The essential guide to Glasgow's best pubs and bars
This is a Glasgow pub that originally had some of the history of city built into the very fabric of the building. Its well off the regular tourist trail and it has some of the oddest opening hours anywhere but if you’re around and it’s open you should go and have a look -plus a pint- in what is one of Glasgow’s most historical bars. With connections from Robert Burns to Billy Connolly to the last witch burned at the stake in Scotland, it is all in all a very interesting wee bit of the city.
The Sarry Heid -as any Glaswegian will call it- has a long history but this history covers two different sites and buildings, both places are just a short walk up the town’s Gallowgate. This is one of the city’s oldest streets and got this name as it was the entrance to the city’s Gallows for public hangings. The original Saracen Head Inn was built by Robert Tennent, who was part of the Tennents family who started the Wellpark Brewery that still makes his namesake lager to this day.
In 1754 he was granted the land of little St Mungo’s which had been a small chapel started around 1500, the grant came with the condition that he would build a hotel on the site and he was given permission to use the stones from the towns old East Port and possibly stones from the historic Bishops Castle, which had originally dated back to at least 1258. In October 1755 the hotel was completed and Robert advertised in the Glasgow Courant that ‘he has built a convenient and handsome new inn….containing 36 fire rooms -meaning a fireplace in each room-…the beds are all very good, clean and free from bugs’. It was three storeys high and had a 100-foot frontage with protruding wings at either end. Along with the 36 rooms there was a ballroom to entertain up to 100 people, stables for horses, a yard for coaches, kitchens, wine cellars and grand flight of stairs to the entrance hall; it was certainly Glasgow’s most stately hotel of the time.
Sadly the inn had bankrupted Tennent and he died two years after it was opened, his creditors leased it to his widow and then to James Graham who ran the Black Bull Inn on the Westergate- now Argyle street- he also had the nearby Graham’s square named after him. After his death in 1777 his wife Jean then took it on and it was under their guidance the inn enjoyed its hayday years with the likes of the famous Dr Samuel Johnson returning from his tour of the Hebrides to stay at the hotel in 1773. In July 1788 the first ever London-Glasgow mail coach arrived at the Saracen to great ceremony and it was in this same year that Scotland’s Bard Robert Burns spent a night in the hotel, a bit more on him later.
The money curse struck again when Jean’s second husband went bankrupt and she had to give up the Saracen. There was a later visit from William Wordsworth who arrived in the first ever hackney coach to be seen in the city. The inn was sadly converted into shops and houses in 1791 which proved the start of the slow death of the building and area, it went slowly downhill as did much of the Gallowgate until the building was demolished 1904, but not before another Saracen Head Inn was opened at the opposite corner from the original to keep the name alive.
Today this Saracen Head still stands although there is a large 1760’s Glasgow made Delftfield pottery punch bowl in the Peoples Place museum as a reminder to the opulence of the old inn with the inscription ‘Success to the town of Glascow ‘in its centre under the Glasgow coat of arms. The present building is pretty old in itself but not as old as 1755, when you go through the big double height doorway you’ll see the wood panelled bar running up the right hand side in front of you. It does still have a ‘stepped back in time’ feel to it with the old fashioned booths, high ceilings still coloured yellow from the smoking days, embossed wallpaper, central fireplace, loads of pictures of old Glasgow at the far end of the bar, a nice mirrored gantry and lights that look like they were stolen from the top of some Victorian street lighting all keeping the yesterday’s world look.
There is still loads to be found of interest in the Saracen ‘mark two’ and they call themselves a ‘pub museum’. One thing I always notice after getting a beer and turning round to find a seat is the display cabinets on the wall which are crammed full of artifacts, from old swords, tankards, a second world war German dagger, trophies, early golf clubs, some guns supposedly from Jacobite days and more. But by far the oddest and most macabre is a human skull said to be that of Maggie Wall. She is thought to be the last woman burned at the stake in Scotland as a witch in 1657; this poor woman was one of thousands around Scotland who during far more religious and paranoid times was put to death for non-existent reasons near the village of Dunning. A memorial to her still stands on the spot although it’s unclear who erected it and what is even more strange is no-one knows who repaints the lettering which has been reapplied quite regularly to keep it fresh since it was first put up or why her head eventually turned up in a Glasgow boozer.
Some other unique touches to the pub are such things like most of the seating being taken from some Glasgow trams before they disappeared in 1962, so the Saracen Head is the only place other than the Transport Museum where you can still sit on an old Glasgow tram seat. There was also until fairly recently a hand written poem by Robert Burns himself in 1795, it was kept at the pub behind glass and metal bars but is now apparently ‘in safe hands’ and has not been seen for a few years . There is also of course the local ghosts who apparently haunt the pub. One other story is from Glasgow’s great comedian Billy Connolly who claims that there was a misprint in the bible and the last supper wasn’t in Galilee at all but in the Gallowgate at the Sarry Heid! This was made famous in his Crucifixion sketch in the early 70’s.
There is alcohol to be had of course although the Sarry Heid is quite limited, there’s Tennents lager, Guinness, Stella, Tennents Special and Strongbow cider on tap, with bottles of beer and the usual whisky, vodka and the like available as well and all at very cheap prices -£2.50 a Tennents- although there’s no food to be had -other than bar snacks- and the toilets look as old as the rest of the place.
A particularly good time to go to the pub and if you’re lucky and it’s actually open is before a gig at the nearby Barrowland Ballroom, which is Glasgow’s best music venue. One time you can be sure the pub is open is during the weekend when you can have a look about the famous Barras Market and then go for a beer. The pub gets really busy if there’s football on at the nearby Celtic Park and if you don’t know much about Glasgow’s football scene then the whole Gallowgate could be a daunting place but it really shouldn’t be and can be a great place to visit with good local folk all about who will regale you with many a story, probably about the football…
It’s not the trendiest pub in Glasgow by any stretch of the imagination, the Gallowgate itself is one of Glasgow’s more ‘rustic’ parts but it’s an old school Glasgow boozer packed with character and the locals and staff are always friendly, a good example being the last time I was in with a mate we were treated to the DJ doing a cracking stand-up routine with the other locals rather than bothering putting on too many songs. There can be great atmosphere with the singing and dancing to karaoke, the DJ or football songs to the point where they currently have signs up asking you not to dance on the bar!
It’s not one that the roaming tourist often goes to and if you want to go when it’s quiet check the back pages of the newspapers, but it’s a great pub, busy or quite there doesn’t need to be anything fancy about it at all and as Billy said ‘it’s quite a popular place for cocktails of an evening!’ or at least a well-priced pint and a bit of banter.