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How music, whisky and culture helped rejuvenate a tired side of Inverness city centre and put MacGregor’s at the top of the pile

MacGregor's has become one of the city's most popular bars since it opened in 2017.

A blonde woman and a grey-haired man holding a fiddle looking at the camera standing side-by-side in a pub.
MacGregor's co-owners Jo De Sylva and Bruce MacGregor. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

The good times are rolling at MacGregor’s – but it didn’t just happen overnight.

Bruce MacGregor’s musical career with Blazin’ Fiddles took him to numerous far-flung locations.

But while enjoying a post-gig pint he often found himself wondering why the world seemed to be packed with Irish bars and offer none of the Scottish variety.

It sparked an idea.

To create something that showcased the best of Scotland without being draped in tartan and flags.

That was a decade ago. It started the ball rolling and before too long, the arduous process of stripping back an Academy Street unit – owned by Bruce’s dad Brian since the 1970s – began.

Jo De Sylva, Bruce’s wife and the bar’s co-owner, designed the space and after a major renovation, the new bar opened in November 2017.

The MacGregor’s philosophy

“We wanted to marry traditional Scottish music, culture, food and drink,” Bruce said.

“And make it an experience. The overall feel of the place had to be different to everywhere else.”

MacGregor’s. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

The prominent site has had numerous past lives as a car showroom, a fruit and veg grocers and a charity shop among many others.

It is one of the first buildings you see as you enter Inverness’s historic Old Town.

That put creating a site people would be proud of locally high on the agenda.

A mixture of Scandinavian and Scottish influences helped inspire the decor.

And Jo’s own positive experiences of the cafe culture of France – where she has family – helped shape the ambition to make it a day and night venue.

“A lot of bars are very much geared towards males,” Jo said. “And you don’t often feel comfortable going into those places as a lone female.

Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

“In France, you wouldn’t thinking anything of just going in and grabbing a coffee.

“It’s about creating a community and a culture that’s welcoming. And people really feel you’re part of something.”

That was the philosophy.

But success was by no means guaranteed. Hundreds of pubs across the UK close every year – and in fact, this hit a record number in Scotland in 2023.

And some even warned that the northern end of Academy Street was the wrong place for a place like this.

MacGregor’s window to Inverness and the world

As it turned out, they were wrong.

The opening of the nearby Black Isle Bar and major refurbishments at Blackfriars and the Rose Street Foundry injected new life into the area and effectively created a new bar quarter in the city.

MacGregor’s flourished and a video of a Sunday jam session taken by American travel writer Rick Steves brought the bar to the attention of a whole new audience.

By 2019, it was picking up a national award for the best pub in Scotland.

But barely two and a half years after it opened its doors, the world stopped.

MacGregor’s. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

“The Covid years were horrendous,” Jo said. “That was so hard. They say it takes a business about three years to embed itself and know what its doing.

“For us, that was when the pandemic hit.”

The hospitality trade was in the gutter.

But Bruce believes it helped create a sense of resilience in the business.

It also led to the creation of Live At Five, a music session which is broadcast on the bar’s Facebook page every Sunday.

With lockdown thankfully a distant memory, the sessions are well attended in person these days.

But the online element has helped MacGregor’s build a huge following – with everyone from Florida state troopers to a German football team among its devoted fans.

The next step for MacGregor’s

Things are much more settled these days.

The bar continues to collect excellent reviews – and it added another best bar award to its collection in 2023.

Bruce and Jo put that down to building the right team in the bar and kitchen, with manager Jamie Rodgers name-checked as having made a key difference.

Ness-Side Catering handle the food side of things and have helped MacGregor’s score alongside some of Inverness’s best restaurants on Trip Advisor.

Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

The project has been all-consuming for Bruce and Jo.

They’re getting a bit better at the work-life balance thing now – but that might be in jeopardy once again when a new MacGregor’s opens up somewhere else.

That’s when. Not if.

Jo said: “We know what we’ve got here now is right. The next leap is going to be big, so we’re both quite cautious but excited about it.

Until then, there’s plenty to enjoy at home.

Bruce added: “Inverness is absolutely flying right now. And a lot of the businesses that have done well have stuck to values they really believe in.

“The reason we’re here is to celebrate Scotland.”

Read more about the city centre:

Two decades after the online shopping boom threatened its existence, the human touch is keeping the Inverness Panasonic Store thriving

‘We’ve had princes and kings come through the door’: The successes and challenges of Grahams of Inverness

Inverness city centre: Track the empty and occupied units to measure the health of the high street