29 Mar 2015

The Story of Sandy Bells by Gillian Ferguson

sandy bells famous folk bar edinburgh
Sandy Bells Famous Folk Bar
As a patron of Sandy Bells and a keen amateur historian I was delighted to receive the above publication as a Christmas present from my wife.

A slim little volume of 65 pages by locally-based artist Gillian Ferguson, it is a very quick read which is nevertheless packed with some fascinating facts concerning this historic watering hole from its inception in 1929 until the present day.

I had no idea, for example, that up the lane around the corner from the pub – Forrest Hill – one can find the surviving east wing of the old Edinburgh Poorhouse and that opposite the tavern there once stood the headquarters for the ill-fated Darien Scheme.

I have a had a long interest in the Edinburgh grassroots literary scene, and was therefore delighted to discover that Sandy Bells had produced its very own Broadsheet which ceased publication in 1982 after a run of nine years.
Naturally, a great deal of space is devoted to the tavern’s prominent role in the folk music revival of the sixties and seventies and the booklet provides a comprehensive guide to the wide variety of musicians, singers and poets who have performed and imbibed there. Admittedly, whilst a fair few of these entertainers have achieved international fame, the majority will only be familiar to true aficionados of the folk scene who are presumably the booklet’s target audience, tourists notwithstanding.

However, as the author is keen to stress, the story of Sandy Bells is more than simply about the music, songs and poetry. The tavern’s locals, or ‘worthies’ as they are described, also feature prominently and there are many amusing anecdotes involving their antics over the years. Indeed, the bar is portrayed as very much a people’s pub, demonstrated by a quote from folk legend Dick Gaughan with Sandy’s being described as ‘the only democratic pub in town where the regulars, the people who really count, dictated the rules’.

This booklet is not without its faults, however. If Ms Ferguson intends to print a second edition, I would heartily recommend she employs a decent sub-editor – Forrest Road is spelled ‘Forest Road’ on at least one occasion, an unforgivable sin - as is cocking up the spelling of the great Norman MacCaig’s surname!

The booklet is also let down by the colour illustrations, which look as if they have been produced with the aid of a cheap photocopier in the local community centre that is running low on toner.

It's a shame, as Gillian Ferguson's images are a valuable, well-composed and fine visual commentary to the story.

Image of Sandy Bells bar from The Story of Sandy Bells - Copyright of Gillian Ferguson

Contents-wise, The Story of Sandy Bells by Gillian Ferguson does become a little tedious towards the end, which describes the contemporary bar. After all, do we really need to know exactly what beers and spirits are available for purchase at the time of writing? It is as though the author has run out of anything meaningful to impart and is merely padding the thing out for the sake of it.

I also found some of the references to the pub’s so-called bonhomie a bit nauseating at times. Don’t get me wrong – as I’ve already stated, I drink in Sandy’s frequently and it is a great place with a warm, friendly atmosphere and affable bar staff. However the current hardcore regulars, or ‘worthies’, are much the same as you will find in any half-decent boozer – cliquey, stand-offish, and very much aware of their superior status in the pub hierarchy.  The legendary Oxford Bar in Young Street is very similar in this respect, despite what Ian Rankin would have you believe. Please note – real ‘worthies’ would never refer to the bar as ‘Sandy’s’ like I do. It is always ‘Bells’, just so you know!

There are hints of plagiarism too, unfortunately. An anecdote regarding Hamish Henderson, a pair of false teeth and a yogurt pot appears to be lifted almost verbatim – albeit in an Anglicised version – from Allan Foster’s The Literary Traveller In Edinburgh, though to her credit Ms Ferguson does mention this book in her selected bibliography.

The last fault I can find with the ‘Story’ is the cost. As far as I am aware it is still available for the ‘introductory price’ of £6.99, though the actual price is supposed to be £11.99. This is far too much to charge for a booklet of this size, especially considering the low production values. I would suggest a fiver to be a far more realistic proposition.

Nonetheless, if you like a bit of local history and are fond of traditional music you could do a lot worse than checking out this little tome. I’d recommend snapping up a copy from the bar on a Saturday afternoon – you could down a few pints, feast on a pie, and enjoy some damn fine music at the same time. Maybe even see you there? Slainte!

The Story of Sandy Bells is available from Troubador Publishing