It’s a ruthlessly cold Edinburgh evening and I’m sat with my wife in The Shore bar in Leith. There’s a roaring fire that crackles and spits at us at irregular intervals as we sit cradling pints of Guinness and Lagavulin chasers. The barman has sought clarity not just of where we live, but where we’re from; a covert Celtic connection has consequently been arrived at. We have no intention of moving on anytime soon.
A wintry blast of the outside world briefly intrudes upon our idyll as the relatively empty pub is abruptly descended upon by a large and boisterous group comprised of at least three generations; a ruddy-faced collective whose expressions portray a blurred confusion of teary-eyed dejection and beery excess. The pub is well-known for its weekly Thursday night folk music sessions, and as this woozy, swaying assemblage makes its way towards the bar, muffled pleasantries are exchanged with the trio of young men who are beginning to tune up their instruments in the corner. Hands are shaken, heads are nodded, hair is ruffled.
‘You all look smart, tonight,’ says one.
‘Funeral,’ replies one of the throng.
‘Her brother,’ he adds, gesturing at the forty-something woman at the bar, the one thronged by half a dozen women of a similar age.
Heads are nodded once more; nods of respect and of empathy.
‘It’s nice to be here tonight; we’re Aberfeldy.’
The band concludes their song to a smattering of applause, a voice piping up at the rear of the bar.
‘Can you do one for my sister? For her brother? Just for today?’
The singer pauses for an instant, a moment of quiet reflection: ‘Aye, we can.’
‘”Tattoo,”’ he announces – few words sound as good when spoken with a Scottish accent – ‘It’s our favourite song by The Who.’
It’s mine too, and as its unmistakably delicate guitar melody reveals itself within the walls of this gorgeous Scottish pub I ponder the fragile and incongruous theme at its core; a timeless discourse on male vulnerability and teenage confusion. A beautiful refrain originally sung by a lumbering brute of a man from Shepherd’s Bush, and now utterly transformed before this captive Caledonian audience of hedonists and mourners:
Me and my brother were talkin’ to each other
‘bout what makes a man, a man
Was it brain or brawn? Or the month that you were born?
We just couldn’t understand
The evocative familiarity of the music, combined with the sense of occasion and the concentrated hit of fine malt whisky conspires to create a formidably palpable sense of affinity with this pub, this song, this community.
‘Aye’ says the man, piping up again at the song’s conclusion, his pint raised by way of salute, his eyes swiftly glancing at the recently bereaved woman; silently seeking the slightest hint of her assent.