At the base of Holyrood Park, where the trails start to snake up toward Arthur’s Seat, lies one of the oldest pubs in Edinburgh. While the Sheep Heid Inn has gone through many changes since its first iteration in 1360, some gems from its storied past remain. Visitors who venture to the very back of the restaurant, for example, will be rewarded with encountering its 19th-century skittles alley.
Skittles is a type of bowling game that was once very popular in the United Kingdom (so much so that the phrase “beer and skittles” became synonymous with having a good time). Even before the Sheep Heid’s current skittles hall was built in 1882, there was a game set up in the inn’s courtyard. Legend has it that James VI (son of Mary, Queen of Scots) had such a grand time playing a game in 1580 that he offered the owners a gift: a snuff box made from a ram’s head in honor of the establishment’s name. (The ornate offering is no longer at the pub, as it was auctioned off by a previous owner. Since it was purchased by the Earl of Rosebery, however, it is said to still be on display at Dalmeny House, home to the earls of Rosebery.)
Why “the Sheep Heid”? The inn is located in the former village of Duddingston, once a hub for sheep butchers. According to Edinburgh Pubs by Jack Gillon, the sheep’s heads weren’t exactly popular sellers at the city’s fleshmarket, so local chefs learned to make the most of the leftover parts, often baking them or boiling them in a broth.
While a brainy broth is no longer on the menu, the restaurant does offer roasted rack of lamb as well as steaks, burgers, sea bass, cheese plates, and more. For those looking to play a round of skittles, you can either duck back and toss a few balls after your meal, or book the alley for a private session.
The Sheep’s Heid is one of three establishments that are vying for being the longest-running pubs in Edinburgh.