No beers or New Year cheers… but plenty of fears

Hogmanay events cancelled and pubs empty as most of Scotland is put into level four lockdown restrictions.

No beers or New Year cheers… but plenty of fears Getty Images
Coronavirus has impacted on Christmas plans nationwide.

It’s dark, cold and wet out outside.

And the mood of the nation matches the Scottish winter weather.

There is not much festivity around this festive season as the coronavirus pandemic continues to dominate news headlines and conversations around the country.

The feeling of dread and gloom has only intensified with the worrying development of a new variant of the virus that spreads more easily, along with the travel plans of millions being thrown into disarray by the tightening of lockdown restrictions.

Christmas 2020 looks very, very different. Work parties on Zoom, markets cancelled and a festive tipple inside a pub illegal in many parts of Scotland – the entire mainland in fact from Boxing Day.

STV News spoke to hospitality workers and event management staff before Christmas to see how they were coping in the toughest of conditions. Was there a ray of light to be found anywhere?

Glasgow

The rain is lashing down on Great Western Road and there’s hardly a soul to be seen on this busy artery in Glasgow’s West End.

The lights are off at The Hug and Pint and Munro’s bars – like many establishments in the city they are closed.

Glasgow pubs have been prohibited from serving alcohol and told to close at 6pm since early October – many have taken the decision that it’s not viable to stay open.

The door is ajar, however, at Wintersgills. Inside the lounge bar, several punters have taken their seats at the six tables in usage.

They are being served soft drinks, teas and coffees by landlord Paul Shevlane.

He decided to keep the lounge open so that regulars could enjoy some company. But he says it’s not even worth switching the electricity on in the main bar – the jukebox lies dark, chairs sit on top of empty tables.

Paul Shevlane doesn't switch the lights on inside the main bar at Wintersgills.
Paul Shevlane doesn’t switch the lights on inside the main bar at Wintersgills.

He said: “People make the atmosphere. It’s just dead now. We have got a wee side lounge with six tables so I’ve opened that up and put up some Christmas decorations to try and create a bit of atmosphere. There are not as many people coming in because we can’t sell alcohol with Glasgow being in level three (until Boxing Day, when it moved into level four). 

“There’s not even any point switching on the electricity in the main bar, I’ve just turned everything off. 

“Traditional pubs like this enjoy quite a steady day trade, especially as Wintersgills is on the fringes of the West End. Normally at this time of year, we would have lots of office staff and parties here; people would be booking the lounge and big tables. We’re also a popular location on the Subcrawl (the pub is close to St George’s Cross subway station) so we get big crowds of people all dressed up coming in for one drink.

“There would be live music and a DJ in the corner – all singing and all dancing really.”

Mr Shevlane also runs the Woodside Inn on Maryhill Road and Shevlanes in Springburn, but they are both currently closed.

He says he can’t wait until the day he can get his pubs all back up and running.

“Pubs in Glasgow are fantastic. People just chat to you and the conversations can be great; I miss that a lot.

“But you look around the area here and we are the only pub open. I think the city centre pubs have been hit even worse as they rely a lot more on Christmas shopping footfall. Traditional pubs don’t fluctuate quite so much in that respect. 

“January can be a decent month for us with the football being on. But there is no doubt that Glasgow’s hospitality has been hit pretty badly compared to the rest of the UK with the restrictions that have been in place here.”

And it’s not just pubs bearing the brunt of the restrictions. Nightclubs have had it even worse – they have been closed ever since the first lockdown was announced back in the spring.

Some of Glasgow’s most iconic hotspots are among those whose doors are firmly shut.

The Garage on Sauchiehall Street, instantly recognisable with its truck above the entrance, would normally be jumping with a raucous crowd over the festive period.

So would The Cathouse, the rock and metal club in the shadow of Glasgow Central station on Union Street, as it celebrates its 30th birthday this year.

Donald MacLeod, managing director of Hold Fast Entertainment, which owns The Garage and the Cathouse, said: “It is bleak. I cannot think of a worse period. We went through the banking crisis in 2008 and the global recession but this is worse by a long, long way. 

“Nobody thought we would be closed this long and with no hope of reopening at the moment. It’s very disconcerting. 

Donald MacLeod wearing a mask inside the Garage nightclub.
Donald MacLeod wearing a mask inside the Garage nightclub.

“When Glasgow nightlife eventually starts to reopen it will be slim pickings. Most establishments will find it very hard to operate as there will be all sorts of restrictions and measures in place. The health lobby will not let go and we will have to keep jumping through hoops.”

Mr MacLeod, who is also the convener of the Glasgow Licensing Forum, hopes to reopen both The Garage and the Cathouse for trial events in the spring with a reduced capacity, but that will depend on the R number and the rollout of the vaccine.

“Fear has replaced hope. It is a daily dose of fear and gloom, which is not good for the economy getting back up and running. 

“It (the festive period) is massive. It starts with Halloween, which is our biggest night, has a wee dip in November, and then it’s all the Christmas office parties. No doubt, the last quarter of the year is our biggest period and we try to make as much money as possible.

