Sandy Bell's is a lively traditional pub and one of Edinburgh's foremost folk music venues in Scotland. Performers travel from all over the world to perform in this cozy venue, and there's a strong local following too. The pub is also very popular with tourists who want to sample traditional Celtic music.
One of the most charming features about the bar is that, unlike other music venues, the performers are not separated from clientele by a formal stage. Although they do have headlining acts and a calendar of events, each evening is unconventionally spontaneous, with other musicians and singers being encouraged to join in.
In fact, you may be halfway though your pint and then notice that the drinkers around a table in the corner have picked up their instruments and begun to play.
Live music at Sandy Bell's — Photo courtesy of Julie Dieudonne / Sandy Bell's
The pub started out as a local shop, but it was transformed into a bar by the eponymous Mrs. Bell in the 1920s. Although it was officially called the “Forrest Hill Buffet," it soon became known to all and sundry as Sandy Bell's. (There's some debate regarding the identity of Sandy: he may have been a member of the Bell family, or a popular bartender.)
By the mid 1960s, the bar was run by Jimmy Cairney, a folk and traditional music enthusiast who established the bar's reputation as a live music venue.
The bar was central to the folk music revival, with performances from all of the great folk musicians of the day, including Aly Bain, Barbara Dickson, Johnny and Phil Cunningham, The Dubliners, Dougie McLean, Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly, Rab Noakes, Dick Gaughan and Jock Tamson's Bairns (who actually formed during a session in the pub).
When interest in folk music waned in the 1970s, Sandy Bell's stayed faithful and also offered a warm welcome to blues and jazz players. Although the emphasis is still on Scottish and Irish folk music, traditional music from non-Celtic cultures still makes an appearance from time to time.
The interior of the pub is very traditional, despite recent renovations. The walls are a deep burgundy red, festooned with framed pictures and mirrors, with the lower portion clad in dark wood panels. Simple dark wooden tables and chairs skirt the edge of the generous mahogany bar, and a splendid wooden arch divides the room.
The bar has an exceptionally good selection of whisky from Scotland and abroad, including some rather good Japanese whisky. They also stock a good selection of craft beers and ales. And although the food menu isn't large, the grub is hearty and well prepared.