The essential guide to Glasgow's best pubs and bars
This is one of those pubs that if you’re visiting the city and want to see a ‘Glasgow’ bar then it is one of the first you should seek out. It’s a proper heritage pub which has a fair bit of history attached to it. It’s also another one of the handful of pubs that lay claim to the disputed title of ‘oldest bar in Glasgow’, some of the others being the Old College Bar, Sloans and the Saracen’s Head Inn.
The Scotia’s claim lies in that the place was built in 1792; although the building has been here since then it wasn’t actually a pub until 1815 when the first licence was granted. The street that the Scotia sits on is old, really old, Stockwell Street. It’s one of the original streets of Glasgow, it’s thought that its first name was the Fishergait as it was the entrance to the town for fishermen coming off the River Clyde, over time it became Stockwell street after a well on the street (a stock was a wooden well) that was used by the people of the early town.
The corner of Stockwell and Clyde Street was the site of the Dreghorn mansion built in 1752, the mansion went through the Dreghorn family eventually coming to the third Robert Dreghorn in 1764 along with the mansion he inherited the large Dreghorn fortune that made him one of the richest men in Glasgow almost overnight. Robert had contracted smallpox as a child and it had left him disfigured with the loss of an eye, large pits in his skin and half a nose. He was nicknamed ‘Bob Dragon’ as he was considered the ugliest man in town but he would still walk proudly over the Glasgow ‘plainstanes’ dressed in the most expensive coats and powdered wigs carrying his cane. He would follow the young ladies but would rarely speak to them although he was never rude or nasty to them, the ladies would usually just laugh and run off. Bob never married and sadly committed suicide in Dreghorn Mansion in 1804. The mansion quickly became to be thought haunted by Bob’s ghost and this continued right into the late 1970’s when the last of the mansion was pulled down.
The Pub had the Scotia Music Hall open next door in 1862, it was unlicensed until 1892 and renamed the Metropole in 1896 when Stan Laurel’s (of Laurel and Hardy fame) father Arthur was running it. This was the high point of the Glasgow music hall age which had seen hundreds of music and variety halls spring up all over the city from the 1700’s onwards. They began their decline in popularity with the advent of cinema in the city at the turn of the 20th century. The Metropole itself eventually going the same way as so many of the other old music halls of Glasgow when it was destroyed by fire in 1961 long after it had put on its last show. The pub does keep the live entertainment legacy going very well up to the present day.
The Scotia had been up and running since 1815 but it closed its doors for the first time in its history in 1906. It was then taken over by a China Merchants and then a Drapery business and this looked to be last orders for the pub. Thankfully it was reopened as a bar in 1929 and was refurbished in the fashion of the time for mock-Tudor buildings which it has retained outside to this day (the style was popular again in the 1960’s with a good example of that being The Doublet bar in the west of the city). It closed its doors once again in 1970’s due to the pub becoming rundown and local gang violence. It got a refurbishment once more in 1987 to bring it back to its 1790’s roots, it was reopened and the beer started flowing once more.
As you go in through the old style swing doors you’ll notice that the inside feels older than the whitewash and black wood of the outside, with the low timber ceiling, the bar looking a good age with the terrazzo spittoon and brass match strikers still in situ. The dark panelled walls and wooden floors creaking with character really do give a feeling to the pub that it could just have some connection all the way back to 1792 even after all changes throughout the many years. It all lends to a cosy atmosphere and this is certainly a big part of the charm of the place for me.
The bar turns in a dog leg which connects the main bar area to the sectioned off lounge, this is where live music is played most nights but it also means that you can sit at the other end of the bar and still hear people speak but enjoy the music at the same time. There is also one of Glasgow’s few snugs that are left in here, they where once a big feature in most pubs in Scotland and the Scotia still has the old service bell pusher in there too. The toilets have not been upgraded in quite a while although they are kept fairly clean and tidy. All over the walls are pictures of Glasgow of old that can almost give a feeling of a wee museum with a particular good one showing the whole city of Glasgow in 1861 through in the lounge. There’s also a painting of the famous Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 in pride of place opposite the bar just next to a small model of the pub on the windowsill and a board telling a good part of the history of the Scotia to the right of it.
One of the main reasons for coming to any pub is obviously for a drink and what’s on show in The Scotia is all good, if a bit limited. There’s real ale that’s changed every week and the malt of the month (it’s always a cheap dram usually around £1.99). The beer on tap has much of the Glasgow standard, Tennents, Stella, Belhaven, Guinness, Stongbow et al with a fair whiskey selection and the usual bottled beers, wines and soft drinks in the fridges under the gantry. There’s also food which has the ‘home cooked’ tag on the menu and it’s only available until 4pm. Both the food and drink is well priced although I do miss the cold meat rolls that you were able to get behind the bar a while ago.
A big reason for the continued popularity of the Scotia is the live music which is open to everyone who fancies a go (but check it’s the right night) there’s something on most nights of the week. It’s had a folk music connection since at least the 60’s and it’s because of this that its most famous patron is such a fan of the place to this day, he is of course Billy Connolly (you can find his picture on the wall) he still comes in once in a while along with his other old haunt the Saracen’s Head Inn. He’s talked about a few of his nights in the Scotia in some of his comedy shows over the years, with one story about a fire in a factory across the street which ended in half the people in the pub being washed into the toilet by a fire hydrant which was just outside!
There have been many big names in the Scottish folk music scene that have played in the Scotia over the last forty years and now they play alongside other music styles that have started being heard in the last few years, from blues, rock and the odd poet it seems the Scotia caters for all these days. They also have a writers evenings where people can read out their own stuff and have a chat with other writers about each other’s work, even the great Scottish writer William McIlvanay has been seen in a few times.
It’s a really good pub to visit for a quite pint during the week and can be fun looking at all the old photos and prints on the walls as you might just find it quite enough then to look about, at the weekend you can enjoy a ‘rerr terr’ with the live music and a few pints and all the friendly locals, punters and staff. It might not be the oldest in the city but it’s been sitting on Stockwell Street for quite a while now and the building has reinvented itself a few times in the last two hundred plus years and as I always love jumping the Scotia for a pint so I hope it’s still here as a pub for at least another two hundred more.