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Issue 20 - The true sound of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 20
April 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The true sound of Scotland

Marieke Smegen finds the best places for a traditional tune

Scotland is famous for its traditional music. Wherever you go, you have a good chance of coming across some local musicians playing a tune.

The musical tradition goes back hundreds of years. At first, people gathered in their houses for so-called ceilidhs: an event with music, dance and poetry. Nowadays you are more likely to find this tradition lives on in the local pub.

Music can happen anywhere and the best sessions often take place in the most unexpected locations. However, some places in Scotland are particularly well known for their music. It is impossible to mention them all, but in this article we will try and give you some places to start.

All pubs mentioned below have music several nights a week. They are open to anyone having a tune, so if you fancy it, bring an instrument and join the fun.


Sandy Bells
25 Forrest Road,
Edinburgh,EH1 2QH
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 1156
This pub is famous for its daily traditional sessions. Musicians from all over the world head for Sandy Bells when they are in town. The pub is small, but musicians always manage to squeeze into a back corner of the bar. The late songwriter and collector Hamish Henderson was a frequent visitor to this bar. Nowadays you can find musicians from bands such as Boys of the Lough, Shooglenifty, Tannahill Weavers and Fine Friday joining the sessions. Best times to visit are daily between 9pm and 1am and Saturdays and Sundays also between 4pm and 7pm.

Royal Oak
1 Infirmary Street,
Edinburgh,EH1 1LT
Tel: +44 (0)131 557 2976
The Royal Oak is another well-known place in Edinburgh. It is open until 2am, which can result in some great late-night sessions after the neighbouring pubs have shut. The Royal Oak has a lounge bar and a public bar. Live music happens every night between 9.30pm and 1.30am, but, according to the bar, music can start “whenever a visiting musician feels like playing. This can be at anytime during opening hours - sometimes a ‘Wandering Minstrel’ and sometimes a ‘Famous Face’ - the music can start at any time.”


The Lismore Bar
206 Dumbarton Road,
Glasgow,G11 6UN
Tel: +44 (0)141 576 0102
The Lismore Bar in Glasgow is a stylish designed bar in Glasgow’s West End. It is named after the Hebridean Isle of Lismore. Within the pub there are many references to the Highland Clearances; special themed stained glass windows depict the story. Traditional sessions take place twice a week (each Tuesday and Thursday at 9pm). The pub is also host to McEwans Sessions. If you fancy a dram, do not forget to check out the extensive whisky collection.

Lauries Bar
34 King Street,
Glasgow,G1 5QT
Tel: +44 (0)141 552 7123
This relatively new bar has already built up a reputation in live music. Currently the bar has live music about three nights a week, but it is aiming to get live music daily by the end of the year. The pub consists of the main bar and a backroom that is used for concerts and open mic nights. Traditional Scottish food is served every day until 8pm. A statue of the Scottish national poet Robert Burns stands prominently in the bar. It is a photo opportunity not to be missed.


Alister’s Vintage Bar
4 Ednam Road,
Stichill,TD5 7TD
Tel. 01573 470 376
This is probably the most remarkable music bar in Scotland. First of all, it is unlicensed, so you will need to bring your own alcohol. Seventy nine year old Alister Blackie runs the bar, which is situated in the back room of his own house. The space is small, and the maximum number of people Alister has seen inside is 29. The place welcomes anyone who wants to come in for a tune or a chat. Over the years it has become famous amongst many Scottish musicians. As a result, piper Finlay MacDonald and fiddle player Chris Stout wrote a tune for the bar. They naturally named it Alister’s Vintage Bar.


The Taybank Inn
Tay Terrace
Dunkeld,PH8 0AQ
Tel: +44 (0)1350 727 340
This hotel and bar was previously owned by Scottish singer/songwriter Dougie MacLean. He made the Taybank Inn into what it is now: a meeting place for musicians. The bar often has spontaneous traditional sessions. It also hosts folk concerts several times a year. The upstairs ‘Acoustic Music Gallery’ is used for music classes. The hotel is situated on the banks of the river Tay, and looks out over Birnam Hill. This is the site of the ruins of King Duncan’s Castle, made famous in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.


The Ceilidh Place
West Argyle Street,
Ullapool, IV26 2TY
Tel: +44 (0)1854 612 103
The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool consists of a bar, restaurant, hotel and bunkhouse. It is a big place that even caters for conferences. There are no set nights for live music, but folk concerts take place throughout the year and more regularly in the summer. The owners and some bar staff play instruments themselves, so music is never far away. The bar is the local hangout for musicians. Do not be surprised if you hear them speak Gaelic instead of Scottish.

The Old Forge
Knoydart,PH41 4PL
Tel: +44 (0)1687 462 267
The Guinness Book of Records has named the Old Forge the mainland Britain’s Remotest Pub. You can only access it by boat (from Mallaig), but it’s worth it. You get magnificent views over Loch Nevis and the surrounding mountains. The Old Forge has no set nights for music, but locals are known to drop in for a few tunes on a regular basis. Travellers can borrow instruments from the bar. Traditional Scottish (sea)food is served, together with a good selection of real ales. Their website indicates the dress code: wellies, waterproofs and midge cream!


Hootannany Ceilidh Café Bar
67 Church Street
Inverness, IV1 1ES
Tel: +44 (0)1463 233 651
Hootannany hosts traditional music sessions every Sunday to Wednesday. From Thursday to Saturday there are live concerts with some of Scotland’s most famous musicians. In December 2004, Hootannany received the 2004 Scot Trad Music Award for best folk club. If you fancy some more contemporary music, visit upstairs at Hootannany. There is live rock music there every Wednesday to Saturday. This is a venue not to miss when you are in the area.


The Lounge
4 Mounthooly Street
Lerwick, Shetland Islands
Shetland, ZE1 0BJ
Tel: +44 (0)1595 692 231
The Lounge is the centre of traditional music in Lerwick. Musicians such as fiddler Aly Bain and legendary guitarist Peerie Willie have been known to drop in from time to time and music happens whenever people feel like playing. Wednesday night is especially allocated for sessions, but musicians are welcome at any time. The bar has a big supply of instruments, from double bass to accordion and from piano to fiddle. One local actually bequeathed his fiddle to The Lounge in his will. There is a session for young fiddlers (under 18) every first Tuesday of the month.


In order to find more music pubs, pick up a copy of the Gig Guide, available in all bigger towns of Scotland. The Gig Guide is also online at:

‘McEwans Sessions’ take place all over the country. For more information on these free traditional music events, look at : or call VisitScotland on tel: +44 (0)845 225 5121