The Story of Sandy Bells

There can hardly be a folk music afficionado in Edinburgh who hasn’t heard of and at least once visited Sandy Bells. Like the rest of us at some stage, Gillian Ferguson enjoyed the music and the chat and wondered how it had all come about, but unlike the rest of us, when she uncovered nothing of record, she chose to  research and write her own publication.

The 65 page booklet she has produced begins with an explanation of how a simple pub became a giant in the folk music scene, thanks to its proximity to the Oddfellows Hall, Edinburgh University Medical School and the School of Scottish Studies.

The land was originally part of the old charity Poorhouse and Parochial office but the first entry specifically for 25 Forrest Road, according to the Edinburgh and Leith directory of 1874/5, showed its owner as a grocer, though it isn’t clear whether he used number 25 as his grocer’s shop and if so, when it became a pub. We do know that Mrs Mary C. Bell bought the premises in 1929 with a loan from brewers T. and J. Bernard.

There are a number of sources for the derivation of the name, but the most likely is that it came from a nephew of the Bell family named Sandy Porter, who was head barman from the mid 1940s until 1960, when Mary dies and the property was sold to Scottish Brewers, who became Scottish and Newcastle Brewers.

Over time, Sandy Bells became a meeting point for the Scottish literati, including many influential and famous poets, singers and musicians. Its traditional character was challenged twice by the breweries who tried to introduce variously a one armed bandit or television, which, legend has it, were thrown out in the street by the locals. The current barman, Steven Hannah, has revitalised the pub, which is now owned by G I Group plc and has even created its own website

It’s also worth mentioning that Sandy Bells sells alcohol! The whisky selection includes not only Speyside, Highland, Lowland and Islay malts, but also English, Indian and even Japanese whiskies. There is also a range of draught beers, cider and stout and, of course, bar meals.

Gillian has self published the booklet which includes archive photographs and is available from Troubadour on a print on demand basis, priced £11.99 + postage. If it seems a bit pricey, remember this is a unique piece of research.

About Suse Coon

Suse Coon started life training to be an architect but ended up as a fashion buyer then civil servant. After some time out to bring up her family of three, she returned to what had been a hobby and entered the field of freelance journalism. After becoming regional correspondent, then editor of the orienteering magazine CompassSport, she formed Pages Editorial & Publishing Services. In this guise, West Lothian Life was launched, while Suse maintained a level of freelancing and wrote the award winning children's novel Richard's Castle. In 1999, Suse bought over CompassSport and found her time taken up pretty well exclusively with the two magazines. In 2004, West Lothian Life was expanded to form Lothian Life, however, the workload was too great. In 2006, CompassSport was sold and Suse concentrated on the web version of Lothian Life. Her hobbies include gardening, orienteering, sea kayaking and Tai Chi.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *