I mentioned before that an acquaintance of mine maintained that Bennets Bar near Tollcross was the best pub in Edinburgh. Well, another acquaintance makes the case for Diggers, also known as the Athletic Arms. This claim is all the more remarkable given his Hibs-supporting tendencies and this pub’s location in the opposition’s Heartland, if you’ll pardon the pun. So, situated on the corner of Angle Park Terrance and Henderson Terrace, is Diggers worthy of a place near the top of Edinburgh’s pub league?
Firstly, I’ll clear up why this pub has two names. Although officially the Athletic Arms, its position between Dalry Cemetery and North Merchiston Cemetery meant it was historically popular with local gravediggers, hence the nickname. And it would be fair to say that the clientele is certainly closer to a place in the cemetery than a place in elite sport, though there is a dartboard. As popular Edinburgh author Ian Rankin tweeted recently:
I am in a bar called the Athletic Arms. If there are athletes in here, they are keeping a low profile.
— Ian Rankin (@Beathhigh) January 15, 2014
So, names aside, is Diggers any good? First of all, it’s a fine looking pub. Occupying a position where the road forks, its shape is akin to New York’s famous Flatiron Building. My recent visit there was the first time I’d been in on a non-matchday. When Hearts are at home at nearby Tynecastle, it’s definitely standing room only and it helps if you’re a regular if you want to be served quickly. However, on a recent Friday afternoon, I was able to admire the pub in all its glory, including the compass on the floor that I’d never noticed before.
Service from the maroon-tied barman was efficient if not exactly warm. With eight ales on tap, I initially enjoyed a pint of Golden XPA from the Caledonian Brewery, just two minutes along the road. Next up was an Iron Man from the Grafton Brewing Company, but at least I was offered a taste first by the same barman who was by now a little warmer and obviously popular with Diggers locals. Clearly, however, glasswashing is not part of his job description as for the first hour of our visit, they steadily piled up on the bar until a couple of female members of staff came on shift and cleared the empties. I know this is an old-fashioned pub, but hopefully the division of labour is not equally old-fashioned!
Speaking of old-fashioned, a look at the bar shows beautiful brass water taps and also intriguing brass panels on the front of the bar that I can only assume were used to strike matches in days gone by. There are also plenty hooks beneath the bar – such an easy thing to do but sadly lacking in many otherwise decent pubs. A mixture of chequerboard and wooden flooring keeps the place interesting, while red banquette seating runs around the edge of the pub and into snugs at the far end, towards the toilets and dartboard.
As with many Edinburgh pubs, there is no shortage of mirrors on the walls while any other wall or surface space is covered in drinks offers, boasts about their many whiskies and also the sizes of their measures – “40% more than most bars!” they proudly proclaim. There are also televisions situated at various points throughout the bar that are generally tuned to Sky Sports News.
Food at Diggers is definitely of the straightforward variety, similar to somewhere like the Malt & Hops in Leith – toasties, pies and the like. If it’s more impressive pub grub you’re looking for, the Caley Sample Room a few hundred yards along the road is probably the place for you.
For many years, The Diggers was famous for serving copious amounts of McEwans 80/- (80 Shilling) and the story goes that you would simply hold up a number of fingers to any barman and he’d know you meant 80/- and pour you the required number of pints. Brewed just along the road at the Caledonian Brewery, following Scottish & Newcastle’s takeover of it in 2004, sadly the popularity of this particular cask ale wasn’t shared by many other pubs and the cask version of Heavy, as it’s also known, was discontinued in 2007. At the time, the manager of Diggers claimed the beer was responsible for a quarter of all sales. There is still a cask version of an 80/- in Diggers nowadays but this comes from Stewart Brewing in Loanhead, badged as “Diggers 80/-” with the tagline “The Home of Heavy”.
Diggers has a lot going for it. It’s a great looking pub, the beer is decent and its prices reflect its position outwith the centre of town. Can I really mark it down for slightly aloof service and an aversion to glass collecting? Well, given the calibre of many Edinburgh pubs, you’ve got to get everything right if you’re going to end up top of the pile, and on this occasion Diggers let itself down very, very slightly. It may not therefore be the best pub in Edinburgh but I’ll forgive it for its minor transgressions.
The Athletic Arms (Diggers) is at 1-3 Angle Park Terrace, Edinburgh, EH11 2JX