Black and white image of three men sitting in the Horseshoe Bar, Motherwell c.1995 The Horseshoe Bar, Motherwell, around 1995

Pulling Pints: Pub Culture

5 min read

Archaeology has revealed that the inhabitants of Bronze Age Britain drank ale, but it was the arrival of the Romans and the subsequent growth of a road network and tabernae, or refreshment stops, which firmly established Britain’s drinking culture.

During the Middle Ages rustic beers, wild fruit wines and mead became increasingly popular amongst the Celtic peoples.  Monks tended vineyards and perfected the art of brewing to support the monastic movement.  By the end of the Middle Ages beer had become popular in Scotland, and the popularity of whisky was also evident by the sixteenth century.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was commonplace for British agricultural labourers to quench their thirst with a pitcher of cheap ale or cider.  Even children were encouraged to drink “small beer” with low alcohol content as a nutritious alternative to unsafe water.

The growth of heavy industry in Lanarkshire led to the mass immigration of labourers and spawned the rapid expansion of public houses. In Coatbridge, one such example is the Sunnyside Tavern, pictured below. Two miners wearing helmets and carrying picks can be seen beside of the building.

Operating alongside these public houses were merchants such as James Greig, who is listed in the Post Office’s Annual Glasgow Directory 1895-96 as a restaurateur and wine merchant located in Main Street, Coatbridge.

Socialising in “spit and sawdust” pubs became ingrained in working class culture during the twentieth century, from a quick “hauf an’ a hauf” at lunchtimes to a few pints after work, while weekend drinking often centred around Saturday football matches. Drinking between or after shifts was commonplace for steelworkers and other heavy industry employees. The King Lud and Era Bar were regular haunts for Ravenscraig workers.

They worked hard… but when they were off, or even during shifts, they would play hard, and alcohol was a factor in that.” (Former Ravenscraig employee)

Pubs were traditionally a male domain. While the breadwinners commonly drank their earnings, women were generally expected to attend to domestic duties and balance the housekeeping books. Many women turned to the Temperance Movement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Landlords began to cater for a female clientele from the 1960s but some pubs in areas of North Lanarkshire did not allow women beyond the lounge until the turn of the millennium!

Similarly, relaxed drinking establishments were not readily available to men and women within the LGBT community. Even in cities such as Glasgow, gay-friendly venues had to be very discreet before homosexuality was decriminalised in 1981. In the masculinised areas of North Lanarkshire, the situation was significantly more difficult.

Brewers, distillers, retailers and licensing laws largely shape the pub business. During the nineteenth century many pubs became tied to specific breweries. Those that didn’t were known as free houses. Off-sales counters were a common feature of larger British pubs until supermarkets, chain stores and off-licenses began undercutting them in the 1970s, pricing pubs out of the off-sales market within a decade. Scottish pubs benefited from the Licensing (Scotland) Act, 1976, which allowed them to serve alcohol on Sundays.  The act reversed the Public House (Forbes Mackenzie) Act of 1853 and followed a century of measures designed to impose social values on the nation.

More recently, the Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Act 2005 banned smoking in all enclosed public places.  Pubs are no longer the fuggy venues of the past but critics argue that the ban has been detrimental to the industry, with some landlords and brewers experiencing decreased custom and sales.  In contrast, other pubs report increased food sales and supporters of the ban cite notable health benefits.

Modern-day drinking establishments range from traditional-style pubs to contemporary cocktail bars and theme pubs, catering for people across the social spectrum. Since the 1980s, take-overs by the food, hotel and property sectors have resulted in the growth of chains pubs. Recent issues on the agenda of the Scottish Government and health and social services are binge drinking, underage drinking and supermarket sales.  There is also growing concern over the pub industry’s trend towards “grey bars” that target retired workers with disposable incomes. The minimum unit policy (MUP) for alcohol was implemented in Scotland on 1st May 2018.

Leisure opportunities have increased over the years, providing people with varied alternatives to drinking. So too has pub entertainment grown and evolved.  Many pubs have become renowned for their live music scene, from folk and jazz to swing to rock. Karaoke nights often gain notoriety, and juke boxes remain a popular feature even though some have switched to a digital format.

Pub quizzes became popular in the 1970s, while traditional games such as dominoes, cards and bar billiards have largely been replaced by table football, pool and the ubiquitous “puggie”. Modern-day drinking establishments range from traditional-style pubs to contemporary cocktail bars and theme pubs, catering for people across the social spectrum.

Alcohol facts, support and advice can be found on the NHS Scotland website.


Alan Love: Drinking culture at Ravenscraig

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