Taking Scotland around the world

MacGregor’s poised to open second venue, with plans for more

Bruce MacGregor and wife Jo de Sylva
Bruce MacGregor and wife Jo de Sylva will open the second MacGregor’s venue in the coming weeks.

WHEN Scottish hospitality businesses were forced to shut their doors during the first lockdown of 2020, the owners of Inverness bar MacGregor’s responded in a novel way: they launched their own online show.

Live at Five was broadcast from MacGregor’s every night at five o’clock, showcasing Scottish music and culture.

What started as, in owner Bruce MacGregor’s words, “silly little programmes” grew to have a global audience of 12,000 viewers.

“It started off with myself and a fellow musician, Anna Massie, and my wife, who’s an ex-BBC producer and presenter, behind the camera,” Bruce told SLTN.

“And all of a sudden we found ourselves talking to people in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, America, all absolutely hooked on Scottish culture.”

Scottish music is a subject Bruce is well qualified to talk about. A well-known musician, Bruce has spent 20 years performing with traditional music group Blazin’ Fiddles.

But the show did more than keep the bar’s name alive and give the owners a project to keep them busy; it helped take the MacGregor’s name to new and potential customers around the world.

And now that travel restrictions have eased, the popularity of the show – which continues to be broadcast every week – is paying off.

“People bought T-shirts [online] and now they come into the pub,” said Bruce.

“We did this deal where if they bought the T-shirt and came into the pub they’d get a free glass.

“It just opened our brand right across the world.

“I don’t know how we would have done that, actually, if we hadn’t had a chance to sit down and go ‘right, this is COVID, what do we do?’ It was very interesting. We’ve learned a lot from it.”

It’s easy to see why visitors to Inverness looking for a slice of Scottish culture would visit MacGregor’s.

In addition to Scottish music the venue, which last year was named SLTN Independent Bar of the Year, in association with Brown-Forman, has the country’s food and drink at its heart.

Drinks come from producers including Cromarty Brewing Company, Brew Toon and Inverness brewer Dog Falls, while on the food side suppliers include Inverness butcher A&I and Inverness-based Williamson Foodservice.

And this dedication to local suppliers will continue in the second MacGregor’s venue.

Bruce and wife Jo de Sylva acquired the former Ben Bhraggie Hotel in Golspie last year and have been gradually refurbishing the property, supported by crowdfunding campaigns (the original MacGregor’s was also funded that way).

Bruce said they intend to reopen the six-bedroom hotel as MacGregor’s at the Ben this month.

The decision to expand north into the booming North Coast 500 route was taken after the couple looked across Scotland for a new unit.

“We looked in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Perth, Stirling,” said Bruce.

“We went touring around everywhere looking for venues.

“We were looking on the North Coast 500 (as well) and we thought that for a second venue it’s not a bad idea to be within an hour of where the main place is.

“And we also fancied the idea of just dipping our toes into a small hotel kind of idea.”

The case for Golspie was strengthened, said Bruce, by a report from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which highlighted the comparative shortage of food and drink businesses and accommodation providers in the area.

Bruce said: “They always say you start a business to solve a problem, so there’s a problem – there is nothing here – and we can go in and do something.

“There’s a great local music scene up there as well, which appealed to us. The place is rich in history and music and culture.

“That was really important for us as well. It’s just such an idyllic little town.”

While there will be similarities between the Golspie and Inverness venues in terms of the food and drink offers, the Golspie property will have a distinct flavour of its own.

“We’re using the local Golspie butcher and the local fishmonger as well,” said Bruce.

“The menu’s a bit different just because it’s local ingredients. We’ve tweaked it slightly.

“That’s the whole idea: we’ll have a core menu, which will always be the same no matter how many MacGregor’s we have, but each place has got to have its own individual stamp because of what we have in their back garden. We don’t want to become just a chain offering the same thing everywhere.

“I think people are looking a little bit further than that these days.”

Golspie is unlikely to be the Bruce and Jo’s last foray outside of Inverness.

In fact, Bruce said they are hoping to open further venues in Scotland – and even overseas.

“Our whole goal is to try and sell Scotland across the world,” said Bruce.

“For me that is number one.

“It’s what I did with music with Blazing Fiddles for 20 years.

“It’s really important.”