Gothenburg pubs – once a more common sight

by Andrew McDonald & Philip Denning
with original photographs supplied by Ryan Sturrock

Scotland's drink problem costs the country dear
Scotland’s drink problem costs the country dear
Minimum pricing of alcohol is routinely served up by the Scottish Government as a solution to Scotland’s chronic alcohol problem with its attendant horrendous cost to society in terms of impact on ill health, premature death, crime, and violence, including sectarian, gratuitous incidents. The estimated cost of alcohol misuse in Scotland has been calculated at £900 per adult per year according to a University of York study in 2010, amounting to a cost of between £2.4 and £4.6 billion. Crime related costs to society were put at £727.1 million, health costs at £268.8 million, with social care cost coming in at £230.5 million. The human cost of suffering, namely premature death, was calculated at £1.46 billion.

No one disagrees that Scotland has a very real drinking problem. Indeed, since 1950 Scottish alcohol consumption has more than doubled whilst consumption in most EU countries has fallen. Additionally, Scots drink more than their English and Welsh counterparts, with over 16 year olds in Scotland drinking the equivalent of 23 units a week against just over 19 in England in Wales. Scotland has a higher consumption of spirits at 295 against an English and Welsh statistic of 20%. Binge drinking is a particular problem, with the consumption of spirits and alco pops being cited as a source of all evil.

Pubs closing at 3 a week
Pubs closing at 3 a week
Meanwhile, Scotland’s pubs are closing down at the rate of 3 per week according to a report published in January this year by the Campaign for Real Ale (Society), the rate is 16 per week throughout the UK. The smoking ban, high business rates, high taxation on alcohol and the cheap availability of carry home alcohol are all contributory factors. So, what is to be done to ameliorate Scotland’s drinking problems and ‘under the influence’ culture? Could part of the solution to curbing binge drinking be a cultural one and be found in Scotland’s past?

Goth pubs, public houses run on the Gothenburg principles of ‘disinterested management,’ were once a feature of Scotland’s industrial landscape especially from the late 19th Century through to the mid 20th. These were pioneer philanthropic pubs that ploughed a percentage of their profits into community endeavours. They also stood for sensible, moderate drinking. From the 1890s such public houses sprang up in the Lothians, Fife, Ayrshire, and Stirling in mining communities. These were ‘model’ pubs based on Swedish Gothenburg principles of controlling drunkenness and alcohol abuse.

Goth pubs arrived in Scotland from Sweden
Goth pubs arrived in Scotland from Sweden
In Sweden, Goths were public institutions that used profits to develop municipal and community purposes giving 5% dividend to shareholders and the rest of the profits to good causes. This system of regulating drinking and ploughing profits into benevolent causes had its roots in the Swedish temperance movement pioneered In Gothenburg where from 1865 a law was passed which allowed pubs to become trusts. The idea of a Gothenburg company running public houses and regulating alcohol consumption to temper binge drinking, with a percentage of profits transferred to the local municipality was born.

Goths - places of socially responsible drinking
Goths – places of socially responsible drinking
Goths migrated to Scotland on the back of strong sea trading links with Gothenburg. Interestingly, Goths in Scotland were a product of a period in history when social movements were collectivist in nature, so they emerged at the same time as trades unions, co-ops, friendly societies, and the Labour Party being born out of the womb of the unions. Clearly, Goths were a manifestation of the late 19th century moves towards social movements that were based on principles of solidarity, fraternity, mutuality and cooperation. Co-terminously, legislatively, in Scotland, The Providential Societies Act of 1893 permitted profits from alcohol sales to be used to provide civic amenities.

Accordingly, Goths evolved as places for responsible drinking and were mainly found in Scottish mining communities where the mine owners, who applied for alcohol licences and set up the Goth pubs, wanted to regulate drinking as a means of paternal or enlightened management based on employer self interest. In short, the mines needed efficient sober workers. One exception was the Goth Hotel in Rosyth which grew out of the industrial womb of the Royal Naval Dockyard, and Rosyth’s utopian urban planning desire to become a ‘Garden City.’ Goths clearly were the product of industrial capitalism.

