Roy Stevenson explores Rose Street, the heart of Scotland’s celebrated beer culture where drinkers have been thronging since the Middle Ages.
Published Spring 2010
Edinburgh has the highest concentration of pubs in Great Britain -- 700 for a population of just under 500,000. The epicentre of that beer culture, as any local will tell you, is Rose Street, a brisk 10-minute walk down the hill from the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle.
Rose Street lies between New Town’s upscale Princes Street and George Street. There are 12 pubs in this short 1000m stretch – that’s one public house every 83m. Every year local university students attempt the “Rose Street Challenge” of downing a pint at every bar; but few complete the full monty.
My Rose Street odyssey starts at the west end, at Abbotsford Bar. Dating from 1902, the building was designed by renowned pub architect Peter Henderson. The pub’s centerpiece is a dark brown Spanish mahogany island bar with intricately carved railings and small serving ports that you have to almost stoop to order through.
The “Abbott” serves up Magner’s Golden Draught (Irish Cider), Guinness, Tennents, St. Mungo Lager, Budweiser, Stella Artois, Belhaven Best and Hefeweizen. There’s a good restaurant upstairs that serves traditional Scottish delicacies as Cullen Skink (don’t ask).
On to Milnes of Rose Street where famous Scottish writers would congregate after a hard day pushing the quill around. On tap: Youngs Bitter, Directors and Deuchars IPA, from the Caledonian Brewery.
Just up the road, Robertson’s 37 Bar awaits. Any bar with a gold painted face of England’s ancient green man over its front entrance can’t be bad. This is a friendly place with a velvet-fronted bar along one wall. Its main beers are Guinness, McEwans, Belhaven Best, John Smiths and Tennents. Robertson’s is best known for its selection of fi ne whiskies.
The Black Rose Tavern is where you’ll fi nd the rockers and Goth crowd. I move on quickly to the Rose Street Brewery No.55, a quieter, traditional pub with a varied beer card featuring Deuchars IPA, Caledonian 80 Cask Marque, Staropramen (Czech), Foster’s and Tetley’s Smooth Flow. The restaurant upstairs serves good Sunday roasts.
Moving along, the Auld Hundred is an older two-storey pub with quaint little nooks and crannies and where you’ll meet some of the locals for a wee chat. On tap are Deuchars, Tennents, Guinness Extra Cold and Belhaven Best Extra.
The Kenilworth dates from 1904 and takes its name from a novel by Sir Walter Scott. With warm and cozy furnishings, red wallpaper with gold gilt edged borders, a magnificently decorated ceiling and a large square island bar surrounding a mahogany drinks cabinet, the Kenilworth proved to be in my top three favorite Rose Street pubs.
The Kenilworth offers a huge selection of beers for the beer afi cionado, including Deuchars IPA, Caledonian 80, Stella Artois, Belhaven Best, Guinness, Tennents, Peroni Nastro Azzuro, Hoegaarden, 1664 Kronenbourg and Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted. The Kenilworth’s traditional menu features game pie, veggie haggis, Scottish salmon and steak and ale pie.
The Rose and Crown is another standard pub. Nice enough, but not a crowd puller. So I totter directly across to The Gordon Arms. The pub is named in honour of the Gordon Highlanders, a British Army infantry regiment operating from 1881 to 1994 and famous for its distinctive Gordon tartan.
Then I come to Dirty Dick’s (established 1859), a dimly lit pub with a friendly atmosphere—the sort of place where you can sit with a good mate and yarn for hours over a few pints. Dirty Dick was my favourite bar. It has history -- and a good selection of beers (Guinness, Stella Artois, Edinburgh Gold, Barnstormer Ale, Caledonian, Derail Ale). Decorated with all manner of quirky artifacts and objects: plaster busts, pewter tankards, pictures, old books, a rocking horse with eye patch, a monkey face, clocks, framed newspapers and assorted gnomes.
Leaving Dirty Dicks I pop along to 1780, another nicely appointed bar and restaurant, with large wooden beams across the ceiling and plush wallpaper. This is the sort of establishment where you bring your fi rst date. The 1780 is beautifully decorated and dimly lit enough to help you relax after a hard day. The marble top tables, gold gilt edged mirrors, stained glass light fi xtures and framed historical photos give the 1780 a classy feeling.
The polished wooden corner bar has just enough draught beers on tap to keep you happy, and a good selection of wines. You would be remiss if you did not dine here because the restaurant is magnificently appointed with Victorian purple wallpaper, framed paintings and ornate light fi xtures. The 1780 easily made my top three Rose Street bars.
Directly opposite 1780, Scotts of Rose Street is a traditional corner pub named after a fi ery Scottish republican Ma Scott. This is where some of the more colourful locals will entertain all and sundry, but it was quiet when I visited.
I eventually emerge at the west end of Rose Street after a couple of hours of serious exploration. The street lives up to its reputation as a beer drinker’s institution and pours enough different Ales to satisfy discerning drinkers of all stripes. Although dubbed the “Amber Mile” by beer lovers, the discrepancy in its length is more likely to be the product of drinking too much beer than an actual geographical anomaly.
You’ll enjoy Rose Street. Go there immediately.