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The Secret Drinker reviews the Market Bar in Inverness

By Secret Drinker

The Market Bar is perfect.
The Market Bar is perfect.

I thought this would be an easy one. I thought it would write itself and I would be free to investigate another pub, early doors.

In the end I have had to rely on cliché and say that this review is being abandoned rather than finished because there is simply too much to say and, ultimately, the Market Bar exists in a category of its own entirely.

The Market Bar is an institution, it is said to date back to the times of the Jacobites and one can well imagine that would have made for an interesting Friday night for those in the pub.

“You in tomorrow?” “No, I can’t, I’ve got to work the weekend, there’s this battle up at Culloden but I might be in afterwards if it goes well.”

That is to make light but there is a serious point: the city is crammed with tourist tack and ephemeral nonsense; pubs designed to deafen, deaden, empty your pockets; that leave you hoarse and strangely vacant after a night out.

Some even pretend to offer an authentic Scottish/Highland night out. There are places that are plain ugly, lacklustre and just wrong.

And then there is the Market Bar, which is vintage, unchangeable and unimprovable with its warm but determined take it or leave it attitude.

Market Bar: 'Local of the year 1982'
Market Bar: 'Local of the year 1982'

I have compared pubs and bars to novels before – the Market Bar, however, is much more like one particular film: Withnail and I. A small, totally unique, cult classic, a world unto itself of incredible comedy and melancholy.

It has been owned by Ian and Pep Shepherd for nearly 40 years and the couple, both now in their 70s, have decided it is time to retire, leading to some anxiety over the bar’s future.

The original 1980s decor is now fashionable again and I felt that I was walking into my (incidentally alcohol free) 1980s childhood, when people still knew how to behave in a pub.

Whatever the future holds, for now it is still there, and still busy. I have been to some truly amazing pubs so far but the truth is that this place cruises into top place not because it is perfect, but because what imperfections it has make it only more lovable.

The Market Bar close.
The Market Bar close.

First Impressions

Could there be anything in life more tantalising and enjoyable than approaching a secretish Jacobite tavern up a close for a dram at 4pm on a Friday afternoon when others are still rat racing around Church Street?

I was joined once again by Sancho Panza (and his look of "what fresh hell will I suffer next") for this escapade, knowing well that there was a risk I would stand out like a sore thumb and deeply concerned I might be lonely.

I shouldn’t have worried because we were not in the door before bumping into a man of epic proportions when it comes to hail and hearty good fellowship and someone who is known to have peaked in each of the last five decades while approaching another.

“I have just come from a lunchEON. I have just come from a champagne lunchEON [massive grin]. I thought they were paying but they didn’t [no grin] so I did and now I am here.” Wise choice.

The Market Bar: pure vintage, including the people.
The Market Bar: pure vintage, including the people.

Wise choices

We made a similar wise choice but for mystifying reasons I selected Scottish Leader instead of Famous Grouse and though it was not bad I didn’t order a second one, while Sancho stuck with Old Pulteney, being a man of taste.

The Guinness was immaculate and we sat in the corner like new kids at school wondering how long we would stay. We stayed for hours – and didn’t even make it upstairs.

I have spoken before about my love of two bars in one place and the Market Bar is precisely this type of venue, the downstairs primarily for veterans of the stool and regulars, the upstairs for those more into the live music.

Lucky if you can get a seat here but it doesn't matter because the bar staff know how to see beyond the seating, not all do.
Lucky if you can get a seat here but it doesn't matter because the bar staff know how to see beyond the seating, not all do.

First the Lounge Bar. For such a small place there is nothing claustrophobic about it and even if it was I doubt that I would care, because it was atmospheric, cosy, with loads of natural light despite being located in a close.

The bar woman was funny, engaging and straight to the point, my order of Scottish Leader even provided her with some mirth, which I ruefully accepted, and was more than happy to buy her a dram herself.

Nattering like a coven with our colleague she later told us it was like Press Gang in here today – a massive compliment to someone like me and yet another example of how cool the period 1989 to 1993 was.

Slaked by our vast conversation, much amusement (“I honestly thought she was going to pay for the champagne”), sipping a little too fast, we took to the outside seating.

The Market Bar prevented us from getting coffee in the Victorian Market.
The Market Bar prevented us from getting coffee in the Victorian Market.

Here I revelled in the looks as sober folk made their way to and from the Victorian Market and we endlessly talked to all and sundry – Sancho almost got a move from someone a little more mature than he is – and just enjoyed ourselves.

In search of a flaw, I went to the toilets. No flaw was found.

Top tip: go to the toilet before you need to because if you talk to anyone on the way there and are beset by the virus that makes conversation irresistible then you will at least make it on time. I had at least one chat there and another on the way back.

Market Bar entrance.
Market Bar entrance.

Now, as I said, we did not make it upstairs on this occasion, but I have been upstairs before, so in the interests of honesty and full disclosure the next part stems from about a year ago during a visit late at night.

Stairs are not my thing. I don’t mind looking at them but I find climbing them to be an uninspiring and rudimentary procedure that is heightened only by the thought that a mis-step could see me break my neck.

Caithness band Pure Grief at the Market Bar.
Caithness band Pure Grief at the Market Bar.

My goodness when you enter the noise is full on and it was really packed. Normally I would hate that but here it seemed to make sense, particularly as the miraculous bar staff heard exactly what I wanted and delivered it fast.

The place is really nicely decked out and there is this feeling that everyone is enjoying themselves, having the night out that they wanted.

I told you this review would be abandoned, I can’t possibly do the place justice.

The Market Bar in many ways captures what is best about Inverness and leaves the worst outside. But it will not be for everyone. Some people prefer fridge magnets of Culloden than reading the history.

The Market Bar is in its way part of the history of the city and understands better than any other place that it is there to serve, which creates the connection with those who know to recognise it for it is.

The best wee pub in the north. I didn’t think the Clachnaharry would lose its title so quickly but it now has to at least share top spot with the Market Bar.

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