Thursday 1st May 2014
During the 1980s I read in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide that this pub served the best McEwan’s 80/- Ale in the whole of Scotland. I also read that customers when entering would display on their fingers the number of pints they required. By the time they arrived at the bar the beers were being delivered. Such an intriguing story had to be checked out and so when I was next in Edinburgh I took the bus out to Dalry.
Well, I can certainly verify that the story was indeed true and the 80/- Ale was better that any other I had tried. The thoughts of this previous visit were in my mind as I walked along Angle Park Terrace towards the pub this time, thirty years on. From the outside it looked more or less the same. I must explain that it is on the ground floor of a five floor tenement and it would be described in North America as a “flat-iron building”. This is because of its shape, being on an acute angle between two streets looking a bit like an upended wedge of cheese!
Inside however, things were different, as they often are nowadays when one revisits a pub after a period of absence.
The divisions between the two front rooms had disappeared, leaving a large open space. Although I wasn’t aware of it, the bar itself is new along with its marble top.
However it was not all gloom and doom as the two bar back-pieces (gantries) were intact, as was the little wooden office of the licensee.
Apparently, according to CAMRA, there are only fifteen of these in the country with eleven in London alone. These are a feature often to be found in the traditional beers halls of Cologne and Düsseldorf in Germany.
There is also a back room and I was pleased to see that this hadn’t changed with its dart board still intact. Here, like the entire pub, the walls are lined with fitted settles with built-in stuffed red leather cushioning in the traditional style. These are faced by wooden tables and loose stools and seats that are also covered with the same red leather.
A really notable feature is the highly-polished brass bell-pushes to summon a bar-tender / waiter to place an order. Whether or not they still operate is unknown.
The back room has a nice tiled floor and some nice old wood panelling on the corridor between the two rooms. The flooring in the main bar room is wooden with a nice inlaid compass. Possibly useful if one becomes a little disorientated? At first I thought that the lower halves of the windows were of stained glass but on closer inspection I see that there are separate internal screens.
The red leather seating and the windows look new and possibly are. The window screens pose a specific question as one of them advertises Caledonian Brewery’s Deuchar’s IPA. Well that can’t be very old! Possibly the old screens have been restored with the Deuchar’s logo applied. Whatever the ancestry of these features, the end result is very pleasant on the eye.
So, a little history: The pub and tenement above were constructed in 1889. By 1899 the building was owned by the T.W. Innes, who were a housing trust. Over the years the pub increased its popularity, especially on match days when Heart of Midlothian FC play at home; their Tynecastle ground is just around the corner, On the same subject, Murrayfield Rugby Union stadium is not a million miles away, so check fixtures before a visit.
Returning to the pub’s story, a fundamental change occurred in the early 1990s when it was purchased by Scottish & Newcastle Breweries. In 2002 the partitions were removed and, although I am not sure, the new bar and marble top might well have been installed before this.
I am inclined to believe that Scottish & Newcastle acquired the pub because it sold large quantities of one of their products.
As far as I remember back in the 1980s, the only real beer offering was the aforementioned 80/- Ale. There were 11 tall fonts of the Aitken variety.
To digress a little; it was once (maybe still is) a law in Scotland that a pint of beer should be served in full view of the customer. Thus, traditional hand pumps were not used. It was this law that contributed greatly to greater proliferation of keg beers in the 50s and 60s in the country.
The oldest of these tall fonts were operated by water pressure through a system of cisterns. Any knowledge on whether any of these are still used would be greatly appreciated.
Later the most common system of propulsion was air pressure and this is how the eight remaining examples here at the Diggers operate using two compressors, the other three were removed by Scottish & Newcastle.
Just another small digression is that the pub is known as “The Diggers” rather than its given name of the Athletic Arms. This is because it is close to two cemeteries and their gravediggers were frequent patrons of the pub, hence the name.
So, let’s have a look at the beers; there are two regulars and these are Caledonian (Edinburgh) Deuchar’s IPA (3.8%) and Stewart Brewing (Edinburgh) Digger’s 80/- (4.4%). See below regarding the story of the latter beer. Both of these are served from the tall fonts of both sides on the central bar.
When I called in there were four guest beers available and these were Sonnet 43 Brew House (Coxhoe, Co. Durham) Brown Ale (4.7%); Kelburn (East Renfrewshire) Jaguar (4.5%) from the tall fonts. They also have two hand pumps and these were dispensing Sonnet 43 Brew House India Pale Ale (4.4%) and Houston (Houston, Renfrewshire) Peter’s Well (4.2%).
As mentioned earlier, this pub was an outlet for a vast amount of McEwan’s 80/- Ale. It should be remembered that when this house got its reputation for its quality cask beer, the majority of Edinburgh’s pubs were serving keg versions. Even though they probably didn’t know it, the customers of the Diggers were choosing cask-conditioned ales on taste alone and you can’t get a better testament than that!
However the final blow came in 2006 when Scottish & Newcastle discontinued sales of 80/- Ale. It was said that the Diggers took 25% of its total production at the end, remarkable! After a questionnaire and sample tastings of trial beers from Stewart Brewing of Edinburgh a suitable replacement was found in the form of Digger’s 80?-. This attempts to replicate the defunct 80/- Ale with a new version that has the same overall taste yet brewed with quality ingredients.
So, for beer alone you should visit the Diggers when in Edinburgh; it will repay the short journey out of town. Food is not a major feature here but the pies are said to be highly rateable. They offer around 130 malt whiskies displayed on their own gantry, see above left. A wonderful old Scottish tradition is represented by the old brass water tap on the bar used for whisky dilution. The pub is very dog friendly; please look at the photograph above of one customer waiting to be served! On the contrary, children are not encouraged as this pub is an adult environment.
The Athletic Arms (The Diggers), 1-3 Angle Park Terrace, Edinburgh. EH11 2JX
Tel: 0131 337 3822
Open: Mon-Sat 11.00-01.00; Sun 12.30-00.00
It is possible to get to the pub by bus and I caught one to Dalry and then it was a walk of less than ten minutes to get there. However the best way is to use the 34 or 35 routes which run past the door.
They both start at Leith Ocean Terminal. The 34 runs through the city centre along Princes Street and the 35 operates via the Old Town.