I love the idea of the pub being a place for debate. While a lot of discussion may happen online these days, there’s nothing like a spirited in-pub discussion. Of course, there’s been no bigger debate in Scotland lately than the Independence Referendum. And if there was any doubt in how engaged people were with it, you need only have been in Sandy Bell’s on the eve of the referendum where debate, both national and international, was complemented by the folk music that this pub is famous for.
Sandy Bell’s was at one time a grocer’s shop but by the 1960s it had become the Forrest Hill Bar before gradually evolving over time to become Bell’s and then finally officially Sandy Bell’s by the early 1990s. On Referendum Eve is was a busy night as regulars rubbed shoulders with those coming in from their various rallies, including a vociferous bunch of Welsh women, keen to see Scotland vote for independence so that a similar cause could be advanced in their home country. They were very keen to speak to the undecideds and No Thanks voters in our group, confident that they could be turned round by the end of the evening. The ultimate result may suggest they were unsuccessful but they gave it a damn good go, in good spirits.
Speaking of spirits, Sandy Bell’s promotes itself both as a “whisky merchant” and a “world renowned folk bar” on their signs outside, part of a frontage that has been painted a rather bright shade of blue in the last couple of years (my second blue pub in a row, following the Blue Blazer). The pub has gone from being an understated corner bar that one might walk by to a shining beacon on Forrest Road. It’s one of those places that really comes into its own at night when the lights inside look so inviting yet frosted glass means you can only get a tantalising glimpse from outside but you are well rewarded if you step into the bustling atmosphere that lies beyond the front door.
I can’t be 100 per cent sure but on my most recent visit, the pub seemed a wee bit bigger than I remembered it. I don’t know if the recent revamp saw it opened up slightly or if it’s just the new decor but it meant there was more space that I associate with this place. It’s quite long and thin but there are a number of tables up the back and we managed to get a table for four next to the piano. One thing to note here is that certain tables up the back are generally reserved for musicians from a certain point in the night. We were lucky enough to be in the one next to where they were performing so we didn’t have to move but do be aware.
The music in Sandy Bell’s is traditional folk. You’ll never be far from a violin or a clarinet in here. It’s also never too loud either – we were able to continue our all-important political debate as the sound of the fiddle drifted across but did not intrude. It does create a warm, cosy atmosphere and with the lack of windows at the back, you feel like you could be holed up in some remote Highland boozer somewhere. You also never know who might be playing, and Sandy Bell’s does boast of the likes of Phil Cunningham and the like having jammed here in the past.
Beer-wise, I’m always delighted to find Ossian on tap here. And they pour a particularly good pint of it here, presumably because they get through so much of it. There were a number of other hand-pulls which generally pour Deuchars, Dark Island, Bitter & Twisted and one guest, generally priced around the standard £3.50 a pint mark. As mentioned, there’s plenty whisky on offer and it’s really in this kind of place and atmosphere that I wish I had a taste for it but that is something I may struggle to ever acquire.
I didn’t eat on this occasion but I did see that the likes of lamb and mango curry was on offer – I bet that wasn’t available back when this was the Forrest Hill Bar. Not sure when food is served until so I’d check before planning a trip there for something to eat.
Sandy Bell’s is a great, bustling little place. It’s a decent Edinburgh pub that locals can enjoy but one that will also satisfy the tourist looking for something quintessentially Scottish. When we arrived at 7.30pm, it was quiet but by the time we left at 10pm, the place was packed and full of atmosphere. The fact that Edinburgh was the centre of the world due to the referendum maybe meant it was a little busier than the usual Wednesday night but I picture this place being pretty lively most evenings. And no doubt the political debates will continue within its four walls for a long time to come, even though Scotland has now voted.
Sandy Bell’s is at 25 Forrest Road, Edinburgh, EH1 2QH.