“Here you go,” says Len Cumming, as he passes over the weighty, burgundy-coloured album. Contained inside are a series of black and white glossy images showing a stern-looking elderly publican inside his place of work. It’s only the Oxford Bar, one of Edinburgh most renowned watering holes.
“When were these taken?” I ask.
“1982,” replies Len.
My eyes light up. The Oxford’s celebrity is largely down to its links with the crime writer Ian Rankin and his detective John Rebus, both regulars in their respective realities. Rebus made his literary debut in 1987. These photos were from the same decade. What stunned me was the fact the pub hadn’t changed one bit.
The Oxford Bar is an overwhelmingly unimpressive establishment. It always has been. The interior is sedate and dull with a drinks list to match, and the church pews in the back room are even more uncomfortable than they sound.
Speaking of sound, there is none, save for that of patrons (mostly male) making conversation. A relic of a bygone age.
But that is precisely what lends this famous bar its unique charm.
I randomly popped in for the very first time a couple of Thursdays ago. Twenty-four hours later, my friend’s dad, Len, happened to pass on the photos.
The Oxford’s legendary, no-nonsense proprietor Willie Ross, features prominently. In one shot he can be seen smoking a Capstan Full Strength while pouring himself a glass of a long-lost ale called Leith Heavy.
“We started early in the morning to avoid the regulars and agreed that I was only allowed to photograph the pub,” recalls Len, “‘Nane of me, mind,’ he told me. But Willie ended up in just about every bloody shot. He loved it.”
For Willie, though, this wasn’t the norm: “He definitely wasn’t a man for the limelight,” reveals Willie’s daughter Christine Ross, “and he had his own way of running the bar. Even when the new licensing laws came into force, Willie stuck to the usual closing time of 10pm. Any later was too much for him. He was a one-man band.”
And what of all the infamous tales of giving certain punters a hard time?
“Fools were not suffered gladly,” Christine admits, “but he was a very well-read, intelligent man, and you could guarantee a good conversation if you were of a similar mind to him. He was a great man for literature and a staunch Scottish nationalist who was fond of political discourse. A true polymath.”
Willie Ross was born in Leith in 1914. As the eldest of four, he took the reins of the bar from his father at the end of the Second World War. For the next 40 years he made the pub his own. He had strict preferences, serving mainly heavy ale and whisky – his own favoured tipple was Glenmorangie, and an aerial picture of the Tain distillery hung proudly on the wall. A request for lager, vodka or just about anything else was ill-advised. Willie was even known to throw out the odd Englishman.
“That’s true; I witnessed him doing it,” exclaims Len.
Willie’s cavalier attitude and unique approach to customer service quickly became the stuff of legend.
“He’d never have tolerated the smoking ban,” says Len adamantly, “He would’ve just carried on smoking. The ban wouldn’t have flew with Willie, he would’ve told them where to go.
“I wouldn’t like to be the man who told Willie Ross he couldn’t smoke in his own bar!”
Following Len’s exclusive photo shoot, Willie ran the bar for another couple of years before ill health got the better of him and he passed on the keys to a couple from Falkirk, John and Margaret Gates. Kudos to the Gates and current owner Harry Cullen for preserving the bar’s character and most of the original furnishings.
Willie died in 1986, just as an aspiring young writer from Fife was applying the finishing touches to the first in a series of crime novels which would make his bar famous the world over.
“They certainly don’t make them like that anymore.”
Christine Ross was referring to her late father, but she could just as easily have been describing the Oxford Bar.