EDINBURGH — Glasses clink. Beer flows. The music blares. Words are slurred. Laughter fills the stale air. Another typical night unfolds at the Beehive Inn, one of the 190 or so pubs tucked away on the narrow Old Town streets of Scotland’s handsome capital, where locals and tourists come together to enjoy a pint in a traditional “boozer.”
The Beehive, like so many of the city’s oldest pubs, sits in the shadows of famed Edinburgh Castle in a once notorious neighbourhood known as Grassmarket. In the small square just a few steps from the Beehive’s front door, public executions regularly took place in the 17th century.
As more patrons arrive, the decibel level in the Beehive is pushed to the breaking point as people begin to shout just to be heard over the ear-splitting noise.
Patrons patiently wait at the bar as servers pull their pints behind a long mahogany altar that stretches the full length of the historic pubic house, which started out as a coach inn in the 16th century.
Above: A piper welcomes tourists to the Royal Mile while patrons soak up subs and sun at an Edinburgh pub.
The locals come after a hard day’s work, while most of the tourists arrive on organized pub crawls like the Edinburgh Heritage Pub Trail, which includes stops at 11 famous pubs in the Grassmarket area and the nearby Royal Mile, the world-renowned pedestrian street that leads to Edinburgh Castle.
The Beehive, where Robbie Burns reportedly came to drink and watch cockfights when he visited Edinburgh, is one of the oldest and most popular public houses with luminaries. A barman confirms that Prince Charles is a regular visitor — “we have a private room upstairs where the prince comes to drink with his friends,” I’m told.
To get to the upper part of the Beehive one must pass through a large jail door that looks totally out of place in the compact establishment.
“The door originally hung on a cell at the old Calton jail,” the server tells me. That cell once held infamous murderers like William Burke and Eugene Chantrelle, who hung in the nearby square after being convicted of poisoning people on nearby George St.
While craft beer is the most popular brew at the Beehive, many tourists like to sample the wide variety of single malt Scotch whiskies on offer in the main part of the pub, known as the Honeypot. The Beehive’s food menu features many Scottish favourites, like hand-battered fish and chips, homemade steak and ale pie, sausage and mash and, its speciality, Cullen Skink soup.
In the summer months, patrons like to soak up the sun at tables set up overlooking Grassmarket St., or at the rear in the pub’s “secret garden."
While Edinburgh’s public houses remained privately owned through the centuries, most, including the Beehive, have now been gobbled up by large corporations like Belhaven and turned into chic gastropubs.
Above: The Deacon Brodie Tavern inspired a great novel and the Beehive Inn is a Favourite of the royals.
After a few brews at the Beehive, it’s time to crawl to another Grassmarket pub, the White Hart Inn, which is steeped in its own history. In fact, Robbie Burns stayed at the charming White Hart on his last visit to Edinburgh in 1791 and the writer William Wordsworth spent a few nights there with his wife Dorothy in 1803. The White Hart Inn also played a starring role in the 1961 Walt Disney film Greyfriars Bobby — it’s where the faithful Skye terrier’s owner dies.
As I walk along Grassmarket St. to get to the Royal Mile, I’m rewarded with stunning views of Edinburgh Castle — it clings to the rocky ledge above the famed street. Grassmarket served as the city’s main market place from 1477 until 1911. A plague at the top of Grassmarket St. reminds me of this area’s infamous era known as the “Killing Time,” when 100 Covananters swung from the gallows for not pleading allegiance to the Crown.
I zig-zag through the city’s famous closes (alleys) and up steep stairs covered in moss to reach the upper part of the Royal Mile, where another landmark pub, Deacon Brodie’s, is located.
While not as quaint as the Beehive or White Hart, Deacon Brodie’s draws the most tourists thanks to its connection with Robert Louis Stevenson's legendary novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The pub’s original owner, William Brodie, was Stevenson’s inspiration for the main character in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but he was not the vicious murderer portrayed in the book.
Above: The pubs gathered in Edinburgh's historic area all come with interesting names.
Brodie did live a double life —by day he was a respected cabinet-maker, but at night he robbed to support his bourgeois lifestyle, which reportedly included two mistresses, numerous offspring and a gambling habit.
After being caught and convicted in 1788, Brodie famously marched to the gallows wearing a powdered wig and waved to the crowd — the largest ever to turn out for a public hanging in Edinburgh — as the noose was placed around his neck.
Other famous pubs included on the Heritage Pub Trail are:
The Advocate: It’s situated in Hunter Square and this pub carries a great range of whisky, gin and craft beer.
Albanach: The name of this pub is the Gaelic word for Scotland. It boasts 250 different whiskies, from malts to blends, and its well informed servers are more than happy to educate you on the history of different Scotches, or as they call it here, “the water of life.”
Cafe Royal Circle Bar: This vintage pub opened in 1863 and is well known in Edinburgh for its elegant stained glass windows and Victorian decorations. Cafe Royal also played a part in the Hollywood classic Chariots of Fire.
Doctors: This Forrest Road gem is in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town near it’s world famous university. It gets its name from having strong links to Edinburgh U’s medical college. It opened in 1874 and initially housed a coffin maker.
Grosvener: This is one of Edinburgh’s earliest public houses and is located in the city’s West End, near most of the high-end clothing shops.
The pub never has less than 75 different whiskies, 50 types of gin and at least 20 varieties of rum and four large casks of ales. You’ll never go thirsty here.
Malt Shovel: This is a great place to hang out while waiting for a train because the Malt Shovel is very close to Waverly Train Station, where people get trains to Glasgow and London. A small terrace looking out on Cockburn St. is very popular in the summer months.
Milnes Bar: This pub's an institution in Edinburgh’s City Centre, off Hanover St. It dates back to 1910 and many of Scotland’s literary giants have stumbled through its narrow doors.
Shakespeare: This pub opened during the golden era of theatre in Scotland’s capital but the district where it stands now caters to the financial sector. It’s one of the city's oldest pubs and is close to famous Usher Hall.
World’s End: It’s a good place to end a pub crawl and it’s also well steeped in history. Located on the Royal Mile, the World’s End dates back to the 16th century and originally sat outside the city gates —hence it’s name because citizens of Medieval Edinburgh thought the world ended outside their city gates.
The pub crawls cost about $50 (Cdn) per person and you have to pay for your own drinks.
The hangovers are free.