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Pub Visit - Scotland

Oxford Bar 1

Thursday 1st May 2014

Bob Thompson

Throughout the world there are many people who are aware of this unprepossessing local yet have never visited it. There is a logical answer to this conundrum and it lies in the novels of Ian Rankin. In these his anti-hero Inspector Rebus uses this pub as his local. Although this means it gets a lot of tourist visitors, the plus side is that the pub has remained relatively unchanged from the time Ian Rankin first began writing about it.

Oxford Bar 2It was built as a pub in 1811 but that didn’t seem to last too long as by 1843 it was noted as being a confectionary shop. Later in the nineteenth century it was back to being a pub as it was recorded as being run by Andrew Wilson, a wine and spirits merchant, in 1893. Its most remembered licensee was Willie Ross who reigned from the mid 1930s to the early 1980s. He was a writer and attracted others, so the pub already had a literary background.

Oxford Bar 4Mr Ross was noted for his very abrupt and rude behaviour. It is said he would not serve women, Englishmen and food. There is a much repeated, yet somewhat variable, story that when someone asked for a menu he was hauled outside and directed to the hanging “Oxford Bar” sign and asked where it said restaurant. During at least one Edinburgh festival he closed the pub for the full three weeks duration. There was a sign in the window that stated “Closed due to Festival”.

He was succeeded in the early eighties by John Gates, who was the opposite and is said by all to be extremely genial. It was during his period of tenure that the young student Ian Rankin began to frequent the pub, meeting John Kurt, see below. He published his first Inspector Rebus book in 1987 and after dallying with using fictional Edinburgh locations, ended up writing about real places.

Another interesting feature of the books is that the characters often have the names of real persons who Mr Rankin has come in contact with, many from the Oxford Bar. Thus landlord John Gates had his name apprehended by the Professor who attended the scene of the many murder crime scenes as leader of the forensic team. His assistant was Dr John Kurt, who was really a teacher and friend of Rankin, who frequented the pub, and briefly worked behind the bar. I guess there are many more like this.

Oxford Bar 3The affable Mr Gates is no longer with us and it is to his credit that there were no major alterations whilst he was in charge and that’s the way it stays to today. If it wasn’t for the aforementioned hanging sign it would be easy to miss the pub as you were walking along Young Street. The only other outside indication that it is licensed premises is the old Bernard’s India Pale ale window sign. Sadly it’s a long defunct brewery.

Inside you soon discover this is a very small pub indeed. To the left is the bar room and as it was before midday it was quite quiet. In fact this was a considerable bonus as there were no other customers, so I quickly ordered a beer and asked the barman if I could take some photographs, he must be used to it. This was very advantageous as the pub soon filled up with lunchtime customers.

If I had turned right on entering I would have found the lounge up a few steps. It is a bit larger than the Public bar. It is known as the “back room” but in reality it is a side room.

Oxford Bar 5Directly opposite its entrance is a brick open fireplace, and judging by the amount of deposited soot above, it gets used often in the colder months. The furniture is mostly corner cushioned church pews against the wall with wooden chairs and tables facing.

Back room patrons are serviced from a small bar counter in the corridor. Back in the front bar I migrated to the end of the room where there is a small wooden bench set underneath the window.

I stood by the end of the bar but subsequent research has revealed that this is referred to as “Dead Man’s Corner. Luckily, I seem to have survived.

The cask beer list consists of one regular and three ever-changing guest beers. This was what was offered when I called in: The permanent beer and Rebus’s personal favourite:
Caledonian (Edinburgh) Deuchars IPA (3.8%)
The three guests were: Hadrian Border Tyneside Blonde (3.9%)
William Bros (Alloa, Clackmannanshire) April Theses (4.2%)
Orkney (Quoyloo, Orkney) Corncrake (4.1%), a mild ale.

It doesn’t matter if you are a fan of Ian Rankin’s books or not, just don’t miss the chance to visit the city’s most unspoilt pub.

Important Information:

The Oxford Bar, 8 Young Street, Edinburgh. Tel: 0131 539 7119

Open: Monday-Thursday 11.00-24.00; Friday-Saturday 11.00-01.00; Sunday 12.30-23.00

From the top of Waverley steps turn left and walk along Princes Street, look out for Castle Street. Turn right into it and keep walking up and over the crest of the hill. At the third intersection turn left into Young Street. You will soon discover the pub on the left. It should take around fifteen minutes from the top of the steps.

Many buses run along Princes Street that stop near Castle Street.

Waverley station has rail connections throughout Scotland, also to a great number of English towns and cities.