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Glasgow’s 'Hard Men' Have Nowhere Left to Drink

As Glasgow leaves behind it’s reputation as “the city of the stare,” its famously unwelcoming “hard men” pubs are also being lost to city regeneration and changing drinking tastes.
December 30, 2015, 11:00am
All photos by the author.

It's Friday lunchtime on an unseasonably warm April day in Glasgow. A dozen people sit in front of The Portland Arms' polished stone doorway, enjoying the sunshine while sipping pints or lighting cigarettes. The pub is located in a prominent position on Shettleston Road, one of the main thoroughfares in the East End of the city. Unlike areas in the West End, Shettleston is not typically considered a destination of choice for the growing number of weekend drinkers visiting Glasgow.

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The Portland is nonetheless a popular bar in the local community.

"We're known as a mixed house—both Celtic and Rangers fans drink here," explains Joyce Ferguson, who has worked behind the bar for 14 years. "It's a good shop, there's never any hassle. The staff and the customers all have a laugh together. And it's not just Shettleston people, a lot of customers come down from Cranhill and other places."

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The Portland does not resemble the average working man's pub. Purpose-built in 1938 in the Art Deco style, its decor has remained pretty much the same, retaining veneer-panelled walls and custom-made fireplaces. It is listed by Historic Scotland as a building of historical importance.

"You cannie touch it. You can build up but you cannie build out," laughs Joyce.

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The Portland Arms on Glasgow's Shettleston Road.

Unlike those in Dublin or Edinburgh, Glasgow's historic pubs tend not to be marketed as visitor attractions. A prime example is the Old College Bar on the city centre High Street, which has traded under the same name since 1812. While an application was made to demolish the bar and adjacent buildings by its owners in 2013, it remains open—for now.

"It's still coming down," shrugs a barman when I ask about its future. "I don't know when, I just work here."

The Old College lies on the edge of the Merchant City, a square mile filled with a mix of cocktail bars and new apartment complexes that would look familiar to anyone from Liverpool or Manchester. Like other large, former industrial European cities, Glasgow has changed at a rapid rate over the last 40 years, and so have its pubs.

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"The 'hard men' of yesteryear are now elderly. Some of them still drink in bars but predominantly during daylight hours," explains Scott Graham, who has documented this evolution on his Bar Biographer blog. "Glasgow bars of today are less used as meeting places for locals or places where deals are done."

In other parts of the UK, Glasgow's reputation as a city of hard men whose free time is spent drinking heavily in pubs unwelcoming to strangers still lingers.

Glasgow was memorably described as "the city of the stare" by crime novelist and godfather of Tartan Noir fiction William McIlvanney. It summed up a reputation that persisted throughout the 20th century and still lingers today in other parts of the UK: Glasgow is a city of hard men working in hard industries, whose free time is spent drinking heavily in pubs unwelcoming to strangers.

But now, all that has changed.

"Our reputation as a city with a dangerous centre is all but a distant memory, with a dramatic drop in crime over the previous ten years," says Stuart Patrick, chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce. "We have some of the best pubs and bars Scotland has to offer, catering to all manner of interests, tastes, and styles. These are a vital cog in the city's overall economy."

Patrick's picture of Glasgow's utopian drinking scene may not apply to all corners of the city. Jim Cameron has frequented pubs in the Kinning Park and Possilpark areas of Glasgow for almost 40 years, and their appearance has changed little in that time. What is different is the behaviour of those who drink there.

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Old College Bar in the Merchant City area of Glasgow.

"It is much safer to go out drinking these days; there doesn't seem to be the appetite for violence there was when I was younger. It wouldn't be surprising to walk past some poor slob nursing a slashed face on the street," says Cameron. "I always recall the time some poor guy took a heart attack and died in my local while the karaoke was on. It continued while people were waiting for the ambulance. They were very serious about their karaoke."

One area that has undergone a marked change is Finnieston and neighbouring Anderston (also the birthplace of Billy Connolly). Once solidly working class, their proximity to the West End and the new BBC Scotland studios have led to significant transformations of local pubs. Lebowski's—today a popular bar and restaurant—was known not so long ago as The Sandyford.

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"It must have been one of the last boozers in Glasgow not to have a ladies toilet. A punter would stand outside when women were using it as a guard," recalls Cameron.

Another noteworthy Finnieston bar is the Two Ways, which became famous as the watering hole in Rab C. Nesbitt, a long-running BBC comedy following "lowlife scum (and proud of it) in Glasgow." Now known as Brass Monkey, it attracts few customers in string vests.

Rab and his chorts would most likely be shocked at the variety—and price—of drinks now on sale in Brass Monkey and its neighbouring bars. While Tennent's Lager remains, by some distance, the most popular beer on sale in Glasgow and across central Scotland, other once ubiquitous ales have largely disappeared from refurbished bar taps.

I always recall the time some poor guy took a heart attack and died in my local while the karaoke was on. It continued while people were waiting for the ambulance. They were very serious about their karaoke.

It's unlikely you'll find McEwan's Export or Skol on draft in many Argyle Street boozers, despite continuing to sell in respectable quantities in shops. Other traditional "heavies" (as Scottish beer was once known) including Younger's No.3 have all but disappeared; victims of the neverending mergers that defined the brewing business in the late 20th century.

There is some concern that these new drinking habits and the bars that cater to them may sweep away part of Glasgow's history.

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"Not enough is being done to ensure the existence of historic bars," says Graham. "Other cities, such as Belfast, have been successful in campaigns to save their heritage bars—for example the preservation of the Crown Liquor Saloon. Unfortunately, Glasgow councils have a very bad track record in this regard."

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The Laurieston bar in the Gorbals.

A short walk over the Clyde from the city centre is the Gorbals, an area that was once a byword for gangland violence. Today it is quiet, as the second comprehensive development plan of the past 50 years is carried out, clearing the old high rises for new homes to be built.

The Laurieston bar is one of the few local institutions to have survived and has achieved cult status among drinkers thanks to its intact 1960s interior and reputation for above-average customer service.

"We're publicans, we're not entrepreneurs," he explains John Clancy, who has managed the pub with his brother James for more than three decades. "You've got to be there in your own pub to make sure everything is right and deal with people. We take it for granted, because we've been doing it for so long. But you go into some pubs now and it is different—there is not that personal touch."

In a city where talking to strangers is viewed as natural, it may be this personal touch that keeps Glasgow's traditional bars in business.

This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2015.