Edinburgh is not short on folk music venues, with each one offering something slightly different. Whether you want to sit in on a session with a few pints or watch some of the best acts on the circuit in an intimate theatre, these venues have you covered.
Edinburgh is full of incredible folk music, from the smallest pubs to the most lavish theatres. On any night of the week, you’ll be able to listen to some of the best acts on the folk circuit or just stumble into a session – you might even get to join in for a tune. Remember that folk is a broad church, but whatever you’re looking for will be covered here.
Soundhouse @ The Traverse Theatre
The Traverse is famous for being Edinburgh’s new-writing theatre, but it regularly hosts incredible touring folk musicians in its basement bar under the Soundhouse moniker. Big-hitters like Eliza Carthy, Martin Simpson and Lankum have all been known to grace the stage. For bigger shows, Soundhouse regularly books acts to perform in Edinburgh’s beautiful Queen’s Hall, as well as programming the line-up for Tradfest every year (the city’s annual traditional music festival). Keep an eye on its website to plan your visit.
Leith Folk Club takes over the function room in Ferry Road’s Victoria Park Hotel every Tuesday, rolling out maritime-themed banners and welcoming musicians who cover the whole spectrum of folk – from traditional Scottish and upcoming singer-songwriters to touring Americana and country. Gigs are known to go from pin-drop quiet to raucous and rowdy from one song to the next. Don’t be surprised to hear the audience burst into song, particularly if there’s any Robbie Burns on the set-list. If you don’t know the words, just hum, but make sure you do it with conviction.
Edinburgh Folk Club has been running since 1973 and in the intervening 50-plus years has firmly established itself at the centre of Edinburgh’s folk community. The Ukrainian Community Centre is the club’s current home, with gigs happening every Wednesday. It is more traditional than its sister club in Leith, with less Americana and more Celtic folk and instrumentalists, but the jovial spirit is shared. Expect a dedicated and listening audience, a great standard of musicians, as well as the most important part of any folk club: a raffle.
Sandy Bell’s is a pub that’s easy to find and hard to leave. Located on Forest Road, just beside The Meadows, you can go in any night of the week and be likely to find a clutch of musicians swapping songs and tunes in the corner. It’s been happening the same way since 1942. Every day has a different focus – fast-paced, fiery Scottish folk on Tuesdays, traditional songs and blues on Wednesdays, harmonica sessions on Mondays. There are afternoon sessions on the weekends and music going late into the night. Get there early, grab a dram and pull up a seat.
The Old Royal Veterinary College has famously transformed itself into one of Edinburgh’s most thriving art venues. Summerhall often welcomes touring folk acts to its 400-capacity music venue called The Dissection Room (a gruesome homage to the college’s medical history). Keep an eye out for its cheekily named music programme: Nothing Ever Happens Here. The best contemporary Scottish indie-folk artists have all graced the stage here, including Rachel Sermanni, Adam Holmes & The Embers and James Yorkston. Summerhall also hosts a full programme during the Edinburgh Fringe – it’s one of the city’s most unique spaces to watch music.
The Royal Oak is another of Edinburgh’s dyed-in-the-wool folk pubs, where you’re likely to hear spontaneous sessions every night of the week. It even has a piano and guitars behind the bar, if you fancy joining in. Every Sunday, the downstairs venue turns into the Wee Folk Club, with tickets at only £6. These shows are more formal than the upstairs sessions but are a great chance to see touring songwriters and instrumentalists in an intimate surrounding. The Royal Oak lies on Infirmary Street, putting you right in the centre of the Old Town, too.
Barely a hop, skip and jump from The Royal Oak is Captain’s Bar, which has folk sessions lasting until 1am almost every night of the week. It is small but perfectly formed with 28 seats, and it’s incredible to hear the whole pub fall silent when a great singer starts up in the corner or to feel the energy rise when blazing fiddles kick in. Its bright red exterior and cartoonish pirate logo make this place hard to miss (and anyway, you wouldn’t want to). If you happen to be up for Hogmanay, its parties are legendary, with an all-day music line-up and bagpipes ringing in the new year from midnight.
Leith Depot is one of Edinburgh’s most beloved independent venues, offering a cosy, intimate live-music space – think cabaret seating and candles. Fortnightly folk sessions take place on Sundays in the downstairs bar, with ticketed events upstairs every night of the week. The venue often reaches out to the Edinburgh music community to participate, so this is a great place to catch some hand-picked, local musicians on the way up.
Located down on Portobello Promenade with its big bay window facing right out onto the Forth, Dalriada lays claim to one of the best views of any pub in Edinburgh. Sessions are plentiful here, with musicians piling around the window, playing while the water flows behind them. Head down on a Sunday afternoon between 3pm and 6pm for a relaxed song-swap, or on Wednesday night for a more raucous trad session. Opening out the definition of folk music from Scotland, there’s also a great World Music session on Saturday afternoons.
The Black Cat is an ideal folk venue to head to if you’ve spent the day in and around Princes Street and the New Town, with sessions on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. An excellent whisky selection, warm atmosphere and great standard of music make this a really vibrant and busy bar in the evenings, so get down early if you want to grab a seat. While it attracts a less local crowd than some other folk pubs, the music remains excellent, and the bar staff are a fountain of knowledge.