A couple of months ago, I made a short visit to the beautiful city of Edinburgh. The purpose of visit was clear: a 24-hour layover with the intention of sampling as many great pubs as possible.
With me I had my good friend Hossein who did not only proved to be the perfect travel companion but also functioned as a great source of documentation as he brought a great Nikon camera with him to take some beautiful shots of the places we visited. It was so nice to see how his photos really made these great bars justice and I hope that he will come with me on future adventures.
As much as I would like to write about my Edinburgh experience in more details, I will not do it in today's article. No matter how surprisingly spellbinding this city proved to be I still don't have time and space to ponder about that right now. I leave that to the many Edinburgh pubs I will have the pleasure to write about in the future. Because trust me, Edinburgh pub culture is all about pleasure!
Neither will I showcase Hossein's photos today. They are also reserved for the future. The reason for this is that there was no way of pulling up a system camera at the Canny Man's, a 145-year old pub in the city district of Morningside. I don't even want to imagine what the owners of this pub would do if a busload of japs would pass by here. Those poor bastards would realise the true meaning of a kamikaze as their selfie sticks would have been shoved up somewhere between the Highlands and Yokohama. To say that the Canny Man's can be a little bit hostile towards outsiders is more being diplomatic than exaggerating. Outside this Victorian public house there is a sign that reminds the guests of "no smoking, no credit cards, no cameras, no backpackers" and for those who fulfil these requirements there are still no guarantees that the Kerr family, who's been running this company since the very beginning, will embrace you with open arms. The tales are many about how the eccentric owners tend to refuse customers that doesn't fit in the profile of the pub. Whether you are suspected of being a commie, you don't dress in the proper way or if they simply don't like your face you may be shown to the door directly as you enter the place.
Do you find these manners rude and outrageous? Even discriminating? Well, at this microcosm nobody will give a rat's arse about what you feel and about what is fair. In here it is nothing else than the law of the publican that matters and if this doesn't suit you then you are free to get your buzz elsewhere. The Canny Man's is oppressive and excluding like that. And if you do decide to cave in to the way of doing business here, then do yourself a favour and do not tremble of fear when the iron lady of a maitres d' looks in to your eyes. And for the love of god, do not question her choice of table for you! Neither should you get frustrated of the bureaucratic nature of this place. Some of the many rooms and tables are not intended for the average Joe as they are reserved for the regulars that really belong here. You are not one of them. And when getting zero reaction from the bartender when you are giving him a desperately big amount of tip just to get acknowledged as a human being, just let it be. Let it be.
We managed to survive our afternoon at the Canny Man's without losing too much of our dignity and on our walk back to New Town we discussed this phenomenon of reluctance towards outsiders and the total lack of an accommodating business style. Why this sceptical attitude against well-intentioned visitors? How can business thrive after gaining such a reputation for being unwelcoming, wrongheaded and somewhat elitist in the way of taking care of the ones that actually give wind to the company sails? And more questions kept adding up. Why the sour faces? What is the purpose of all this, especially in this service minded industry? Who says no to customers and the revenue they generate?
After pondering on these questions a couple of enlightening thoughts came to our minds. Maybe the Kerr family, is actually on to something here? Could it actually be so that they are right and everyone else are wrong? It is just as if there is a discursive practice in the society of today, saying that the entertainment and experience industry needs to act in a certain way and that it does so to reach certain goals that we all perceive as understood and obvious. It is like there exists a non-questioned idea that selling experiences is all about cheap smiles, full commerce and maximum outcome of profit. Put this in a market driven context where most of the world has become a cynical mishmash of concepts, trends and pastiches and from there every cultural expression can be sold in a weekend package. Say that you are running a family company that has been a social institution for almost 150 years, a place that has always celebrated what's genuine, local, true and intimate. A place for the neighbourhood and the ones that lives there. Then imagine that this sacred haven of yours gets infiltrated by the outside world, a world plagued by lifestyle perversion and shallow pretending. When under this cultural siege, you need to fight back and protect what's yours. First of all because it is seriously threatening your business. Your product is made out of authenticity and by allowing the tourist herd is to compromise this quality. This is simple logics.
