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The cafe Royal and the plumber’s showroom

Christopher Reekie investigates the origins of Edinburgh’s famous Cafe Royal pub, and uncovers a fascinating story of behind-the-scenes horse-trading between the British government and a local plumbe
The Cafe Royal, looking towards St Andrew Square

The visitor to Edinburgh in search of liquid as well as cultural refreshment is confronted by a galaxy of pubs, more than enough to satisfy the most fastidious of enthusiasts so inclined. They have intriguing names to choose from, such as The Sheep Heid Inn at Duddingston, The Jolly Judge off the Lawnmarket, Sandy Bell’s in Forrest road, The Last Drop in the Grassmarket, The Golf Tavern at Bruntsfield Links and The King’s Wark in Leith. Many enjoy their own particular reputation. In this constellation, one that is frequently mentioned as possessing special distinction is the Cafe Royal.

A description often attached to it is ‘a hidden gem’. It is removed from the bustle of Princes street, and, to use a cliche, is ‘off the beaten track’, although it belies this phrase by its popularity. The diligent searcher will be rewarded by walking from the equestrian statue of the duke of Wellington at the east end of the city’s main thoroughfare and turning up West Register street, then taking the narrow lane called Gabriel’s road, which has another celebrated hostelry, the Guildford Arms, at its entrance.

Next door is the Cafe Royal. A door in the lane and another round the corner both give admittance to its Circle Bar. The visitor steps into Victorian opulence with ornate ceilings, chandeliers and marble floors. Eyes are drawn at once to the Doulton tiled murals, of which there are six, showing famous inventors at the moment of their discovery: William Caxton, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Peel, Michael Faraday, George Stephenson and James Watt. In the adjoining Oyster Bar restaurant, there are three more tiled murals, one depicting Daguerre and Niepce, joint discoverers of photography, and the others a Liverpool paddle steamer and the Clyde-built Cunard liner Umbria.

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About History Scotland

The March/April issue of History Scotland is packed full of the latest research news and in-depth reads from experts in the fields of Scottish history, heritage and archaeology. Highlights include: 'The Stewart Queens of Scotland: Margaret of Denmark. New research on the life of Margaret, who reigned alongside James III of Scots Scottish coastal history: a wide-ranging overview of Scotland’s coastline over the centuries A guide to Agricola’s campaign in Scotland Curator review of the new Ancient Egypt Rediscovered gallery at National Museum of Scotland Underwater archaeology at Loch Tay New excavations at the prison of Mary Queen of Scots in Sheffield Castle Plus: Family history advice, archaeology dig reports and finds analysis, history of art series and lots more…​