Secret Drinker reviews the Caledonian Pub in Dingwall
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For those of you who like a traditional pub, Dingwall really only has one despite the apparent local affinity for alcohol consumption by some (not all) which has been noted even by such local authorities as The Daily Gael.
Bear in mind I am not a medical officer propounding on how much people should drink (it is not that you live longer, it only feels longer) beyond providing access to beautiful blends – no typo – and a convivial atmosphere so that is a compliment.
And that is what the Caledonian Bar – the Caley – on Dingwall High Street does. It is a classic no frills traditional pub with a main front bar, the better behaved lounge bar at the side and a decent beer garden.
Being a traditional pub you will get a well poured pint from the staff who know their patrons and certainly one of the charms of the place is that it is definitely a local bar that caters for people who “want to go where everybody knows your name”.
But that shouldn’t put off anyone else because it is a very convivial place where the locals will ask you about yourself and it does not take long to feel at home and that feeling regulars bring to a place is welcome here.
Whereas some places you walk into with regulars make you feel like you want to turn on your heels and walk out – not here though, the Caley is definitely a place to find interesting people.
It was also a favoured haunt of the late Charles Kennedy and a year or so ago the current Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey also turned up and even got behind the bar for a moment.
So, what is the attraction – once you’ve seen one traditional pub you’ve seen them all? Yes, but you haven’t been in them all and each carries its own special atmosphere, which in this case is the aforementioned locals.
The Deas family certainly know their clientele and they know how to run a pub and the landlord is often behind the bar and serving – have you ever seen a privately-owned hostelry really work without a good landlord on the spot? No.
From where you are reading this right now, how many good old pubs could you walk into? They are a little thinner on the ground than many would surmise and this one is all the better for being in the same family for decades.
Let’s start with the front bar. It is the largest of the two and I find myself enjoying the fact that you have the option, not uncommon, of getting two for the price of one when you go into a joint.
It is spacious and entered through double swing doors which seem to have fallen out of existence but remind me of more innocent times, with bench seats and tables lining the walls and of course plenty of room at the bar.
It is also home to one of Ross County’s most avid supporters and there must be few places where the naked frankness of a man’s love for his team is expressed so vividly, but should it approach a certain threshold the staff are there to intercede.
Now let’s turn to the back bar and its specific charms which includes a veritable smorgasbord of interesting characters. Well what kind of interesting characters? Glad you asked.
There is a strong belief that a local Lovejoy enjoys a pint on occasion, even an elected politician, a fascinating gentleman who unfortunately takes ice in his whisky, and a retired ScotRail worker who stands his hand more regularly than the trains he used to drive.
Astonishing in this day and age but it does cater to people from all walks of life and this is one of the beauties of the place, you get a really broad mix of folk and consequently conversation.
First the whisky ranges from £2.40 to £2.50, more for a malt, but that is ballpark daylight robbery by the punter on the premises and not likely to be matched anywhere nearby.
Gin, vodka and rum can all be found in the £2.40 to £2.90 range, brandy is £3.30 while Jack Daniels (uck) is £3.30, while a glass of wine or Prosecco will set you back anything from £3.80 to £4.70.
On draught the Caley serves Tennants (£3.90), Belhaven Best (£3.80), Guinness (£4.30), Strongbow (£3.80) and Happy Chappy (£4.35)... I will just let that settle in: Guinness for under a fiver, in this day and age.
So, you can see why it is a friendly place where the craic is very well lubricated, particularly on a Friday when you get the afterwork crowd in for a swift one that even if they stay a little longer than planned doesn’t dent the wallet.
Then a little later around 7pm you get the Lovejoys and train drivers in and that is it for the evening.
Caution should be exercised with the beer garden based on “weather permitting” because if there is rain and an east wind then Dingwall will make you feel like Sir Ranulph Fiennes in the last stages of an expedition.
Now let me record a major reservation at the start: there is a regular bingo night and a grey tsunami engulfs the place making life difficult for non-gamblers – those, like myself, who feel they already possess a sufficient number of sins.
Bingo to me is fine but not after a couple when it quickly illustrates in sobering ways the effects alcohol is having on sight, cognisance and the brain’s executive function so it is like a bad maths test.
But I have it on good authority it is one of the best bingo nights locally and the place really is stowed out.
They are what you would expect and hope for in that they are friendly, highly conversational and they know how to deal with folk but it is not the sort of place that attracts a lot of trouble in any case.
If you order once then they know that you are having it again so it is more of a check when they ask you if you want another eight treble whiskies and five pints. This used to be standard, but not a skill found in so many places any longer – I blame smartphones.
They know how to pour a good pint and you don't have to wait forever and a day to get it, even on the busiest nights.
It is not the sort of place where you will take pictures and put it on Instagram to make friends jealous, if you are such fiend.
But what it actually is, is one the best watering holes I have been in for a very long time and certainly one I will return to.
The no frills of the Caley doesn't mean it doesn't do what it is supposed to, it does all that superbly well.
You are never served a bad pint nor a shallow dram, you don't get a bad atmosphere nor a cold shoulder.
It's cosy and in its way, like all pubs or bars, speaks of the place and the patrons and it is so unbelievably reasonable.
Top marks and, for me so far, its only rival is the Castle Tavern in Inverness, though Dingwall actually has a real castle.