Some pubs just feel right the moment you walk in.

As a customer you get an instinctive sense if you are in a place where you could pull up a seat and while away the rest of the evening in conversation.

I last had this when I visited Canny Man's in Edinburgh's Morningside area.

Locals huddled around a pristine bar dominated by ales and whisky, staff clad in aprons and white shirts were eager to serve, historic artefacts adorned the walls and each of the pub's several rooms had their own stories to tell.

The one where I sat featured a female mannequin hanging from the ceiling above my head. Turns out she arrived with a Canadian airman amid VE celebrations and she has been waiting for him to return ever since.

 

 

Of course, you can't just make a pub feel this way, it takes years to evolve or, as is the case with the Kerr family, five generations.

It opened as the Volunteer Arms in 1871 under the stewardship of James Kerr and, 146 years later, his great-great grandsons Mark and Tristan are at the helm along with mum Gloria.

No pressure then chaps?

"It is a responsibility," explains Mark, "Especially now with the difficulties that the trade has faced in the last 10 years."

It has been a testing time for all pubs, even one established for so many years.

A document I was handed by a member of staff called 'The Man's Fax' tells the story of the pub, and gives the impression that it is a place that will never change.

 

 

It says: "It is well loved and well hated. Loved by those that know it and hated by those who do not understand a place that will not change, will not alter, respecting the past and prepared at all cost to preserve the future."

 

And while the incumbent Kerrs try to retain the same spirit they have had to evolve the business.

Food has become more prevalent and they have opened a boutique six-bedroom hotel – The Lane – next door.

A blind eye is even turned to rules on signs on the walls such as 'no photos' which is virtually impossible to police in this smartphone age.

Making those changes has been a delicate process, as Mark explains.

"Everything has been carefully considered and done one thing at a time. We had to introduce a food menu, there's no other option. There is so much competition these days and not just from other pubs."

Some things are sacred, such as the artefacts on the wall (one of Mark's favourites is a moose's head hand-delivered by a customer who also happened to be one of Norway's biggest landowners) and the high-levels of customer care.

 

 

Mark continues: "There is always a white tablecloth for diners and you always get an ice bucket with your champagne and wine. All of those little things add up to make a difference."

The customer base is an example of how the pub is both evolving and holding on to its traditions.

"We have got customers that have been coming for generations. It's quite incredible how long some families have been coming here.

"Then we also get tourists who poke their head around the door to look around."

A challenge a pub with such tradition faces is getting staff to understand and enthuse about its history while keeping the food and drink flowing. This is an area where customers actually help out.

"It's difficult to recruit and train. The best people move on and do really well for themselves. A lot of the best ones are sent to the pub by parents who have been customers," explains Mark.

"You can teach people about the best whiskies in the world but what is more difficult is the desire to serve and ensure customers have a great time. That is more inherent in the individual."

So where next for The Canny Man's? Mark and Tristan both have children but they will be left to decide themselves if they want to become the sixth generation of landlords. In the meantime Mark is happy to ensure he keeps the pub moving forward.

Going back to The Man's Fax, it says the aim is not profit but "perfection without being pretentious."

Mark seems to agree:

"Profit is a by-product. If you do things correctly it should take care of itself."

Which is what this family freehouse has been doing for nearly 150 years.

 

 

 

The Generations and when they ran the pub


1. James Kerr (1871-1901)
2. John Kerr (1901 - 1939
3. Jimmy Kerr (1989-1989)
4. Watson Kerr (1989-2011)
5. Gloria, Mark and Tristan Kerr (2011-)