Five decades of passion for pubs

Paul Waterson had a front seat as the licensed trade evolved

Golden boy: Paul Waterson

By Dave Hunter

IT was 50 years ago this month that Paul Waterson got his start in the Scottish licensed trade.

At home from school for the Christmas break, he was “press-ganged” by his father, legendary Glasgow publican John Waterson, into glass collecting in one of the family’s pubs.

Five decades later and Paul has become one of the best-known faces in the Scottish trade, having run pubs and hotels in Glasgow, East Kilbride and Stirling and – as chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) – making sure the industry’s concerns are heard at Westminster and Holyrood.

A long-time colleague, John Gilligan of Tennent’s – a company Paul has worked with for all five decades – said his contribution to the industry “is priceless”.

“Quite apart from making a living, he’s worked hard to protect his colleagues and on legislation like minimum unit pricing,” said Gilligan.

“That, for us, is the biggest part of his contribution.”

The licensed trade of the 1960s and ’70s was a different place to the industry of today.

Paul told SLTN last week that there were some “big personalities” in the business as he was starting out. Personalities that didn’t hesitate to give a young man a piece of their mind at SLTA meetings if they thought he didn’t have his facts straight.

“If you said anything you’d better be careful boy, because you’re going to get slaughtered,” said Paul.

The customers, too, were often a hardy bunch, as Paul discovered on his first shift at the family’s Market Bar in Paisley.

“The door opened at eleven o’clock and in came these five farmers,” said Paul.

“The first guy I served ordered five Crawford’s (whisky), five half pints of heavy.

“So I put them down and as I go to serve another guy the next of the five says ‘another five Crawford’s’.

The bar at The Golden Lion in Stirling

“Then the next guy: ‘five large Crawford’s’.”

It was a sobering experience for Paul, if not for the farmers.

But despite the old-fashioned, hard-drinking Scottish punters of that time it was also a period of change and innovation in the trade.

John Waterson’s Burns Howff in Glasgow established itself as one of the city’s most popular live music venues in the ’60s and ’70s, and was one of the first to actively court a younger market, while other city pubs such as The Muscular Arms and Charlie Parker’s would help introduce different offers and different styles to the city’s bar scene.

Paul said he reckons all three continue to reverberate in the city today.

Through the 1980s the family’s pubs included The Pot Still, The Maltman and The 39 Steps as well as the Jean Armour in Shawlands.

But times were changing again and the day of the deep discount – the 50p double vodka and cola, happy hours and drinking contests – was dawning.

“We were always taught that if you’re responsible you’ll make money,” said Paul.

“Because pubs were judged by the problems that were in it. Could you control your pub? If you could control it people would come in.

“But then it became about charging half price and people coming in and getting blitzed.

“Glasgow went through a terrible time in the late ’80s and ’90s.

“I watched all the good stuff that went on – and there was good stuff going on in the ’80s  – get absolutely ruined.”

As he watched other operators either compete on prices or go out of business, Paul decided enough was enough.

Apart from making a living, he’s worked hard to protect his colleagues.

He said: “The town was mayhem. A guy said to me ‘stop moaning. Either compete with them or get out’.

“I wasn’t getting involved with that. I wouldn’t do it. On the Monday I put [The 39 Steps] up for sale and on the Friday I sold it.”

The family took over the Stuart Hotel in East Kilbride in 1994.

Although it had a busy public bar, it was a change of pace for the Watersons.

By now it was Paul in the driving seat of the family business, and he succeeded in building the hotel’s fortunes before selling it on in 2001, taking over another East Kilbride hotel, The Bruce, and The Golden Lion in Stirling not long after.

He continues to own and run The Golden Lion in 2019.

As with other sections of hospitality, independent hotels have faced increasing competition from nationwide – and international – groups, but Paul reckoned his experience as a publican has helped him stay the course.

“I think what happened to a lot of hoteliers was that they had the rooms, which they made money off, but didn’t really like the bars. They were too expensive to run, too many problems.

“But when Premier Inns and Travelodges came out and attacked the rooms business, the traditional hotels had nothing else.

“My argument was always that I want the restaurant and the bar to be busy. I want to balance the business out.

“A lot of hoteliers didn’t do that so they fell by the wayside.”

Despite his 50 years in the trade, Paul isn’t planning on retirement anytime soon.

Though he stepped down as head of the SLTA last year and isn’t in The Golden Lion as often as he was, Paul insisted retirement “would drive me nuts”.

And he’s still as passionate about the Scottish trade as ever.

“You go anywhere in Europe, I don’t care where you go, you won’t get better places than you do in Scotland,” he said.

“The interiors, the quality of the service. If some of our places were in Milan or in Paris, and all the hype that goes with that, you’d be marvelling over them.

“It doesn’t matter what business you’re in there are people that aren’t as good as others, but you can go out in Scotland and go to some of the best pubs, restaurants and bars in the world.

“I’m proud of that.”