Cask Ales and Castles – Pub Hopping in Western Scotland

I just returned from a short family vacation to Scotland.  My traveling companions for the journey included my wife Laurinda, our daughter Iris and two of her friends from Columbus, and my buddy Ralph Wolfe, who also doubles as father of one of the aforementioned friends.  On a trip where half of the party are seventeen year olds beer hunting is always going to be at the periphery, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work a few pubs into the itinerary.  What follows are my notes and photos from those stops, mixed in with some gratuitous photos of the incomparable Scottish Highlands.  Inspired by the pun-filled posts of our magnanimous guide for the Glasgow leg of the trip, Duncan Mackay who blogs as the Pubmeister, I’ll try to be brief and let the pictures tell most of the story.

Glasgow

Our first stop was Scotland’s largest city, whose rise to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries was fueled by trade with the Americas and based on shipbuilding, iron working, and other heavy industries.  Like most industrial cities in the UK, the second half of the 20th century was not kind to Glasgow, but its selection as European city of Culture in 1990 helped spark a revival. These days one can find gentrified neighborhoods full of hip places to eat, drink and shop, next to working class neighborhoods that have yet to recover from the deindustrialization of Britain. Modern Glasgow is the kind of city that can claim to have lowest life expectancy in the UK and simultaneously be the most vegan friendly city in Britain.  Then you have the local dialect, which is thought to be related to English.  It lends a certain exotic charm to the city, but oral communication with lifelong residents requires concentration.

Cities whose present is not as grand as their past usually have great museums and bars, and Glasgow is no exception.  After an afternoon spent exploring the impressive (and free) Kelvingrove Museum in the affluent west end, Ralph and I headed off to meet up with Duncan, who had kindly offered to show us around some of his favorite Glasgow watering holes.  Our arranged starting point was a pub called The Laurieston.  After exiting the subway near George Square in the city center, we walked south on upscale Buchanan Street, eventually passing over the River Clyde via the Portland Street pedestrian bridge.  Once we passed over the river the character of the neighborhood changed dramatically.  The stores selling hand bags and high-end clothing were replaced by Middle Eastern markets and convenience stores. The  coffee and chocolate shops gave way to Egyptian and Arabic restaurants.

Laurieston
The Laurieston is located at 58 Bridge St, Glasgow G5 9HU.

The exterior of The Laurieston is notable for an intricate black and white tile mosaic.  A banner proclaims its selection as 2013 Pub of the Year by the Glasgow chapter of CAMRA.  The interior is a throwback to something from the middle of the 20th century.  The bar occupies the center of the room and is covered with a marbled laminate top that reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen.  The lower parts of the walls feature wood paneling, and the upper parts are painted a warm yellow color. The benches and chairs are upholstered with a sienna colored leather, the curtains are a faded plaid.  Narrow double-decker tables, topped with an orange-red formica laminate, ring the room.  I later learn that the two-level scheme of the tables is designed to facilitate games of dominoes over a few pints.  In the US this kind of place would be endearingly described as a dive bar.

Upon entering Duncan was able to spot us immediately.  I’m guessing not too many Americans wander into The Laurieston.  Once we’ve completed introductions, he calls the publican over.  The elderly man whose has been running the place for decades kindly offers us small tastes of the three cask ales on tap.  I opt for a malt-forward amberish cask ale from Scottish brewer Fyne Ales (Vital Spark?).  It’s a hot day for Glasgow (70-75 °F) and the beer is a bit warm, even by British cask ale standards, but it combines rich malt character and sessionability in a way that the British do like no one else.

Laurieston Interior
A glass of real ale at the Laurieston.

As we enjoy our pints, Duncan tells us a little about pubs like The Laurieston that were built to serve people living in the tenements.  When navigating here I couldn’t help but notice that we are only a half-mile or so from the Gorbals, a neighborhood infamous for its public housing tower blocks.  A colleague in Columbus who grew up in Glasgow once told me that even the ambulances wouldn’t go into the Gorbals at the height of their disfunction.  Likely an exaggeration, but it gives you a sense of their reputation.  Duncan tells us that over the last couple of decades the city has torn down the housing blocks and the population density in this part of Glasgow has dropped significantly.  For society that’s probably a good thing, but for pubs like the Laurieston it can be a struggle to adapt to the changing demographics.  I will say that while we were at The Laurieston everything was very cordial, there was nothing menacing in the least.  I’d go back in a heartbeat, unless of course it was a Rangers-Celtic match day, but apparently the pub closes on those days anyway.

One advantage of being an American traveling in Europe is that almost everywhere feels safe by comparison.  Although Glasgow has a reputation among Brits as being a little rough around the edges, statistics show that across all of Scotland there are only about 60 homicides per year.  Compare that with the 140 murders last year in my home of Columbus, Ohio, a thriving, quintessentially American city.

