While England drinks to new pub hours Scots stand by dry tradition

No change as search for a pint goes on
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Twelve noon yesterday and for the first time pubs across Britain opened their doors all day, writes John Arlidge.

Drinkers marked the end of Sunday licencing restrictions with a pint - except in the handful of places where devout Christians still ensure that Sunday remains a day of rest and sobriety. At noon yesterday in the Outer Hebridean islands of Lewis, Harris and North Uist little stirred.

Not only were the bars and off-licences closed in Stornoway, the capital of Lewis, so were all the corner shops, petrol stations and newsagents. The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry lay idle in the harbour, the airport was shut and the gates to the golf-course stood padlocked.

Undeterred, I went in search of a pint. At the height of the tourist season, I thought, pubs must be open. First stop was the Clachan Bar by the harbour. On Saturday night scores of drinkers had spilled out on to the pavement to enjoy the late-night sun but yesterday the wooden doors were bolted.

It was the same story at the Fishermen's Bar, the Lewis Lounge, the Caledonian, the Crown Hotel, Cromwell's pub and the Carlton Tavern. Even the Coffee Pot was closed. There was no beer, no whisky, not even Irn Bru to be had.

In desperation, I walked out of town towards Prestos superstore. Surely, that would be good for a Tennent's six-pack. It wasn't. But there, in the car park, I met Tid Morrison, a local businessman. He tottered up, the worse for a dram, and, sensing my disappointment, asked: "Are ye no after a drink?"

"Yes," I replied. "Come wi' me, then," he urged. We walked round the corner to the offices of a local taxi company. "What now?" I asked. "Just wait," he said. Before long the manager drew up in his Volvo.

"I have a friend here who wants a drink. I know you sell everything on Sundays when the shops are shut. Come on, gi' us a few cans," Mr Morrison said. "Sorry, not today, we've run out," the manager replied.

I was ready to concede defeat but Mr Morrison, determined to have "just one more", had a plan. He had heard that the County bar in town was open on Sundays. When we arrived the steel doors were shut. Although we could hear music inside.

As we stood there, the last of the 1,000-strong congregations from the local Free and Free Presbyterian churches were heading for home.

I asked the Rev John MacLeod, a local minister for 26 years, what he thought of Sunday drinking. "I'm not against drinking itself. A light sherry is okay when there is something to celebrate," he said. "But all those who drink on the Lord's Day offend against our maker and if they do not repent they will be condemned to eternal damnation."

Mr MacLeod's attitude is shared by many in the northern Hebrideas, where islanders strive to maintain traditions and beliefs which disappeared long ago on the Scottish mainland. It means that most landlords don't even try to open on the Sabbath - even though it is perfectly legal - for fear of offending weekday regulars.

"If I said I was going to open on Sundays I would have members of the Lord's Day Observance Society and ordinary churchgoers staging demonstrations outside my door the very next day," one publican said.

"The same does for the off-licences. It's happened before and as far as I am concerned it's just not worth the bother."

But, as Mr Morrison had predicted, the manager of the County turned out to be braver than most. The front doors of his pub may have been locked but round the back, next to a skip and empty beer crates, a narrow corridor led into the public bar, which was open.

We entered in triumph. It had taken two hours but at last we could sup a damnable pint and, as the barman suggested, buy a carry-out to see us through the afternoon.