How Scotland’s old shopfronts could revitalise today’s High Streets

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They were the proud purveyors of exceptionally fine food and drink, specialists in haberdashery or hardware; pawnbrokers, bakers and butchers with their fine handlebar moustaches, striped aprons and several carcases hanging in the window.

Outside, their ornate shopfronts – some with fancy windows, colourful mosaic entrances, hand painted tiles and cast-iron entrances – gave high streets in towns and cities across the country their own rich character and individuality.

Of course, before long the big brands moved in, fashions changed, and town centres started to look depressingly similar.

Now a new online exhibition is revisiting the golden age of the shop, when skilled joiners, stonemasons, signwriters and foundries were called upon to create eye-catching shopfronts, and when the opening of a new shopping arcade was such an event that it almost sparked mass hysteria.

Historic Environment Scotland’s exhibition, Scotland’s Historic Shops, spotlights retail as it once was, with delightful emporiums designed to entice, excite and encourage shoppers.

It’s a glance backwards to times when shopping was an experience rather than a chore. And, with so many of the nation’s traditional high streets now retail deserts, it may well leave some wondering whether the solution to luring back shoppers, lies in the past.

“There’s an amazing architectural history and timeline that exists within our streets that we perhaps take for granted because we walk past them every day,” says exhibition curator Lindsay Lennie.

“You can still see Victorian or Edwardian shopfronts alongside others from the 1930s. They all look very different, and that creates the variety that makes our towns so fascinating.”

Fixed shops began to emerge in the late 18th century, as part of homes or in small timber booths. However, it was the development of glass technology that altered the face of towns and growing cities.

Shops with bow windows emerged, before the invention of plate glass – and the lifting of the Glass Tax in 1845 – provided a chance for shopkeepers to properly showcase their wares.

Before long shopkeepers were in a battle to attract customers, using fashionable materials such as cast iron, coloured glass and bright signs to encourage shoppers inside.

Shopkeepers were often daring and adventurous, turning to emerging materials and responding to changing fashions to help build their brand, adds Lindsay.

“For example, at the end of the 19th century cast iron was popular; St Andrews has lots of cast iron shopfronts dating from the 1890s.

“Then in the 1930s we start to see vitrolite, the kind of coloured glass you can see at Rogano in Glasgow.

“Later on, black marble became popular. It’s easy to clean and it’s hardwearing and when used with bronze it created a nice sleek combination for entrances.

“Shopfronts were a big investment for shopkeepers,” she adds. “In the early 20th century and interwar period there were lots of shopfitting firms and a lot of competition.”

Among the most vibrant shops were butchers and dairies, where the nature of the business demanded easy to clean surfaces while colourful tiles may have helped to distract from the carcases and shop detritus and instead provoked thoughts of relaxing rural life.

One chain in particular, the Buttercup Dairy, expanded to almost empire status. At one point it had more than 200 branches throughout Scotland, with each featuring the Buttercup brand image captured on Glasgow-made ceramic tiles – a little girl holding a buttercup under the chin of a dairy cow.

The company lasted for six decades before its final shop closed in 1965. However, some of the colourful and highly detailed shopfronts and interiors have survived: last year Buttercup Dairy shopfronts in Tranent and in Warrender Park Road in Edinburgh, were restored and their original features lovingly revived. According to Lindsay original features which modern shopkeepers were once only too eager to cover up – such as the Buttercup Dairy shops’ tiles – are now being recognised as treasures worthy of being uncovered and revived for a new generation.

It raises hopes that lurking behind once bland and predictable town centres shops may be a wealth of architectural and design gems which could hold the key to breathing new life into dying high streets.

“We are still finding traditional shopfronts hidden behind new ones,” adds Lindsay. “Underneath there are often historic details waiting to be found.

“People now appreciate the quality of those early shopfronts and the beauty of them.

“Shopkeepers are embracing that and want something that makes them stand out from what’s around and that their customers see as something unique.”

The exhibition also highlights the workmanship that went into creating individual shopfronts, from the skills of the foundry workers who created ornate cast iron details such as gates and canopies, to stained glass artists and signwriters.

Alloa-based signwriter Ross Hastie, who specialises in creating the kinds of signs which would once have been commonplace in towns and cities, says there is rising demand from modern shopkeepers seeking to revive an air of days gone by.

“In those days, there was no branding, no websites, no leaflets or targeted marketing, and if you had a shop and wanted to get people to go in, you needed a good sign,” he says.

“Signwriting was a well-respected trade, and signwriters would work while wearing a hat and a three-piece suit – they were a step above the usual painter and decorator.

“The signwriter was the original town planner. Way back if your town had a good signwriter, it was regarded as a good town to visit.

“Now there are general customers who are simply interested in how long it takes to create and sign and the price, but there are others who want something a bit different.”

Shops which retain their traditional features or create links to past through signs or design details can provoke powerful feelings among shoppers, adds Lindsay.

“There’s a strong sense of identity associated with shopfronts – they are part of our every day lives and our childhoods,” she says.

“When you look down at entrances with their mosaic floors, you think of the thousands of feet that have walked over them.”

To see Scotland’s Historic Shops online exhibition, go to www.historicenvironment.scot

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