ATHLETIC ARMS (DIGGERS), EDINBURGH
An involuntary intake of breath coincides with my arrival at the Athletic Arms. The gasp isn’t for the punchline of a joke that’s just been delivered in the far corner, but in response to the out-and-out sparkle of an immaculate and impressive pub.
The story’s denouement is “so would you mind keeping the dog”, but it’s sunlight streaming through stained glass enchanting me as it illuminates beautiful tiled flooring, picking out red upholstery, a deeply corniced ceiling, solid oak bar fittings, and highlighting the curve of a marble-topped counter.
The late 19th century Athletic Arms – better known as The Diggers for its historic associations with thirsty gravediggers at two adjacent cemeteries – sits to the west of Edinburgh city centre between the deceased McEwans Fountainbridge Brewery and the very much alive-and-kicking Caledonian. It is also close to Tynecastle, home of Heart of Midlothian FC, and Scottish rugby’s international headquarters Murrayfield, so it’s fair to say it gets busy.
Locals will tell you The Diggers – classically handsome though it appears – is not what it was, having had partitions removed in recent memory and some original features replaced. But you’ll always get this “shadow of its former self” attribution in notable pubs alongside “when I was a wee boy this was all fields”.
I take my hoppy, pale, gently biscuit-sweet Caledonian Golden XPA and a macaroni pie to one of the narrow tables that’s just big enough to hold three pints and this shortcrust Scottish delicacy.
Here is the best view from any pub anywhere; the scene that means you’re inside looking out. The stained glass reads ELA ELAP AIDNI; to my right it’s NAWECM.MW. I muse on Howard Carter wrestling with Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Caledonian’s Deuchars IPA, Stewart Brewing Diggers 80/- and Edinbrew Little Monster are tapped from tall brass dispensers (Aitken founts for the purists), a Scottish system that previously used water engines to push beer from the cellar.
Other local ales are Alechemy Photon IPA and Our Beer from brew-it-yourself Krafty Brew Co. Forty whiskies are also highlighted on the pub windows – STLAM 04 is better still.
Another shaggy dog story has begun in the “jug” end and the four drinkers cackle. Sadly it’s not the one that ends “so would you mind if I left the pie?”
*Athletic Arms (The Diggers), 1-3 Angle Park Terrace, Edinburgh EH11 2JX (0131 337 3822).