Tastings School - From Burns to Welsh in an evening

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From Burns to Welsh in an evening

Alastair Gilmour takes his place in one of the most unusual pub visits he has ever undertaken

Who could turn down the invitation to a pub crawl, a bit of banter and a good time?

It’s a suggestion loaded with possibilities which the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour delivers in entertaining fashion – a witty and dramatic romp led by professional actors through the life and work of Scotland’s great poets and novelists from the early 18th century to the present day.

It starts in 1786 at The Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket with Robert Burns and Courage Directors’ Bitter before ending across the city in Rose Street and a choice of 10 real ales in the legendary left-leaning Milne’s Bar and Irvine Welsh. The legwork involved is deliberate – intended to emphasise the contrast of Edinburgh in architecture, culture and sociology – and for students of bacchanalia, the differing natures of beer.

“My name is Clart and this is my own version of history,” announces actor Paul Murray, whose job for the next two hours is to convince his audience that novelists, poets and social chroniclers were little more than drunkards and wastrels who sought inspiration in the city’s taverns and drinking dens.

Opposing his theory is McBrain (played by Dewi Wynn Jones), a wellspoken, clean-hankied intellectual who argues that literary genius descends from a much higher plane than beersoaked, whisky-stained counters.

It’s two hours of posturing, postulating, prose, poetry and pints and a brilliant way of combining a stroll, a drink and conversation with strangers. Filling knowledge gaps is an educational bonus.

The Beehive, which began life as a 16th century coaching inn, has three large and well-worn rooms. The McEwan’s 80/- on the bar is a reminder that William McEwan started work in 1851 in Jeffrey’s Brewery directly opposite the pub before establishing his own Edinburgh business, the Fountain Brewery, which continues today under the control of Scottish Courage.

The famous McEwan Younger dynasty was founded when William’s sister married James Younger, a brewer from Alloa. Their son, William Younger, was employed as brewery manager. The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour was launched by Morris Paton in 1998 after he saw a similar idea in Ireland.

“It struck me how much in common Edinburgh had with Dublin,” he says. “Not just in terms of strong literary connections, but in dramatic beauty and fine architecture creating the perfect backdrop for a dramatic journey.

“The pubs have been supportive from the start, as the project is a perfect example of synchronicity in business. We bring in a quality clientele on a regular basis and the pubs deliver theirs with excellent hospitality and Scottish fare.

“I studied drama in Edinburgh and worked as an actor in London for many years and I wanted to find a project that would encapsulate my experience. The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour was born.”

The Beehive’s main entrance was originally an alleyway between two tenements, so the bars on the left and right were separate houses. Portraits of literary worthies adorn the staircase and the restaurant door was salvaged from the condemned cell of the city’s Calton jail. It is therefore a pub with ‘previous.’

There’s a total of 24 people in our pub tour, an excellent turnout on a cold Auld Reekie evening. The crowd is heavily American-accented save for a trio of Spaniards and a couple of indeterminate mid-Europeans. Clart and McBrain trade opinion for opinion before we walk up the hill and across the Royal Mile to the next stopping-off point which, depending on the action, could be the Ensign Ewart Inn, Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, or the Jolly Judge. In a lively duel of wits, the pair debate the importance of a pub atmosphere in influencing creative and intellectual thought.

Ensign Ewart, if memory serves, was a native of Berwick upon Tweed who captured a French standard at the Battle of Waterloo. William ‘Deacon’ Brodie was, by day, a pillar of the community and something of an entrepreneur, but when night fell he led a dissolute life of drinking and gambling. He turned to burglary to ward off impending bankruptcy before being caught and hung by the very gallows he had invented.

Legend has it that he had had a copper pipe inserted in his throat to delay strangulation; was cut down by accomplices and taken to a nearby pub where he was revived then spirited away to America.

Clart says: “This cheat and liar’s resultant family eventually became rich and powerful after taking the name Nixon.”

Although the Jolly Judge has been a pub for only 25 years, its magnificently-painted and beamed ceiling viewed through Belhaven Best, McEwan’s 80/- Ale and Deuchar’s IPA begin to confirm the hypothesis that great ideas flourish in pubs. The beams are reputed to have been salvaged from The Great Michael, the largest warship in the world when it was launched in 1511.

In between times, the Jolly Judge has served its time as a bagpipe makers, a bakery and a soot shop – apparently, people would buy soot for their gardens. The surrounding squares, cobbles and small entrances are part of the Edinburgh that tourists don’t normally see unless they’re totally lost or extremely inquisitive.

All around are small windows, tall chimneys, tired steps, corbelling, arches, buttresses and cobbles. They are a fascinating jumble and ideal scenery for the cultural to-ing and fro-ing by Clart and McBrain who continue to play off each other with their insightful quotations and pantomime action.

We listen to the rich, romantic language of Sir Walter Scott; a poem by William Smellie (who compiled the first Encyclopaedia Britannica) wickedly recited to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas; we hear the tales behind The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, a story of split personality which describes Edinburgh perfectly.

Clart explains through Jekyll’s respectability and Hyde’s depravity that the city speaks two tongues; everything between Old Town and New Town is double-edged and encouraged a dual society. His assertion that Stevenson “enjoyed the company of sluts and guttersnipes” is met by McBrain’s derision, as are his snatches of Burns’s erotic love poetry to prove that several drams or a pint or two of ale help create verve, invention and verbal magic.

“So where do you think they met up?” he asks.

“The library? The inn, of course.”

The original Milne’s Bar – also known as The Poets’ Pub – is downstairs from today’s reconstructed street-level establishment which may have lost its original Edwardian artefacts (to be replaced by reproduction Edwardian artefacts) but compensates with up to 10 cask-conditioned ales, a dozen malts and a healthy wine list.

Milne’s was fuelled by conviviality and whisky, hence it was a favourite ‘howff’ for the bohemian leaders of the Scottish Literary Renaissance who insisted on using broad Scots as their language. Regulars included Sydney Goodsir Smith, Hugh McDiarmid and Norman McCaig who met in a room that became known as Little Kremlin. It also attracted the likes of John Buchan, Dylan Thomas, WH Auden and TS Eliot.

Part of Clart and McBrain’s final spiel is conducted in Lallans (Lowland Scots) which is difficult to follow, but has great resonances, rhymes and verbal drumbeats with a timing curiously appreciated most by the two mid- Europeans and the three Spaniards.

Under this cultural influence, we repeat the works of McEwan, Younger, Belhaven and Deuchar. Literally.

Further Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour information on +44 (0)800 169 4410 or visit www.edinburghliterarypubtour.co.uk