He has been at the helm of one of Scotland’s best-known pubs for 30 years – known around the world as its famously grumpy barman. But now Harry Cullen is about to call time on his tenure at The Oxford Bar – to return to his first love of singing.
A new era is about to dawn for the bar, which attracts hundreds of Inspector Rebus fans each week thanks to its regular appearances in Ian Rankin’s novels.
But new licensee, Kirsty Grant, who has worked with Cullen for the last decade, has insisted it will be staying true to its 19th century roots and remaining a “proper boozer”.
Despite the growing numbers of tourists there, and the recent introduction of art exhibitions in its back room, the only innovation she is planning is a Facebook page.
Cullen, the main barman in the pub for 14 years before taking over its licence from John Gates, has decided to step aside to coincide with his 70th birthday next month.
But he has no intention of retiring from the city’s pub scene after recently reviving his interest in singing after 30 years, including a comeback gig during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and a recent show at Leith Folk Club.
Now he hopes to serve up punters with songs by the likes of John Denver, Leo Sayer, The Everly Brothers, 10cc and Sir Rod Stewart. Regulars at “The Ox” will even be entertained by Cullen on Hogmanay, when he will return in his new guise.
Leith-born Cullen was a familiar figure in the folk scene in Edinburgh in the 1970s, plying his trade as a solo singer in pubs like the Waverley Bar and Milne’s, and performing with the band Kinsmen. His regular stints in Milne’s eventually led to him running the famous Rose Street “poets’ pub”.
Cullen said: “Before I worked in Milne’s, I was a folk singer in pubs, clubs and anywhere else that would have me. But it’s only really been in the last couple of years that I’ve picked up the guitar and been interested in singing again. I was doing it for a living before, but now it’s for enjoyment.
“I want to try my music again. When you get to a certain age you think you may as well have a wee go at it and see how you get on. When there’s no pressure on me, I can pick and choose what to do now in future.
“I’ll be 70 next month and I think I’ve done my bit here. I don’t have the enthusiasm that I used to have. I’ve had enough. It’s time to go.
“There are a lot more regulations now. We used to do pies, but we were going to have to fill in all kinds of logs. We only ever sold about three a day. It was too much bother.
“Nothing has really changed since I’ve been here, apart from a few improvements with the seating and the heating.
“What makes this place is the people that come here, but if you changed it they would stop coming. It’s not just the Rebus books that bring people in here. A lot of folk just want to come in, sit down and have a chat.
“The pub trade in Edinburgh is always evolving. You have to adapt to your surroundings if they’re changing. Thankfully, other pubs have done the evolving and we’ve just stood still. That’s been our knack.”
Grant, 47, who has been working in the bar for 12 years and is Cullen’s second cousin, admitted her first impressions had not been great when she agreed to work a couple of shifts.
She said: “Initially, when I walked in, I thought: ‘What new hell is this?’ It just seemed to be full of bare lightbulbs and wall-to-wall men. But after about a week I kind of fell in love with it.
“It was one of the few places I’d been in where people from all walks of life were enjoying each other’s company. It seemed like all of life was here. Nothing much has changed.
“We have lampshades now and we’ve had an open fire for a few years, which is great in the winter. We had a gas fire before, which was hideous. It was either boiling or freezing – there was no in-between.
“The drinking culture has changed a lot. The trade from office workers has really died off during the day, but that’s been replaced by tourists.
“Every single day people come in because of the Rebus connection, but that’s never been to the detriment of the bar.
“People can rest assured that virtually nothing will change. That was really my raison d’être for taking it on. I want to protect it and preserve what we have here. It’s almost become a USP that we don’t do food.
“I hate having a pint next to somebody having fish and chips. This is a proper boozer.”