Licensee interview: Mr & Mrs Smith – The Victoria Inn

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Gordon Smith’s staff and customers threw a surprise party to mark his 25 years as licensee at The Victoria Inn on Carronshore’s north Main Street. He also seemed genuinely surprised when Jason Caddy called him to arrange this interview. He met with Gordon and wife Katrien at their wonderful wee pub on the outskirts of Falkirk.

Gordon Smith credits 25 years as licensee at The Victoria Inn at least partly to a nugget of advice he got a long time ago from one of his regulars: live within your means.
He explained, “His name was Tommy and his family donated a set of bagpipes that still hang on the wall of the pub. On the back of his advice I pledged to pay off my mortgage before I was 35. Tick. And the pub before 45. I managed to tick that one off a year later. I just turned 48 and business fluctuates month to month as I’m sure it does for licensees of all ages but we are doing well and I have paid off my loans by, quite simply, not living the high life. I couldn’t run this business the way I do if another credit crunch hit, say, and I was paying a mortgage on top of all the other running costs a business incurs.” Gordon, who runs the pub on the outskirts of Falkirk with wife Katrien and Labradoodle Tanis, has created something special at The Victoria Inn and it hits you just as soon as you step inside. Hidden gem does it justice to a point, thanks to an interior replete in everything from a reclaimed pulpit, seats from the stadium of his beloved Falkirk FC, a prosthetic leg hanging down from one of the most elaborate and comfiest smoking areas I’ve ever seen (he spent £7K on it) and a genuine Bendy Bully – from 80s quiz show Bullseye. It’s such a feast for the senses and so slickly run that Graham Baird from Belhaven sang Gordon’s praises after he saw what magic he’d weaved when visiting the pub for the first time in a while, recommending him for this interview shortly afterwards.
It’s also the beating heart of the community and as soon as you walk in you get the sense of just how much love, care and attention have been ploughed into it.
Said Gordon, who is forever on the lookout for new additions to salvage for the pub, “It was Belhaven’s 300th-anniversary bash where I discovered that they’d uncovered some old stuff when they were doing up the brewery and they invited me down to see if I could salvage any of it. I met Gordon Muir there who showed me around. I got two Aitken’s Brewery (Falkirk) stained glass windows. I also acquired two wooden kegs that two former Miss World’s posed next to back in the day. It was at the anniversary party that I bumped into Graham Baird who said that he must pop into the pub because he hadn’t paid us a visit for a few years.”
He continued, “We are so loyal to Belhaven because they have been to us and I can’t speak highly enough of them. Our rep Stephen Logan provides amazing personal service and has always worked closely with us and supported us over the years.”
The entire pub has been ripped out refurbished and has widened its appeal beyond mainly guys from the local area and two pivotal events helped shape the pub this way.
Gordon explained, “The cleaner called me one morning jin 2007 to tell me that it was ‘raining inside the pub’. Turns out the boiler in the upstairs function room had sprung a leak and the entire pun was ruined. This was the springboard that we needed to start ripping out the old interior.”
Said Katrine, “The place was unrecognisable to how it looks today. It was full of old boys, there was fake wood panelling on top of…wait for it, even more wood panelling on the walls and the density of the smoke was something else. Gordon added, “The front of the bar was carpeted – maybe just in case a customer fell into it! The bar-top was made from Formica.  It was in a massive state of disrepair and we have completely gutted the place and continued to add to it.”
And it was another chance meeting that resulted in what has become the pub’s signature look.
Said Gordon, “I was a member of The Royalty Burns Club and I happened to be sitting next to former hotelier Hugh Patterson at one meeting just after the flood in the pub – he used to run The Shawlands Hotel, now the Radstone, Larkhall. I was telling him what happened and it turned out that he had just reclaimed a church would you believe and invited me to have a look. This is where I got a lot of what you see before you, like the pulpit gantry, the pew doors, the former balcony bar-front, high door surrounds and Tiffany lamps.”