But it is mainly a question of identity and how to treat a legacy. In respect to those ancestors who founded this site, you do owe a lot to the tradition and history. It is something to be proud of but also something to cherish with dignity. Put in this perspective, I can fully understand why the Kerrs are reluctant to open up their family heritage and the centre of their community to the merciless invasion of indifferent weekenders - fully equipped with fanny packs, guidebooks and blasé attitudes. It is a matter of storing a cultural heritage and I can imagine how founder James Kerr is looking down from above, content of the courteous and reputable way that things are still done here. Is it maybe so that these proprietors, with the uncompromising way of handling affairs, should be seen as role models in how to store cultural heritage in general? In the making of public cultural history there is certainly a conflict between authenticity and accessibility and when preserving the true story you may need to forsake the latter of these two components.
But what I find mind-blowing about the Canny Man's way of doing it, is how it challenges the whole approach of what it means to run a company. To reject a valuable quid is for many regarded as insane, especially in a competitive industry like this one. This is at least what the capitalist system indoctrinates us to think; that profit is always the ultimate goal. It may seem easy to diminish this as an obvious observation but just because of that it is not less true either. Profit rules. So to experience examples of how business can be conducted based on other values is quite refreshing. Especially when it has been done so during three different centuries. And maybe that's was most rewarding, to nurse the lineage? Or to stay true to your environment? Or just to stay connected and feel fellowship? At least it should be.
And now to the superlatives. This pub is a diamond among the many precious stones that you'll find in the Scottish capital. It is actually a quite unreal experience. In one way it makes you think that the change of time never entered this building since the opening 1871. For all we know the queen is still called Victoria and between India and Canada the sun never sets. And by the look of the many clocks on the walls, it is hard to really know what time it is as they have all stopped ticking many years ago. But this feeling is also deceiving because this pub bears witness to so much more. This is where it all took place, the grand 20th century and all the drama that came with it. From the Second Boer War all the way to the Falklands. From Winston Churchill to The Beatles. This is where it all happened and the quirky interior of The Canny Man's is there to tell you all about it. For instance, in one of the back rooms you can see chopped up champagne bottles, remnants from the WWII when practice of sabring was a common thing among many of the regulars here. This "sport" was forbidden by then owner Mr. James Kerr as one of the patrons cut off his thumb. The sabre that caused his loss is still hanging over one of the fireplaces. And as you are drinking at the Four Ale Bar (yes, there are different names for every single room, bar or table in this place) you can rest your eyes on the walls that are covered in postcards from old customers, dating back to the turn of the century. Or take a deeper look at the original Inn sign that is still hanging in here. It was painted on oak by Samuel Bough, the famous English landscape painter. Word has it that he payed off his tab with this work.
So all around you there are proofs from a faded past. You could probably broadcast a whole season of the Antiques Roadshow in here. Brass instruments are hanging over the bar area and old books and china are stacked all over the walls. There is even an old baby stroller hanging over the dining room. Yes, this pub was quirky and eccentric long before hipsters made the whole thing to a concept. This is more than a pastiche. This is the total sum of all those lives that have been passing through here, nothing more and nothing less.
Drinks? The Canny Man's holds an impressive array of 250 whiskies and among them there is the own house blend The Golden Drop, originally blended and bottled in the huge cellar below. But the Bloody Mary is also known to be the best in town. But if you truly want to savour the faded aristocratic glory in here, you should look into the big list of champagnes where both salmanazars (9 litre bottles) and Nebuchadnezzars (15 litre bottles) are to be found.
Munch? Continue your time travelling by ordering something from the menu in the dinner room. There is a timeless retro vibe to the seafood platters and the Smørrebrød menu. I don't know why but as I dive into the simple but tasty cooked crab I feel like Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping up Appearances. If it is has anything to do with my own doubts of fitting in to this British upperclass establishment or if it's the throwback-nineties-retro-plate of food in front of me, I shall leave unsaid. It is probably both.
Btw! Do you wonder about the name? From the beginning the pub was actually called The Volunteer's rest and in 1901 it was changed to The volunteer's arms by second owner John Kerr. Those two names had their origins in honour of the many militiamen that used to relax here after their exertions. In John Kerr's later years he was to be nicknamed the "canny man" as he was a very cautious man. Canny means just cautious. From there the pub was also called so and with time it officially changed it's name to the Canny Man's.
Where? The Canny Man's, 237 Morningside Rd, Edinburgh EH10 4QU, Scotland.
I'm always on the lookout for for more bars to enjoy and write about. Do you know about an interesting place in your city or elsewhere, let me know and maybe I'll stop by!