Fergusson’s Tea Rooms and the Empire Bar



There is a stereotype about Edinburgh – commonly held by people in other parts of Scotland – which depicts the city as a well-heeled and snooty place, populated by florid-faced middle-aged men who wear Harris Tweed, smell of port and sit in their studies in the evenings writing indignant letters to The Scotsman newspaper complaining about the threats posed to respectable Presbyterian Scottish society by wind-turbines, gay marriage, devil-worship and Alex Salmond (in ascending levels of evilness); also populated by sour-faced middle-aged ladies who wear big hats, smell of sherry and spend all their time plotting their next shopping expeditions to Jenners Department Store on Princes Street; and populated too by clean-cut young men and women with side-partings, white teeth and names like ‘Alastair’ and ‘Aileen’ who don their waxed barber jackets on autumnal Saturday afternoons and go to cheer Heriot’s or Watsonians at the ‘rugger’.


Many a Glaswegian person has dismissed Edinburgh contemptuously as being “aw fur coats an’ nae knickers” and boasted that there’s “mair life at a Glasgow funeral than at an Edinburgh weddin’.”  Meanwhile, so snobby are the accents supposed to be in Morningside, the most famously snobby of all Edinburgh’s districts, that it’s said that folk there “think ‘sex’ is somethin’ ye deliver the coal in.”


But like many a stereotype, this one is – largely – untrue.  Edinburgh has a sizeable working class population too and this population is celebrated by one of my favourite museums in the city, The People’s Story on the Royal Mile.  The museum is housed inside the Canongate Tolbooth, which from its construction in 1591 until 1848 served as a courthouse and prison, as well as a meeting-place for discussing the affairs of the surrounding Canongate parish.  Because of its significance for the neighbourhood, the front wall of the building bears a memorial to ‘the men of the old burgh of the Canongate who nobly sacrificed their lives in the cause of their country and freedom in the Great War 1914-1918.’  The building was re-opened as a museum in 1954 and following a year’s renovation it re-opened again in 1989 in its current incarnation as The People’s Story.



The museum is dedicated to the ordinary folk who lived and worked in Edinburgh’s population over the centuries – folk who, because of their ordinariness, tend not to figure much in conventional (Michael Gove-approved) history books or, for that matter, in most museums.  Their recollections about daily life form a big part of the exhibits, as do wall-displays, recreated settings, dressed-up dummies, work-tools, furniture, signs and banners.  In the section of the museum devoted to the traditional trades, I particularly like this display about Edinburgh’s once-extensive brewing industry.  There was a time, well within living memory, when the city’s air seemed suffused with the smell of hops – indeed, I only have to smell hops today and the first thing that enters my head are memories of visiting Edinburgh when I was a teenager.



Meanwhile, the first time I went into The People’s Story, I honestly thought for a moment that this plaque for the Edinburgh Lodge Office of the Plumbing Trades Union, hanging on a corridor wall, was connected with the little closet door underneath – that the lodge office was behind the door, which was only a few feet high.  Which would have made the members of the Plumbing Trades Union a strange, Hobbit-like collection of people indeed.



My favourite part of the museum is the room on the top floor, whose theme is the leisure-pursuits of Edinburgh’s ordinary citizens, both younger and older.  There are dummies of three New Romantic-like posers that the information-panel says are representative of the youths who’d hang out at the now-defunct Odeon Cinema on Clerk Street in 1989; though I have to say that I lived around the corner from that cinema in 1989, went to it many times and never saw anyone there dressed like that.  Meanwhile, the leisure-culture of a slightly older generation, from the 1970s, is represented by a durable punk rocker slouched nonchalantly in a corner.  That dummy has now, in 2014, weathered the second wave and third wave of punk rock music as well.  No doubt he’ll weather the fourth, fifth and sixth waves too before they change him.



In the room’s corner, meanwhile, are recreations of the Empire Bar and Fergusson’s Tea Rooms on Potterow.  Drinking in the bar, explains the panel, are Alex Fraser and Sandy Watt, who are eagerly anticipating the Hearts-Hibernian match being held in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup that afternoon – which is ‘Saturday, March 4th, 1933’.  And on the taped soundtrack that accompanies the display, one of them – I can’t remember if it’s Alex or Sandy – is also moaning about his wife, who won’t allow a drop of alcohol in the house.  At the same time their wives, Lizzie and Elsie, are ensconced in the tea room, which, before it became acceptable for females to drink in pubs, was the social venue of choice for any Scotswoman with the slightest pretension to gentility.



(In his 1935 travel book Scottish Journey, the Orcadian writer and poet Edwin Muir wrote: “The effect that these places are designed to produce is one of luxury, and the more select of them strive for an impression of adroitly muffled silence, silence being in an industrial civilisation, which is the noisiest known form of civilisation, the supreme evidence of luxury because the most difficult thing to achieve.”  However, he also made this unexpected observation about the Scottish tea room: “Nowhere that I have been is one so bathed and steeped and rolled about in floating sexual desire.”)


I find it reassuring that every time I’ve gone into The People’s Museum over the years, Alex and Sandy are still there, drinking pints and playing dominoes, as are Lizzie and Elsie, contemplating the scones and triangular-cut sandwiches on their plates; and the four are discussing exactly the same things they’ve discussed since 1989.  They’ve become so familiar to me that they almost seem like old friends.


There are still a few old-style pubs around, thankfully, but the tea-room seems to be something that’s vanished from daily Scottish life.  Or so you think, until you leave The People’s Story and walk a little further down the Royal Mile and encounter the prim and ornate premises of Clarinda’s Tea Room – no doubt offering its patrons the luxury of silence and, perhaps, a titillating chance to be “bathed and steeped and rolled about in floating sexual desire.”



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