Highland operator hitting the right notes

Musician Bruce MacGregor’s award-winning bar attuned to all things Scots

By Jack Walsh

Bruce MacGregor plays with local musicians in Inverness pub
A Sunday session: Bruce having a jam with locals in his Inverness pub.

WHEN radio host and musician Bruce MacGregor set about raising funds to convert his dad’s former car showroom in the centre of Inverness into a pub, he drew from his forefathers’ defiant nature.

The pub’s motto bears two words: ‘despite them’. Taken from a line in a poem by Sir Walter Scott, it concerns the plight of the MacGregor clan which was outlawed and persecuted for over a century.

It speaks to the concept of MacGregor’s bar – celebrating and embracing the challenge of offering great Scottish food, drink, music and culture all in one venue – as well as the challenges associated with launching a pub.

“If you’re going to do it, you’re going to have to do it despite government legislation or despite people trying to stop you or getting in your way,” Bruce told SLTN.

Looking to defy convention, he steered clear of traditional finance routes, opting instead to crowdfund the capital required to refurbish the venue. And with 140 backers, £170,000 was raised, all of which went directly to the conversion of the venue on the city’s Academy Street in late 2017.

Bruce, a founding member of band Blazin’ Fiddles and presenter of BBC Radio Scotland’s music show Travelling Folk, said the desire to create a Scotland-centric pub lay at the heart of his ambitions.

Leaning heavily on his wife Jo de Sylva’s interior design/renovation expertise, he created three distinct areas in the pub.

The main 60-cover space features white walls and, in a nod to the black-houses of the Highlands, a mix of stone and wood, while bi-fold doors lead out to a 60-capacity walled beer garden with views across the river.

The second bar, The Highlander’s Club, aims to transport customers to Victorian Scotland with a darker interior and pictures of famous Highlanders – from sports teams to the musician who taught Bruce, Donald Riddell. And downstairs is the pub’s ‘speakeasy’ – a 30-cover space known as The Vaults, which Bruce said “lent itself more to a whisky and eating experience”.

The goal with MacGregor’s has always been “a marrying of the brewers, the distillers, the music and the culture” of Scotland, according to Bruce. And it’s evident in the bar’s drinks ranges.

With a back-bar comprising almost exclusively Scottish spirits, gins are strong sellers alongside Highland single malt The Dalmore, which Bruce said “just flies out the door”.
“We promote things like Tomatin as well because they are our closest distillery and we’ve worked with them well over the years,” he added.

Loch Ness Spirits’ products are popular in the pub too, said Bruce, with its absinthe “giving us a nice little bit of a twist for people to try”.

And the pursuit of all things craft extends to the bar’s taps, with two hand pumps and eight keg lines which constantly rotate. The team works with local Spey Valley Brewery, Cromarty Brewing Co and Windswept Brewing Co, as well as those from further afield, such as Orkney-based Swannay Brewery, Isle of Skye Brewing Co and Glasgow-based Drygate.

Explaining the drinks offer, Bruce said: “When we set it out we said there’s absolutely no point in us stocking the same beers that are around just about every pub in Inverness, so it had to be different; there had to be a reason for people coming to us.”

But the drinks range isn’t the only reason.

MacGregor’s boasts a strong music offer too, inspired by pubs on the Emerald Isle.
“One of the things I noticed when I was in Ireland and watched sessions was it was acoustic, in a corner, and those who wanted to really hear it moved in close to it; while those that were happy for it to be in the background sat there and just enjoyed the ambience,” Bruce explained.

“We’ve got two pianos – one in each bar – so that’s a kind of key indicator.

“There’s a fiddle in the bar for anyone to come in and pick up and play; so, we do encourage people coming in any time of the day or night having a tune.

“We’ve been very fortunate because of my connections over the years that we’ve had some of Scotland’s leading musicians coming in and playing in the middle of the afternoon.”

It’s an offer that impressed SLTN Awards judges, with MacGregor’s picking up the SLTN Concept Venue of the Year Award for 2018, in association with Britvic.

MacGregors Bar wins SLTN Concept Venue of the Year 2018 in association with Britvic
Bruce and Jo (second and fourth left) took the 2018 Concept Venue award.

And with the concept nailed down, Bruce said more venues are likely to follow, both at home and abroad.

“That is our overall aim: to create something we can take into other countries and say ‘this is Scotland’,” he said.