The second shift for the business was as recently as 2018 when we were visited The Beast from the East, and, as Gordon explained, it is an ill wind that blows no good. “Someone posted a picture to social media of the Belhaven delivery truck outside the pub and I remember that it was barely recognisable in the blizzard. The next day the snow started falling and falling and all the ‘young team’ from all over came to my pub because they knew we had beer because of said picture. Girls arrived wearing waterproofs and wellies, with a change of clothes in a backpack. There was even a guy wearing cross-country skis and another in fishing waders.
“The wonderful thing is that we have kept that younger business – plus they have brought me bang up to date digitally because before this happened we didn’t even have a card machine for payments, never mind USB ports, digital jukebox, etc. The first thing I did when the Beast from the East went was call my electrician and get all of this installed in the pub.”
Katrien is also heavily involved in the business. They met in 2007 while Gordon was away on a boys’ fishing trip in her native Chilliwack, Canada. They married in 2010 and have three kids.
Said Katrien, “We met in October and I moved to Scotland in the following April. My parents organised an Alaska cruise to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary and we decide that we’d get married on it so we made sure they were okay with us effectively hijacking it, which they were, so we went ahead and did it in a place called Juneau. I had to wear a plastic bib over the top of my wedding dress so that we could tuck into fish and chips, lobster, crab, and slabs of Halibut at the Crab Shack for our reception. Gordon was in full kilt regalia so we stood out like a sore thumb. We also visited a great wee pub there called The Red Dog which was a real spit and sawdust place. The locals shelled nuts and nutshells littered the floor.”
But Gordon started the pub with his late father Alex of course, when the previous licensee agreed to lease the pub to them for six months. Neither had any experience on the other side of the bar.
Said Gordon “My dad Alex ran the local car spares shop and we discovered that the previous licensee Jim Hamilton had run into financial difficulty in 1994. He was an old school operator. My dad had been a pub drinker all his life and he said to me ‘What do you think?’ I was 23 years old at the time and a wee bit apprehensive.
“Jim was to-ing and fro-ing for a month or so but then he told me and dad that we could rent the place for six months. My pride and joy was a 1967 Seasand VW Beetle which I had to sell to raise the £4K to pay for the rent, fixtures and fittings, stock and goodwill for six months. But the bank eventually foreclosed on Jim and we began dealing directly with the bank. My dad and I got the £110k between us with me acquiring a mortgage for the adjoining house, with the two of us eventually raising the remainder to buy the pub outright. I was 23 at the time and I was living with mum and dad and paying £20 dig money so it was a real step into the unknown for me.”
But tragedy struck not long afterward.
Said Gordon, “Unfortunately my dad wasn’t able to enjoy the benefits of pub ownership for very long because his life was cut short in an accident. It was 21 years ago and he was at a folk festival in Glenfarg in his VW camper van and as a fellow VW devotee, he was always telling me that you should never put a fire on in a VW van because ‘two minutes in your sleeping bag is enough to warm you up.’
“He called me that night from the festival and said ‘Are you getting a turn in the pub?’ and he also told me that he was going to put a heater on for five minutes. Then he spoke to my mum. This was the last time we spoke to him because we got the news the next day that he fell asleep and the oxygen had eaten the fire but the gas was still on so he died of carbon monoxide poisoning. We had a New Orleans-style band for his funeral and the streets were five-deep with mourners.”
It was at this point, once the dust had settled, that Gordon decided that he wanted to invest his heart and soul in The Victoria Inn. “My dad had no will so I bought out my mum and became soul proprietor in February 2001 – and we have spent every penny that we made on improving the pub.  And speaking of my mum she was the backbone of the place until she died six years ago. She was called Liz and she would sit in here and treat it as an extension of her living room – enjoying multiple sessions with folk. She was also a bit of a trendsetter because she was the one who encouraged other women to drink in the pub. She was the backbone of it all.”
As I left the lunchtime trade started arriving and both Gordon and Katrien switched to work mode by welcoming in a variety of customers, all of which they knew by name. I guess there’s no substitute for the personal touch and I can picture them still doing the same for another 25 years.

 

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