With a fondness for pubs and a career lecturing in Scottish social history, Tony Cooke came to an obvious conclusion. Why not combine the two in a book, especially as no one had really covered the subject in any depth before. This curious omission has been put right with A History of Drinking: The Scottish Pub since 1700 (Edinburgh University Press, £19.99).

It’s a fascinating account of what our male ancestors got up to, whether espousing the Enlightenment over a jug of claret, or getting giggly in a shebeen on a cocktail of whisky and meths. Cooke quotes from Victorian hacks who would dredge up tales of prostitution and drink from the Glasgow slums to titillate their readers. Needless to say, the paper with the greatest appetite for such reports was the North British Daily Mail.

This fuelled a temperance lobby that was adept at infiltrating positions of power. According to Cooke: “At one point in Glasgow the majority of councillors actually belonged to some prohibitionist movement.” While the city never went dry, the city fathers severely restricted the number of bars. This meant they were packed with men drinking against the clock and last orders at 10pm until 1976.

Of course none of this improved Scotland’s booze culture, in fact quite the opposite and today’s politicians would do well to read Cooke’s book. When we spoke, sadly not over a pint but on the phone, I asked whether there had ever been a golden age of Scottish pubs. “I don’t think there ever has and, as an historian, you’re always a bit suspicious of a ‘golden age’,” he told me.

For example he reckons those 18th century Edinburgh pubs were “never quite as democratic as people claim, and even within them you would have a hierarchy of different rooms.” This social divide evolved into the public bar and lounge bar where women could finally drink without arousing suspicion. The sexual revolution, even down to the provision of female toilets, took a long time coming to the Scottish pub.

Plenty of business was done in them and Cooke told me of a lawyer who would commandeer a table in Dundee’s Ladywell Tavern and see clients every evening until well into the 1970s. Maybe a return to those days would help boost the local boozer, which we’re told is dying. Let’s hope this book won’t be its epitaph.

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