After leaving The Laurieston, we headed back across the Clyde to visit the Horse Shoe Bar, a Victorian pub in Central Glasgow that features a large horseshoe shaped bar. They double down on the equestrian theme by placing a statue of a horse on top of the bar.  As if that’s not enough horsing around, Duncan told us that Roy Rogers rode his horse Trigger around the bar when he visited in the 1950s.  While that might seem like the height of American arrogance, in all fairness to Mr. Rogers there are no hitching posts outside. Here we were advised that it might be better to stick with a half-pint because the beer selection is not as impressive as the decor.  While the beer selection was dominated by the usual suspects (Carling, Guinness, Tennents, Strongbow, …), as is sadly the case in many British pubs, they did have a few cask ales.  I opted for a hoppy session pale ale called Jack Back from Edinburgh’s Stewart Brewing.

Horseshoe Bar
The horse on top of the bar serves as a clue as to where you are in case you have a few to many pints.

Our next stop was a whisky bar called The Pot Still. With a selection of over 700 whiskies it’s considered one of the best whisky bars in Scotland, with the awards to back that claim up.  I probably should have tried a wee dram, but to be honest I didn’t know where to start.  I’m sure I’ll get some grief from whisky lovers back home, but I stuck to beer. Even more egregious I can’t recall what I had, but I can assure you it was a Scottish-brewed cask ale.  Three pints into the journey and my middling powers of observation were already starting to fade, but the company was good and the conversation was flowing.

Pot Still
My companions for the night Ralph (left) and Duncan (right) and the wall of whisky at The Pot Still.

Our mini pub crawl finished up at the State Bar, whose central feature was a semicircular bar of dark polished wood.  The shape and finish of the bar bore some similarities to the Horse Shoe, but overall the ambiance seemed classier, the decorations less haphazard, and the beer selection far superior. Duncan steered both of us to a pint of Green Devil IPA by Peterborough’s Oakham Ales.  This potent IPA (6.0% abv) starts with a wonderful British golden malt base and then adds layer upon layer of aromatic Citra hops that announce their presence before, during, and after each sip.   Green Devil IPA is a glorious fusion of British and American brewing traditions, perfectly suited to being served on cask.  While researching this story I was not surprised to learn that it has twice been named Champion Cask Ale at the International Brewing Awards.  For reasons that I can’t explain this beer had previously been off my radar, but my first encounter with the Green Devil is one that I will not easily forget.

Green Devil IPA

At this point we parted ways with Duncan, thanking him for the wonderful hospitality, and headed off to meet up with the rest of our group.  After a delightful and much needed dinner at an Indian restaurant near our hotel (Mother India) we walked over to the Glasgow BrewDog bar, located directly opposite the Kelvingrove Museum.   I was fading by this point in the evening, but the pull of visiting one of the very first BrewDog bars located a mere two blocks from our B’n’B was too strong to resist.  I ordered a Jet Black Heart on nitro, my usual go-to in BrewDog pubs when nothing grabs my attention.  When the bartender handed me the glass I could see that it was definitely not a nitro-pour.  I pointed out the inconsistency between the pint in my hands and the red letters N-I-T-R-O on the menu board.  He brushed off my question by telling me that he doesn’t normally work at this location.  I have no idea how that fact is relevant to the composition of the dispensation gas, but it was clear that nothing was to be gained by debating the matter further.  I retired to a table where I could take in the view of the majestic sandstone building that houses the Kelvingrove Museum in the dying rays of the setting sun.

Kelvingrove Museum
The majestic Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum sits opposite the Glasgow BrewDog.  The view is a definite step up from the Edinburgh BrewDog on Cowgate Street.

Clachaig Inn

The next morning we departed from Glasgow and headed for the Scottish Highlands.  Our route took us past the shores of Loch Lomand into the rugged Grampian mountains east of Glencoe.  Charles Dickens once called this part of the highlands a burial ground for a race of giants, and we were lucky enough to be passing through on a glorious sunny day.  This is prime country for hiking and climbing, but just because we were driving doesn’t mean we hadn’t worked up an appetite.  On Duncan’s advice we stopped at the Clachaig Inn for lunch.

The Clachaig Inn has accommodations for visitors, three bars, food, and an impressive selection of ales (8) and and ciders (4) on cask.  While those attributes are more than enough to warrant a visit, its trump card is the glorious view of soaring mountains covered in velvety green foliage, and dotted with small streams cascading down the steep slopes.

Clachaig View
The view from our outdoor table at the Clachaig Inn.

When we stepped inside the pub it was immediately clear that we weren’t the only ones popping in for a bite of food and a pint of ale.  We waited in a queue for 15 -20 minutes to place our food and drink order.  The speed of things was not helped by the slightly haphazard service of the young staff who are brought in for the summer season.  The memory of the Green Devil was still fresh in my mind, so I went for another golden ale hopped with New World hops—Azure from Lerwick, a brewery located on the Shetland Islands, halfway between the coast of mainland Scotland and Norway.  If I’ve had a beer from a more remote brewery I don’t remember it.  Weighing in at 4.3% abv and featuring Rakau and Cascade hops, Azure was slightly hazy with an aromatic bouquet of floral and fruity hops.  Not quite the equal of Green Devil IPA, but a good choice for an unseasonably warm afternoon.

