Glasgow’s oldest pub: the quest continues

Glasgow’s oldest pub: the quest continues

Glasgow's oldest pub

As the bars re-open, we thought this was a good time to look into the vexed question of Glasgow’s oldest pub.

It is a closely fought battle with many competing claims. Some more dubious than others.

Get yourself a pint, pull up a chair and we’ll get going.

For many people, The Old College Bar on the High Street is, without doubt, the oldest bar in Glasgow.

The legend has it that parts of the building which house the bar date back to the early 16th century. To be exact, 1515 is the year often cited.

Back then Glasgow University was based on the High Street hence the name of the bar.

The idea that thirsty college students have been knocking back the pints here for the last 500 years is appealing.

Unfortunately, a number of sources disagree with this romantic story. According to the excellent Old Glasgow Pubs site, the pub was built in 1810 and got its licence in 1812.

Colin Beattie, a well known Glasgow publican and one time owner of The Old College Bar, has revealed that the 16th century myth was invented by a previous owner as a way of boosting business.

According to Mr Beattie, the 16th century cobbles in the bar’s cellar are not from a medieval street, as was supposed. Instead, they are the remnants of a Victorian rail yard.

Old but not that old.

The High Street is in one of Glasgow’s earliest neighbourhoods so it’s perhaps no surprise that another contender for the title can be found not very far away on the Gallowgate.

Witch’s skull

We have mentioned The Saracen’s Head in a previous blog, but it’s worth repeating that The Sarry Heid – as locals know it – has a long and colourful history.

Charles Dickens, Robert Burns and Dr Johnson have all refreshed themselves there and the interior decor includes a skull in a glass case. It is said to be that of the last witch executed in Scotland.

And after a few drinks, you may even believe it.

Either way, there has been a Saracen’s Head bar on the Gallowgate since 1755.

You might think that would make it a shoe-in for Glasgow’s oldest bar. In fact, there has actually been four Sarry Heids on the street in that time.

Can the longevity claim survive via the name alone? Does it matter that the business has changed hands, premises and even usage in that period?

We think it is moot.

Folkie favourite

The cosy interior of The Scotia. Pic: Belhaven Bars

Built in 1792, The Scotia on Stockwell Street by the River Clyde would get the oldest pub vote from many a Glaswegian.

1792 was definitely a long time ago. Of course, whether or not it has been a pub all that time is less clear.

What we are certain about is that it was at the heart of Glasgow’s folk music revival in the Sixties.

Back then, it attracted performers such as Billy Connolly, Gerry Rafferty, Bert Jansch, Barbara  Dickson, The Corries, Rab Noakes, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain.

It still hosts regular live music – or at least it did prior to Covid – and guests can always be sure of a convivial atmosphere once ensconced in its well weathered interior.

If you have got this far then you will have noticed that we are not really any closer to answer. We have still to decide definitively which establishment is Glasgow’s oldest surviving watering hole.

And that is where we will leave it. Some puzzles are best left unsolved.

Much better to have a hoary chestnut to chew over while sipping a dram and supping an accompanying pint.

The Eat Walk Glasgow tours don’t visit The Old College Bar, The Sarry Heid or The Scotia. However, they do draw upon a roster of other interesting bars such as Babbity Bowster, Alston, Hutchesons and Rab Ha’s. All of which have their own stories to tell.

We hope to see you there.

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