If my arithmetic is correct this is the 200th article I have written for this column.
It is proof if any was needed that we live in a part of the world with a long and varied history that can happily accommodate the Roman legionaries of the second century, the iron moulders of the 21st and all things great and small between.
One lady who had read a few of the articles said to me: “You must have spent a lot of time in pubs because you talk about them all the time!”
A bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but it’s true that memory lane for me has a watering hole on every corner and, of course, the pub experience 50 years ago was very different from today’s glitzy, noisy, overcrowded, gastro pubs and sports bars.
Falkirk High Street, for example, seemed to have a public bar every few yards from the Callendar Arms in the east to the Royal Hotel in the west. These were mostly small, dark, smoky places and many still had spitoons for the use of pipe smokers.
The choice on offer was pretty limited: pints of heavy or light beer with the occasional ‘wee heavy’ from Fowlers. Spirits meant what folk these days call ‘cooking whisky’ in tiny wee glasses – Bells, Haigs, the Abbots Choice or George IV. Some of the old boys drank rum but there was not a single malt in sight – we had never heard of them until Glen Grant made an appearance down in the 1066, a fancy new ‘cocktail’ bar in Grahams Road.
It was part of the RB Buffet (now Baristas) and women were welcome which was also quite a change. Seeing a female in the public bars was rare though some had little ‘snug bars’ separate from the male throng next door.
As I recall there was no food available other than packets of plain crisps with wee blue bags of salt!
You could find the odd variation in what was on offer over the counter. In the Cat Inn where Greigs the bakers is today you might savour a glass of “superior British sherry” with the glorious name of Vordo (to rhyme with Bordeaux I suppose).
It tasted like sweet vinegar – not that I remember ever trying it you understand! In general my mates and I tried to avoid the wee pokey places which were full of old men. Not for us the Gaff , the Pie Office, the Black Bull, the Red Lion or the Glue Pot. We preferred the Commercial in Manor Street, now the Scotia Bar, the Burns Bar now sadly empty, or the Newmarket still to the fore.
The exception was the King’s Head in Robert’s Wynd where the Howgate is today.
For years this was our regular Friday night haunt where we could gather in the upper room or play darts in the bar.
I remember the night it caught fire and the sense of loss that followed was like a bereavement.
Still we had plenty of other spots to fall back on but it was never quite the same.
One significant difference from today was the opening hours. All the pubs shut at 9.30pm and 10 minutes before that the bell rang to signify ‘last orders’.
This meant a rush to grab a last pint and order the ‘cairy oot’ so that the refreshments could continue elsewhere. All the public bars were closed on a Sunday so we had to find our way over to Larbert where we could sign the book at the Plough Hotel as ‘bona fide’ travellers and thus continue as before. Later in the 1960s the hours were extended to 10pm, but that was it.
I am seldom in a pub these days. If I did have to choose a reminder of my youth then the Wellington in Manor Street or the Woodside look the most likely. Otherwise it’s got to be the Wheatsheaf, Falkirk’s oldest pub, where I could sit in a quiet corner and raise a glass in fond remembrance of the way things used to be.