Granite City Social History (a Dram)*
A letter-writer, signing simply “Sassenach”, wrote to the Aberdeen Evening Press on October 21, 1954, supporting a licensing body’s rejection for a “certificate” to build and operate a public house in the Northfield section.
Starting in 1950 Northfield was opened up as a housing estate, a harbinger of the postwar suburban boom that echoed throughout Britain. This area of Aberdeen had been known for a quarry, with the interesting name Dancing Cairns.
The new homes sprung up to one side of the stony gap, welcoming army veterans, ex-war workers, and others helping to build the new Britain.
The writer was direct:
[This is] … not because I think there anything inherently wrong with pubs, but because there is something far wrong with drinking habits in Scotland. In England few people would object to a pub on a housing estate. The pub, along with the church, is the amenity to be provided. That is because the average Englishman drinks beer and sticks to it—and in moderation, too. The Scot on the other hand will mix whisky with his beer. On Saturday night after closing time there are always some noisy drunks on the street. No wonder people want pubs to be kept out of residential areas.— Sassenach.
(All press references herein are via British Newspaper Archive except as otherwise noted).
A subtext here is, the pub planned was on English lines, the type built as oasis for the new outer-city homes being built throughout Britain, hence welcoming to both women and men and in some cases families.
The Scottish bar was, in contrast, with some exceptions in large cities, a different animal: male-oriented, with fewer amenities, often geared as much to spirits as to beer.
In a word the two institutions were long regarded as separate, with occasional mixing and matching. Peter Alexander who writes on beer and pubs from his English base commented recently on this historic difference in a quote included in my post, “The Scotia Bar, Aberdeen”.
In the same newspaper on December 3, 1952, when the plan to allow the Northfield pub had first been floated, the paper did “man in the street” interviews to see if locals approved.
The question put to them:
Which do you prefer—the English-type public-house or the Scottish bar?
Two men and two women were queried, middle-aged by their photos. The women objected to the pub. One said, it would encourage women and young girls to enter pubs to drink, and bars should not be turned into “places of recreation”.
The other woman held if people want to do a singalong around the piano they can do it at home where this belongs, and “Scottish bars should be left as they are”.
One of the males thought a pub should welcome a man and woman for an evening of entertainment, not just drinking. The other felt a family room would be useful with someone to mind the children while the parents entered the bar adjacent.
A small sample, but split on gender lines clearly.
So by end of 1954, still no pub. This did not dissuade George Bremner, rendered as Brebner in some accounts, who acquired land in Northfield to build the pub and made continual efforts to obtain a certificate.
Finally, April 20, 1956, the Evening Express reports he succeeded:
GO-AHEAD FOR PUB AT NORTHFIELD.
Mr George Bremner, the Aberdeen man who proposes to build a public house at Marchburn Drive, Northfield, received the final go-ahead from Aberdeen Licensing Appeal Court this afternoon. His application, which was granted by the Licensing Court in March, was confirmed unanimously.
The pub became known as the Dancing Cairns.
It seemed to operate to general satisfaction in the early years, but in a lengthy report dated August 30, 1961 the Evening Express told of fighting, ribald singing, and general disorder.
Bremner was continually seeking, as normal for any business, to expand the pub but as it grew these other problems seemed to grow with it. One witness even objected to the yellow paint scheme, too glaring from his household window.
Nonetheless the pub continued, into the next decade. (Some news reports suggest it became affiliated with Scottish and Newcastle Brewery).
The pub is remembered in an article dated April 27, 2021 in Aberdeen’s The Press and Journal, by Kirstie Waterston. She tells of the years ensuing, and how the pub was loved by some despite its rowdy atmosphere.
This perhaps attests to the part of Scottish bar-keeping that resisted English gentrification. Or maybe it speaks to bar-keeping of a certain kind anywhere.
The great beer writer Michel Jackson (1942-2007) once wrote, although speaking of glass styles – half-pint vs. pints – that “beer-drinking is a robust activity”. (He liked the large measure you see).
So it is and always was, for beering in general. Despite the best efforts of the regulators and tastemakers, one can’t quite efface that from the drinking scene.
As to the Dancing Cairns: it was pulled down in the 1990s. A different sort of public amenity exists there now, a care home. In some ways as the French would put it, it’s le même ordre d’idées.
In the Aberdeen press of latter years there are a surprising (I thought) number of articles remembering pubs of the recent past, the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Whatever misgivings there were 70 years ago about extending the bar in Scottish life seem to have gone with the winds.
One such survey cast back further, to the 19th and early 20th centuries, with striking photos galore. Many of the pubs shown were the old-style Scottish bar.
Take a look in this page of Doric Columns, devoted to Aberdeen history.
*”The Granite City” is a long-time nickname for Aberdeen, Scotland.