“When I look at the Cathouse and The Garage now I feel absolute despair and just want to cry. I don’t want to go into my venues as I just think ‘what a waste’. We want to keep the essence of our venues alive but this can’t go on forever.”

Aberdeen

Belmont Street is the beating heart of Aberdeen’s nightlife. In better times, its various pubs and bars are packed to the rafters over the festive period.

The Triple Kirks pub occupies the site of a building designed by renowned Scottish architect Archibald Simpson.

Slains Castle and The Wild Boar also lie on this street, as does Siberia Bar. Until recently, Aberdeen was under level-two restrictions – meaning all these establishments could serve alcohol, providing customers purchased a substantial meal.

But Aberdeen, along with neighbouring Aberdeenshire, moved into level three on 18 December, and then into level four on Boxing Day.

The move to level three was enough for Stuart McPhee, a director at Siberia Bar, to decide to close up.

He says the cancelled bookings on the weekend of December 19/20 lost the business £20,000 alone.

“It’s a very sombre atmosphere, all the team are devastated,” he said.

“Those hospitality businesses who are still open in Aberdeen are doing their level best and making a fist of it. People are generally being supportive, they are still out and about, but it’s just not the same. The wind has been taken out the sails of the city centre and footfall is down. 

“For Siberia, level three is just not a viable prospect for us. There is a complete level of uncertainty and fear of the unknown with regards to this new strain of the virus.

“Businesses need protection in the meantime if they are to get to the other side. I feel particularly sorry for businesses in places such as Inverness or Dumfries, who will be going from level one straight into level four. 

“Just looking at the past weekend, we lost £20,000 and that’s just cancelled bookings on the basis of one decision – Aberdeen moving into level three – so that will be reflected across the piece with losses on bookings taken for Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve etcetera.”

Stuart McPhee, a director at Aberdeen's Siberia bar.
Stuart McPhee, a director at Aberdeen’s Siberia bar.

Stuart, who is also spokesperson for trade group Aberdeen Hospitality Together, said Siberia enjoyed a relatively busy spell under level two restrictions.

He said: “In normal times we have a capacity of 374 people and at this time of year we would be seeing a lot of office parties and large groups booked in for Christmas dinners. We cater for a very diverse demographic and we had a good level of trade under level-two restrictions – albeit nowhere near what Christmas was like in pre-Covid times.

“We felt we had an obligation as we were one of the only spaces where people were allowed to meet up and enjoy themselves. We decorated the pub nicely and we had a simple festive menu. We didn’t want to be too clinical and I feel we were striking that balance (between adhering to public health guidelines and allowing people freedom) so it’s a shame we had to stop.”

Edinburgh

It’s the home of Hogmanay. The images of fireworks rising above Edinburgh Castle are seen on television around the world.

The famous street party – a whisky-fuelled riot of singing, dancing and embracing strangers. It all seems like a lifetime ago.

And it’s not just the huge crowds assembled on Princes Street; there’s also the live music in the adjoining Princes Street Gardens, the Torchlight Procession winding through the streets of the city.

Ed Bartlam, co-founder and director of Underbelly, which produces the capital’s Christmas and Hogmanay events on behalf of Edinburgh City Council, says the city feels like a different place this year.

The street party was cancelled in the summer when it became clear that large crowds gathering would not be a staple of normal life for the foreseeable future.

A dark, deserted Princes Street Gardens. SWNS
A dark, deserted Princes Street Gardens.

Mr Bartlam said: “It’s a very different picture to what is usually going on across Edinburgh at this time of year.

“Everybody understands the reason, nobody thinks that something should be happening in the circumstances. But this is a sad end to the year for Edinburgh and it’s being replicated across Scotland the wider United Kingdom.

“Usually, it’s one of the most popular winter destinations; the city’s Christmas markets are a huge draw for locals and for people outside of Edinburgh. 

“That leads us towards Hogmanay and it’s not just about the 31st, it’s a festival in its own right that takes place across several days.

“The city is usually alive with people in the run-up to Christmas. This year it’s very quiet and it’s darker than usual. The council has tried to put lights around the centre and George Street but you cannot help but walk around and think that it feels like a different place.”

Ed, who has been working on Edinburgh’s festive events since 2017, says Hogmanay is a very important festival for the capital economically, given the huge number of people it brings into the city’s hotels, shops and restaurants.

“It is also important for Edinburgh’s reputation globally. Hogmanay here is recognised around the world as a bucket list experience.”

This year’s Hogmanay celebrations will instead take place entirely online.

Ed said: “We made the decision a number of months ago to cancel the street party and we also thought it wouldn’t be appropriate to have the usual fireworks display. We have done something groundbreaking instead by commissioning a poem by Jackie Kay accompanied by music and narrated by actors.

“We also used drones to film symbols and words in the sky – from the Highlands all the way down to Edinburgh – choreographed to the words of the poem. It is wonderfully Scottish in terms of tone and imagery. 

“I think it’s sad for everyone. These winter festivals, at a dark time of year, literally create light and warmth around the whole city. The hustle and bustle and the feeling of togetherness from people coming into the city is not there and that is sad.

“It feels very difficult and all we can do is look forward and hope we can get back to normal soon.”