The Waverley: a step back in time

The interior of the Waverley is unique, warm and comforting
The interior of the Waverley is unique, warm and comforting

It’s 5.01pm on a Friday afternoon and the Waverley on St Mary’s Street is definitely shut and doesn’t exactly look about to open. I carry on to the Holyrood 9A and alert my acquaintance to this fact. He gets this message 10 minutes later. When he’s in the Waverley. It’s comes as no real surprise as the Waverley has always been a bit of a mystery, but unlike a Rebus or Skinner tale, this is a very pleasant, unassuming mystery. So what does go on behind those black doors of an evening?

Free crisps for one thing. By the time I arrive, my acquaintance has settled himself in to a stool at the bar, in prime position to help himself to a packet of Tesco’s own-brand potato-based snacks as soon as they are topped up. And they soon are, by owner Ian Walker whose family have owned the pub for over a century. Keeping slightly varying opening hours, Ian is generally always there, well turned out in shirt and tie, buzzing as fast as he can around this bar near the Royal Mile as he has done for many years.

Ian Walker has run the Waverley for years and keeps the free crisps stocked up
Ian Walker has run the Waverley for years and always keeps the free crisps stocked up

Given that it is about 5.15pm on a Friday and other bars in the area are packed with after-work drinkers, the Waverley is a place of serenity as the two of us are the only customers. A couple do come in and have a look, enquire at the bar as to whether they serve Innis & Gunn and then quickly leave when they realise that you don’t come to the Waverley for craft beer. There are two taps: Guinness or Tennents. In the fridges, you’ll spot bottles of Becks, Budweiser and even cans of Strongbow. The drinks offering does not extend much further than that. But there’s free crisps, remember, and not just bowls of them, but whole free packets of them, in a multitude of flavours. In fact, the mere presence of a Tesco multibag ensures there is a greater choice of crisp flavours than there are beers.

Whenever I walk into the Waverley, I’m always reminded of some of the traditional basement theatre bars in London’s West End. It’s that combination of red-velour banquette seating that reminds me of theatre seats and of the strange lighting that seems to make everything glow, as if we’re in the 1920s and the interior is still lit by gaslight. Ultimately the effect is to create a real feeling of warmth, especially on a bitingly cold January evening. It’s a bit like the whole pub has a retro, warm Instagram filter on it.

The drinks offering at the Waverley is probably the most basic in Edinburgh
The drinks offering at the Waverley is probably the most basic in Edinburgh

In terms of decor at the Waverley, music posters from through the years cover the walls and even the ceiling, a nod to the fact that this place used to be synonymous with live music. There’s also an eclectic mix of knick-knacks on the walls, including a couple of small crocodiles and a bicycle – it will have been there long before trendy design agencies started doing the same thing. I have to admit that I didn’t notice the rather old photo of the Queen and Prince Philip that usually has pride of place behind the bar but I’m sure it must have been there somewhere – this place does not change that dramatically in a few months. Indeed, during the recent World’s End murders retrial, archive footage showed that though the World’s End had changed over time, the exterior of the Waverley has remained identical over nearly 40 years. If the TV cameras had also looked inside, I’m guessing the interior of the Waverley in 1977 would not exactly differ from that which we see today.

There is a glow about the Waverley that reminds me of how I imagine the 1920s
There is a glow about the Waverley that reminds me of how I imagine the 1920s

The toilets lead straight off the downstairs bar but there is also a rather inviting staircase that takes you up to the Waverley’s other bar that is usually used as a function suite. On any given evening, you may find the upper floor full of people foot-tapping away to folk music or hanging on every word of the narrator at a meeting of a storytelling group. These regular meetings must at least put a bit of money behind the bar though you get the impression that Ian is not running this pub for profit. He’s running it because he has a sense of family pride and a determination to carry on the work of his late brother and his predecessors.

Neither the exterior or the interior of the Waverley have changed in years
Neither the exterior or the interior of the Waverley have changed in years

The Waverley is unique and worth a visit. Don’t expect craft beer, cutting-edge gins and an extensive wine list. Expect a quiet, comfortable, friendly place that cocoons you from not only the cold weather outside but also the 21st century. The sight of a smartphone in here is quite jarring as you sit with a pint in a traditional dimpled glass, listening to music that sounds as if it should be coming from a gramophone in the corner. This place has charm and a style and feeling all of its own. It may not stay like this for much longer so pop in now to sample it before it’s too late.

The Waverley is at 3-5 St Mary’s Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1TA and can be contacted on 0131 556 8855. Always worth checking when it’s opening on any given day to avoid disappointment.

5 thoughts on “The Waverley: a step back in time

  1. I used to come into the Waverley bar in the sixties when I was an au pair girl in Edinburgh. A marvellous pub full of folk music and the owner and the play boy Ean always in the middle of the crowd. I always return to The Waverley when in Edinburgh and I always hav a chat with Ean about old times. I agree this is a very special pub, well worth visiting as there are not many jewels like this. Enjoy a gin and tonic as I always do, or just have a beer. And remember, no swearing is allowed, Ean would never accept any bad behaviour. The Waverley is a part of Edinburgh’s history, never forget. Written by Marianne from Stockholm Sweden, last tome on the Waverley bar was November 2014.

  2. Ian was owner and operator of the Waverley Bar when I started drinking – I retire this year. In the late sixties and early seventies he ran it with Alex and Sheila, both now long dead. The institution these days is the owner rather than the pub. I never miss calling in to see Ian when I return to Edinburgh and sometimes he’s actually open!

  3. Sadly Ian Walker has died and it seems unlikely that the pub will stay the same. Great place and a great man.

  4. I read about Ian’s death in the Scotsman and wonder what will happen now. As in my previous comment I got to know Ian in 1967 and saw him last time november 2014. He had had an accident and his hip was broken and he had left the hospital in anger, he described to me the manners of the doctors and nurces as “disgraceful”. Ian sent me a Christmas Card one month later december 2014 and he was not well. From many many talks over nearly 50 years I found out a lot about Ians history and life but he was a mystery in many ways. I will try to find the missing pieces, maybe for a book or an article. Anyone who has got relevant information please contact me see website

  5. I’m from New Zealand and I used to work at the Waverley when I was travelling in 1991, I lived in Edinburgh for a short period but became good friends with Ian and I always visited when I went back years later. I loved the carrot soup he always had boiling away in the winter. He was a very generous, unassuming but interesting man and yes always a gentleman. He was a little bit of a mystery, so I feel very honoured to have known him as well as I did. I remember the crisps and the Tennants. Great memories and I am saddened to hear of his passing. I can imagine him complaining about the manners of the doctors and nurses. He always joked that he lived on Skid Row so when I addressed my post cards to him I always addressed them so. Wouldn’t it be great if the Waverley Bar could survive as it is in all it’s glory!

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