If you like spectacular scenery, hiking and climbing, and a wide selection of real ales you could do much worse than a night or two staying at the Clachaig Inn.

Clachaig Handpulls
The beer engines in the Boots Bar at the Clachaig Inn.  If you are a brewery from the Shetland Islands like Lerwick, how can your logo feature anything else but a pony.

The Applecross Inn

We stayed at a very pleasant B’n’B near Loch Ness for the next two days (Polmaily House).  On the advice of the innkeeper we decided to take a drive on the Wester Ross coastal road that winds around Scotland’s Applecross peninsula, in lieu of the more popular route out to the Isle of Skye.  After a stop at the picturesque Eilean Donan castle, we headed up the switchback road that goes over the Bealach na Ba pass (Pass of the Cattle).  Laurinda was driving and she did masterful job navigating the one lane road that climbs to a height of 2,053 feet, Britain’s highest pass.  It was white knuckle stuff for her, but it was hardly relaxing sitting on the outside of our van where the precipitous dropoff was on full display.  For a country that built the railroads and dug a tunnel under the English channel, you’d think they could have splurged for a two-lane road, maybe this was their way of discouraging buses of tourists from despoiling the Applecross peninsula, and who can blame them.

Pass of the Cattle
A shot taken from the car while going over the Bealach na Ba Pass.  The name Pass of Cattle implies that highland cows are more ambitious than their cousins elsewhere.

When you arrive in Applecross it’s not too hard to find the Inn, just take the first left and look for the long white building that sits on the south side of the Applecross Bay.  Just as well too, because I needed a pint to settle my nerves.  Inside the long, sunny pub we found three cask ales on offer and an enticing menu heavy on seafood.  Two of the three beers were from the nearby Applecross Brewery, which the barman told us had recently opened.  Given the remoteness of the location a local brewery seems like a godsend for the locals, after all the road over the pass must be closed for much of the winter.  The third offering was a stout from Isle of Skye Brewing. I wouldn’t be surprised if those casks are delivered via a boat/ferry.  I opted for a pint of the golden ale from the local brewery. It was not a spectacular beer, rather more hazy than I suspect the brewers intended, but it was fresh, balanced and sessionable.

Applecross Inn
A view of the Applecross Inn looking back from the rocky beach.

The day was too gorgeous to eat inside, so we placed our food order and took our pints out to enjoy on a wooden picnic table near the rocky beach.  My fish pie was excellent, in fact all of the meals were fantastic, the beer was fresh, and the view across the sound to the Isles of Rassay and Skye unmatched.  This was a moment to soak in the beauty of this remote corner of Britain, not obsess about the hop varieties or base malts in your beer.

Applecross Stout
The last of a half-pint of stout while looking out across the bay toward the Isle of Skye where it was brewed.

I’ll leave it here, but look for a future post describing our visit to craft beer powerhouse BrewDog on Scotland’s northeast coast.

Castles

I did promise castles in the title, and Scotland is chock full of them, a few even have roofs and indoor plumbing.  Unfortunately, none that I encountered feature a working pub, so rather than try to work them into the narrative I’ll just finish with a few photos of the castles we visited while driving from pub to pub.

Let’s start with Eilean Donan Castle, located on Loch Duich not far from the Skye Bridge.  Destroyed during the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, rebuilt in the early 20th century.  Featured in many movies including a role as the home of clan MacLeod in the 1986 movie Highlander, and as the Scottish headquarters of MI6 in the Pierce Brosnan-era Bond movie, The World is Not Enough.

Eillean Donan Castle

Next onto Urquhuart Castle, which sits on the shores of Loch Ness.  Destroyed in 1690 during battles between the supporters of deposed James VII and William of Orange.

Urquhart Castle

Next over the eastern coast, just south of Aberdeen, for a look at Dunnottar Castle.  It fell into disrepair following the 1715 Jacobite rebellion and underwent restoration during the 20th century.  Famous as the place where the Scottish crown, sword and scepter were kept safe from Oliver Cromwell’s forces during one of Britain’s civil wars.

Dunnottar Castle

I’ll end with a picture of Loch Shiel rallying point for the Bonny Prince Charlie led Jacobite rebellion, and fictional birthplace of Connor MacLeod from the Highlander movies.

Loch Shiel

4 thoughts on “Cask Ales and Castles – Pub Hopping in Western Scotland

Add yours

  1. Great post and the first leg is as faithfully represented as possible post Green Devil. Applecross is exciting! A friend of mine wants to cycle that road but my knees have said no. Sounds like it will stick in your memory. Hope the rest of your trip was as good.

    1. A memorable trip without a doubt. We did see several cyclists on the roads going into and out of Applecross. I think some of them were covering ground about as fast as we were in the van, but it’s no road for the casual cyclist. Thanks again for the hospitality, it’s much appreciated.

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