Profits from The Dean Tavern funded local amenities
Profits from The Dean Tavern funded local amenities
In their heyday, Goth Profits from alcohol were invested in public parks, district nurses, ambulances, bowling greens, libraries, pavilions, and even a cinema was built with profits from The Dean Tavern Goth in Newtongrange, Midlothian., was founded in 1899, set up by the Lothian Coal Company. It is still a practicing Goth today as are the Prestoungrange Goth in Prestonpans, The Goth in Armadale, and the Fallin public House in Stirling.

Sadly, Goths in Scotland declined after the mines were nationalised in 1947 because the nationalised board did not see running pubs as being part of their business model.

Meanwhile, pubs were nationalised in the Gretna, Carlisle, Cumbria regions between 1916 and 1971, under the ‘Carlisle Experiment,’ with 235 pubs and 5 breweries being nationalised over a 300 mile radius. In these pubs ‘treating’ was not permitted, you were not allowed to buy a round of drinks and the emphasis for the manager of the pub who was paid a living wage was placed on selling food rather than drink.

Nationalisation of these pubs occurred because Gretna was the site of the world’s largest explosives factory and Lloyd George the Minister for Munitions, May 1915 – June, 1916, did not want drunks blowing up the munitions factory. There was also the ‘shells scandal’ in May, 1915, where military failure at the Battle of Aubers Ridge was blamed on munitions shortages attributed to high rates of absenteeism amongst munitions workers due to drunkenness. Lloyd George was quoted as saying that during World War 1 that, ‘drink is doing us more damage than all the German submarines put together.’ Nationalised pubs lasted until 1971 when Edward Heath sold off the assets.

Today most people view pubs as destroying communities, yet the Goth, and the nationalisation experience, both demonstrate that pubs can develop communities. History shows us that Goth pubs brought visible gains and improvements to the communities in which they were located. Surely today given Scotland’s well documented apocalyptic alcohol problem the revival of the Goth pub phenomenon would help bring a cultural solution to the war on booze?

Surely, the Gothenburg system of public house management offers some insight into how Scotland could begin to look at changing the drink culture in Scotland? Surely, a public health strategy that links health promotion to community action could surely help reverse Scotland’s drinking culture? Surely, Goths as repositories of community activity would help regulate alcohol, develop what is called ‘social capital’ and bring health benefits? If we are serious about changing Scotland’s drink culture then we should learn from history, then surely, it’s a case of, cheers and back to the future? Otherwise, Scotland is indeed in the last chance saloon…


Andrew McDonald and Philip Denning are Community Learning & Development professionals, writing in a personal capacity.
Ryan Sturrock is a multi media graduate.

  • Great article. Pubs are important part of social fabric that’s been worn away by irresponsible management of a pub sector determined to take all profit out of pubs and put it into paying interest on the gargantuan debts pubco’s raised to buy ‘OUR’ pubs in the first place, then into the pockets of shareholders and bondholders who don’t need the money anyway. It’s wrong!

    The People’s Pub Partnership, the crowd funded, ethical pub company, is launching soon. Its founding constitution is based on tenets exemplified by the Gothenburg Principles. The launch of the crowd fund will give all people the chance to invest in the future of Britain’s pubs and to engage in their development by having a say in what kind of products they should serve, what kind things they should be doing socially, what level of amenity and community engagement they should be getting up to… PPP will put pubs at the heart of their communities.

    Get involved now and begin shaping the future of pubs in Britain! Tell us what you want to see in pubs and why. The website and social media sites will soon be integrated into one space. In the meantime please do engage as below,

  • Fay Kennedy

    Great information. Here in Australia the problem of drinking to excess and the cost is increasing rapidly. I will take this info and talk about it when I can. There needs to be a shift or life will become even more unbearable. Yesterday a public holiday I saw more drunks on the streets than ever here in Fremantle WA and reminds me of the genocide that its abuse has created in Scotland and particularly my home town Glasgow. The importance of social history is vital if Scotland is to make progress and oh please more of these discussions.

  • Graeme Christison

    As usual the government try to solve the wrong problem. Hiking prices on alcohol will not help. Those that want or need to drink will just pay more. Those that like to have alcohol in moderation will end up paying more. Drinking to excess will not change without a change in culture which will require education. Let’s have some imaginative ideas from this government, rather than heavy handed, ill thought out scatter gun policies. A great article though, I always wondered about “Goth” pubs.