Published Date: 07 September 2011
By Martin Hannan
Extraordinary Edinburgh publican whose unique approach to hospitality brought his Canny Man’s pub legendary status
Watson Kerr, renowned Edinburgh innkeeper.
Died: 3 September, 2011.
IF EVER a man suffered from the wrong image it was Watson Kerr, innkeeper extraordinaire of Edinburgh, who died at the weekend.
Arguably the capital’s most famous publican, Kerr was “mine host” of the utterly unique Canny Man’s public house in Morningside. He passed away last Saturday, leaving his family in shock, and his devoted regular clientele bereft of a kenspeckle figure in their lives, while not a few people around the world are still bewildered as to why he refused to serve them simply because he didn’t like the look of them.
Watson Kerr gained his celebrity by doing things very much sui generis, and to coin a phrase, it was either his way or the highway for those who entered his establishment. He had no hesitation in barring people whose conduct was less than becoming, or even because they were wearing what he termed offensive apparel.
His lovely and loving wife Gloria once summed up the Kerr philosophy succinctly in a note to customers: “You drink where you want, I’ll serve who I want.” She added: “He can’t stand people who can’t handle their drink.”
The Canny Man’s once boasted a sign saying “regulars only”, which was useful because, if you didn’t pass muster, staff would invite you to leave because you were not a regular, rather than say your clothes were dire or your face didn’t fit.
Kerr was what might be termed a colourful character. Even in a licensed trade which abounds with larger-than-life figures, his reputation as a publican who would stand no nonsense gained him fame far furth the boundaries of Edinburgh. Yet his renown as a martinet was not really fair, for he was by nature a kind and hospitable gentleman whose creed was the maintenance of proper public house standards.
In essence he ran The Canny Man’s like a private club and, while the rules were often unwritten, some were indeed put down for posterity in writing. To this day The Canny Man’s has a prominent sign outside – No smoking, no credit cards, no cameras, no backpackers.
Formerly the Volunteer Arms, The Canny Man’s has been in the ownership of the Kerr family since it was founded by Watson Kerr’s great grandfather John in 1871.
In appearance it looks quite normal outside, but the interior is completely eccentric, the entire premises being festooned with the eclectic collections of several Kerr generations. Bric-a-brac vies with fine art prints, lithographs, and notices and, of course, a huge collection of whiskies and other drinks on the walls behind the bars.
One small notice seems apposite at this moment: “Don’t make plans, it makes the Gods laugh.” Another notice says “Nobody’s perfect, except the captain” – a definite Watson Kerr touch.
The Canny Man’s nooks and crannies are set in richly wood-panelled recesses where a curious amalgam of the ladies of Morningside, well-bred students and the professional classes enjoy the pub’s atmosphere of dedicated relaxation. Kerr was committed to keeping that clubbable milieu, and gained his greatest fame in the 1990s when he decided he had suffered quite enough of Christmas excesses bespoiling the Canny Man’s. He issued edicts which at various times included the following imprecations:
“NO OFFICE PARTIES. This means: DO NOT ASK. The answer is NO. And do not bring the remnants of paper-hatted clowns back here. They won’t get served and you’ll be barred. “There will be NO Christmas decorations. This means I don’t want anyone cutting down a tree on my behalf – and I’m not a friend of the earth.
“No festive lunch. This means be truly thankful I’m not going to serve Christmas pudding, give you a cracker, and charge you double... I’m serving lunch as usual and you’ll have to wait as usual and more than likely the food will be cold by the time you get it, as usual.
“NO FREE NIPS. This means that you have not had a drink on the house this year and you will not be getting one. So don’t ask.”
He concluded his tidings of comfort and joy as follows: “Having said all of that, have a nice Christmas and New Year.”
Kerr was adamant he was only acting in defence of his regulars. He said at the time: “They give me their custom 365 days of the year and I’ll be damned if I’ll allow hordes of once-a-year clowns to disrupt things here.”
The press loved these stories and flocked to The Canny Man’s for further elucidation of the gospel according to Kerr only to be told by the staff to “go away, as we’re not publicity seekers”. Which is true – he never actively sought publicity, and even in death, the Kerr family are respecting his privacy and no obituaries are planned.
Instead, his wife Gloria penned a personal note to customers, which is on the Canny Man’s notice board: “It is with deep regret that Gloria Kerr and her children Tristan, Tara and Mark have to inform you of the death of her loving husband and their loving father.” Alongside is the first of what will no doubt be many notes of condolence which says: “Watson – a perfect gentleman.”
It can be revealed today that Edinburgh Licensing Board and the then district council took up the Christmas matter informally with Kerr, attempting to discover if his less than welcoming message was an act or the real thing – there were fears that Edinburgh’s image could suffer among potential tourists.
An emissary reported back that it was no joke and the “Christmas, bah humbug” message was quite sincere. I know, for I was that emissary, Canny Man’s being one of my haunts at the time. The board took no action, it should be said – more than one member agreed with Kerr.
He was serious about curbing the excesses of Christmas drunkenness, just as he was serious about keeping The Canny Man’s as an oasis of peace in a rambunctious city. Completely belying his image, he did innumerable kindnesses for customers, but never publicised any of them – that was not his way.
The tribute he would probably have most enjoyed came from a regular customer at the Canny Man’s for more than 40 years who, over a pint yesterday, said: “In all that time I would never dared to have addressed him as Watson. He kept a good pub... no, he kept an EXCELLENT pub.”
In an age when so many pubs have closed for a myriad of reasons, the good news is that the Kerr family will keep The Canny Man’s going. They know they have a very hard act to follow, but will surely maintain Watson Kerr’s standards, for, in an era of homogeneity and boring sameness in so many walks of life, there is surely an honoured place for a pub like The Canny Man’s.