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Pints, Plumbing, and Poultry

A deep dive into the beloved Aikman's


“It’s like being in a trench in World War One,” said bartender Bryn Finlayson, describing the intensity of a busy night in Aikman’s Bar-Bistro and its Cellar Bar. While you may consider this description mildly melodramatic for a simple Fife pub, Aikman’s — one of the last remaining independent pubs in St Andrews — is anything but ordinary.


In a pub with clientele as diverse as its beer selection, and bathroom graffiti ranging from Latin witticisms to expletives unsuitable for publication, Finlayson insists that prospective workers need to adopt an “absurdist approach.”


It was with this unique reputation in mind that I walked through the pub’s entrance just after midday on a Monday — a time which could make even the most seasoned bar fly pause for thought. I sought to find out what goes on behind the scenes of what I — albeit somewhat biassed — judge as a true St Andrews institution.


“We don’t try and pretend to be something we’re not,” said Barbara Ritchie. 


Ritchie and her husband Malcolm have owned Aikman’s since 1 July, 1985. Having both attended St Andrews, they named the pub after the building’s previous occupant — a grocers that had operated for over 144 years. 


Now, fragments of the grocers’ Art Deco interior decorate a variety of Britain’s museums — including the Heritage Museum in town. 


“The countertop is in a museum in Manchester I believe,” said Ritchie, “which if we’d known about we would’ve said ‘we could find a home for it’.”


Drawing on her almost four decades of ownership, Ritchie credits part of the pub’s charm to how little it has changed since the ‘80s: a time when, she states, the bulk of the Madras College English department would eat their lunch there every day.


 Ritchie attributes this timelessness to the “rolling nature” of the student population. Students introduce the pub to friends, academic family members, and so on, retaining “the same sort of atmosphere … just different faces,” she said. 



Even Prince William visited, Ritchie added, but only once. When his security realised the pub’s limited exits, “They recommended other places,” Ritchie said. 

Perhaps, ‘One-pint Willy’ earns his recently revealed nickname, as the pub’s eight per cent La Chouffe beer acted as the real security threat. 


Ritchie’s employees echo her sentiment about the atmosphere in Aikman’s and its enduring appeal. In fact, many attributed that to the unchanging and relaxed nature of the pub. 

 

“It’s somewhere familiar for [customers],” said Rob Thompson, who’s worked in Aikman’s for around ten months. “The place doesn’t change, the beers are generally the same, plus they get a good selection, plus they get a good laugh.”  


Aikman’s also shares longstanding ties with student societies, as the pub frequently acts as the designated watering hole of a broad range of groups. 


“Everyone is tolerable,” said bartender James Downer, who — like most of the staff — hesitated to entertain gossip about potential society hijinks.

Many employees expressed praise for the Shinty Club, though. Despite their unrivalled ability to consume beer, they remain on their best behaviour even after the odd keg or so of Belhaven, said Thompson. 


However the same can’t be said for all of Aikman’s clientele. On a busy night in the cellar bar, misbehaviour is inevitable. 


“Last night we had a busy night and glasses were smashed,” said Pearl Trowell, an employee of 18 months, “we lost about five and about ten got stolen.” This figure isn’t presented as particularly unusual, though.


While a punter could perhaps pass off their broken glass as a product of inebriated clumsiness, it’s hard to believe someone could forget about the pint glass bulging out their jacket pocket. 


Glasses aren’t the only things that are taken. Items that have gone missing over the years include the sausage of the day board, decorative flowers, drip mats, and pieces of the cellar’s textured green wallpaper. In a recent — somewhat narcissistic — turn of events, even the mirrors in the men’s bathroom have disappeared.  


But a specific instance of misbehaviour stood out in every interview — rather than confiscated items, it concerned gifted items.


“I’ve only been here for two Christmases and it’s happened every Christmas,” said Trowell. “Last year it was just a chicken, this year it was a chicken and a ham.”


‘The bandit’ — as the pub refers to him — has become the notorious Aikman’s antagonist. Despite being officially banned from the pub, he still manages to sneak in sometimes. 


If he does squeeze past unnoticed, he reportedly makes his way down to the men’s bathroom and shoves either an entire chicken, ham, or both, into the toilet. He always manages to escape before getting caught.


No one seems to know what motivates these acts. Maybe it’s performance art  a wider commentary on our society as a whole, à la Banksy — or, as Downer’s simpler theory suggests, “chat.” The other bartenders seem to agree.  

 

“They just think it’s really funny,” said Finlayson, who believes ‘the bandit’ is a group rather than just a lone actor. “It makes me laugh.” Though his supervisor — tasked with clean-up — doesn’t find this as funny.

 

Regardless of motivation, the bandit’s reign of terror appears to show no signs of ending. He allegedly shared the details of his “next operation” with some of the bartenders. 


Of course, like any good St Andrews student, he thinks outside the box — next time he’ll bring a fish. 

 



Illustration: Magdalena Yiacoumi


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