precocious attempts to tout knickerbocker glorys to Glaswegians.