There are pubs all over the world that like to lay claim to being the oldest, but the truth of the matter is that it’s almost impossible to know for certain – either records were destroyed, or it was so long ago that records weren’t even made in the first place.
In Scotland, however, there isn’t a debate to be had. Located in the tiny village of Duddingston - found by circling Arthur's Seat away from Edinburgh city centre - you’ll find not only the oldest pub in the city, but the oldest pub in the whole of Scotland.
The Sheep Heid Inn sits on a spot where premises have been selling "liquor and victuals" to weary travellers since around 1360AD.
The Sheep Heid in Older times
As you can imagine, a pub that’s been open for over 650 years has had some famous visitors, but in the case of the Sheep Heid, they’ve not just been famous, they’ve been historical. At one time or another, it’s been the local of Robert Louis Stevenson, inventor of the romantic Pirate genre (writer of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde). The most famous of Scottish Poets, Robert Burns, was more than likely to have given his “Address to a Haggis” in the pub several times. It's also the location where Maggie Dickinson awoke in her coffin. After being hung for the Victorian crime of "concealing a pregnancy", and transported out of the city to be buried, Maggie Dickinson famously came back to life outside the door of the Sheep Heid inn, as her transporters were inside taking refreshments. She was subsequently pardoned due to the "act of God", and went on to live a further 40 years known affectionately as "half-hangit Maggie".
The royal connection with the pub is even stronger. Situated halfway between the palace of Holyrood, and the royal residence of Craigmillar, the pub has hosted more than it's fair share of Monarchs. King James VI of Scotland frequented often, as did his mother Mary Queen of Scots before him. Even Bonnie Prince Charlie, pretender to the British throne and leader of the Scottish Jacobite rising of the 1700s, camped out with his army for a month in Dunningston, and partook in the local liquors.
More recently, Queen Elizabeth stopped by in 2017, for a quick martini and half a bottle of wine with friends!
The Sheep Heid in Question
While there isn't much debate to be found about the Pub's status as the oldest in Scotland, there is a little debate surrounding how it got it's enigmatic name. It's a debate that reaches back not just into the history of the Scottish monarchy, but also the history of the Scottish cuisine.
Up until early modern times, sheep were reared in large number in the park behind the pub. With there being little demand for the heads when sold at the Fleshmarket in central Edinburgh, the village had a continual supply of - you've guessed it - unwanted sheep heads. With such a surplus, and the people of Duddingston being an industrious group, they became renowned for their skill at making the usually inedible part of the sheep a culinary delicacy. The two dishes most remarked upon in the history books are "powsowdie", a sheep head broth, and the descriptively named "singed sheep heid".
Another line of debate argues that the name came from a gift in 1580 of an ornate Ram's head snuff box (pictured above), from King James VI of Scotland. More plausible? Certainly. But we'd rather have an excuse to say "powsodie".
Full disclosure: the ball did not hit any pins
If we were to give you advice to visit the Sheep Heid Inn on a trip to Edinburgh, it'd largely be for one reason. The food is excellent (and reasonably priced), the history of the location is fascinating, and the atmosphere is warm and inviting. While you can find all these qualities in pubs all over the capital, none of them can boast having a skittles alley.
With Mary Queen of Scots documented to have stopped by to play the game in the pub's garden, its relationship with the game was formalised with the construction of an indoor skittles alley in 1870. Nestled into the back courtyard of the pub, it's the oldest surviving alley in the country, and it's freely accessible by all - you only need to call up to book.
it's outrageously good fun - a far cry from the shiny shoes and slick presentation of ten pin bowling, and with such advanced technology as the "timber gravity ramp" to return the balls (a sloping V of wood for the balls to roll down), it's both charming, and remarkably difficult to actually play!
A perfect way to spend an hour before lunch in the oldest pub in Scotland - playing a game of skittles in the oldest skittles alley in the country.
Why a recipe for Powsowdie, you ask? Well, we could argue that it's because we've got a lot in common with the medieval recipe - both it, and our waxed canvas bags, are products of UK manufacturing. Also, our Trakke bags, similarly to the soup, are made from UK sourced materials.
Are we being serious? No. Would we eat it? Also no. We just really love the word, and the recipe makes our eyes water.
If there are any braver souls than us prepared to make a bowl, please send us a picture!