I arrived in Edinburgh as a student in October 1978, and began my love affair with the city’s pubs. At first, I stuck to the student haunts but was soon introduced to “proper” bars such as Bennets on Leven Street and The Café Royal Bar in the city center. I was in the process of becoming a writer, but it took a few years for me to produce my first novel. It was called The Flood and was a farewell of sorts to my old self and the town where I grew up. For my second book, I decided Edinburgh would be the setting–the Edinburgh the tourist never saw. It’s probably for this reason that I created a detective called Rebus as the central character–cops have access to different layers of society, meaning I could explore Edinburgh’s complexity.
In the first few Rebus books, he worked in a fictitious police station and drank in a series of made-up pubs. At some point, however, I realized I was making unnecessary work for myself, so moved him into real-life locations. My favoured pub in Edinburgh by this time was The Oxford Bar. It’s the classic old-fashioned drinking den–a place you go for quiet contemplation or to share the local news and gossip. Back in the day, many cops drank there when off-duty. Politicians and the city’s movers and shakers might also take up residence for an hour or two, but democracy reigned–if you had the price of a pint on you, you were as good as anyone.
Although the Oxford Bar is fairly central (maybe a three-minute walk from Princes Street, Edinburgh’s main shopping thoroughfare), it is also tucked down a narrow side street. To me, it represented the hidden city. It was perfect for Rebus and my books. I’d been introduced to the place by a student flatmate of mine, Jon Curt, who happened to work there part time as a barman. The owner at that time was John Gates, so I decided to make them a double act in my novels–the city’s pathologists, consulted by Rebus on occasion, are Professor Gates and Dr Curt. Also mentioned in the books is the “rudest barman in Scotland.” His name is Harry–in real-life as in fiction. When John Gates retired, Harry bought the pub from him, so he can’t really afford to be so rude to his clientele these days, though he still makes the effort for me on occasion.
There are now Rebus walking-tours of the city, and fans often stop off at the Oxford Bar to see if Rebus still drinks there. One lady was told that I was reading a newspaper in the back room. She approached me, but then asked for proof. She reckoned Harry had been setting her up for a practical joke. I couldn’t be Ian Rankin because I didn’t look like Rebus. I showed her some ID, but I’m still not sure she was convinced.
The Oxford Bar isn’t the only pub mentioned in my books. Kay’s Bar, the Abbotsford, the Royal Oak and the Sheep Heid Inn are all visited by Rebus. Then there are the places he’s not yetthe series is over; there is no yet been to, but I like: Sandy Bell’s and the Bow Bar and the Last Drop Tavern, Swany’s Lounge Bar and Mather’s which one; there are threeand Clark’s and The Bailie. These all share common characteristics: A good choice of real ales; no bells and whistles; not too noisy; and focussing on beer rather than food. You can sit with a book or the sports pages and not be interrupted. But if you want conversation, there’ll be someone at the bar happy to oblige. These are “locals” in the best sense of the word.
Edinburgh is a small city blessed with a wealth of quality watering holes. We used to accommodate more than 40 breweries, but now only have one–the Caledonian Brewery. They make my favorite beer (and Rebus’,, too): Deuchars IPA. To celebrate the inspector’s 20th anniversary in 2007, Caledonian brewed a beer called Rebus Ale. Only for a month, but how amazing to walk into the Oxford Bar and ask for a pint of the stuff! In fact, I’m getting thirsty just thinking about it. Cheers!
Ian Rankin is the author of over 30 bestselling novels, most recently The Complaints. He lives and drinks in Edinburgh.