As Scotland's commercial areas become ever more generic, one woman is fighting to store up our heritage by preserving retail detail

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LIKE many women, Lindsay Lennie has a passion for shops. But unusually, her interest is in their historic qualities rather than the goods on offer inside.

• Graham Tait displays shoes fishmonger-style at Focus. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The Perthshire-based mother-of-two has recently launched a historic retail buildings consultancy – the only one in Scotland. Since starting up in November she's been in demand from councils and organisations such as Rothesay Townscape Heritage Initiative and Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, who require help to identify historically important buildings.

Lennie, 43, made the leap into self employment after a three-year fellowship with Historic Scotland, which came after earning a PhD at Heriot-Watt University. "While doing my PhD on the conservation of shops in Perthshire I looked for information on old shops, but couldn't find very much," she says. "There was no research being done in Scotland, which I found quite staggering. We were missing a big piece of the conservation jigsaw."

Her interest was sparked by an old black-and-white postcard. "I came across this photo of a shop called Sadie's, on an old postcard from Muthill, where I live. All traces of the shop have now disappeared and the building has flats in it. Although lots of people remembered the store, I couldn't find out any facts about it, which I thought was sad. There seemed to be this huge black hole and no recognition of how Sadie's had been an important part of the village. That got me thinking about how many more shops had simply disappeared from sight."

Further investigations revealed numerous cases where once-loved stores had been transformed into soulless, modern units, or completely destroyed. Particularly alarming, she says, was the lack of awareness of these shops' historical importance. "I've seen magnificent, solid mahogany shop doors replaced by MDF, hand -painted signs being taken down to make way for ugly plastic ones, and boards being nailed to authentic Victorian tiles, cracking and damaging them in the process. Not only have we lost historically significant artefacts, these things are also irreplaceable; the workmanship and materials that went into them are no longer available."

For instance, some of the famous James Duncan-designed exterior and interiors that were once the trademark of Scotland's Buttercup Dairy shops were salvaged and are now displayed in museums such as The People's Palace, but many more have been removed. "The only Buttercup Dairy shop which retains its stained glass is at 48 Warrender Park Road in Edinburgh," says Lennie. "This appears to have been one of the last shops to operate as a Buttercup Dairy, remaining listed in the Edinburgh Trades Directory in 1959, which may explain the intact shop front."

Then there's butchers TD Anderson, in Linlithgow, which contains a panel depicting Linlithgow Palace, and Cullens in Bridge of Allan. "I absolutely love tiled shops," says Lennie. "Sadly, so many of the huge, hand-painted murals have now been replaced by wipe-down melanin walls. People sometimes dismiss the whole issue as being nostalgic, but our shops are part of people's social history and identity. Most of us can remember going to a local sweet store with granny or grandpa. Places like York have fantastic old shops which are important for tourism. Our townscapes can have real visitor appeal, but if everything is plastic signage, it just isn't the same."

During her fellowship with Historic Scotland, Lennie travelled the length and breadth of the country identifying historically important retail buildings. "It's often the smaller towns and villages where the most interesting examples survive. I visited Gatehouse of Fleet and was amazed at two fascinating shops in what is a very small village. There is a chemist's with a rare cut and gilded sign which says 'Stark, Chemist'. The shop was used in cult film The Wicker Man. Opposite is a former draper's shop with a sign designed by the Brilliant Sign Company of London. These looked like the more expensive cut and gilded signs, but were much cheaper to produce. To my knowledge this is the only surviving example in Scotland."

She remembers a former fishmongers in Glasgow that had been converted into a grocer's run by Asian owners. "The ornate decorative tiles showing mermaids had been covered over. I assume that the partially nude female figures were considered inappropriate."

Lennie also came across a rare beaver carving that once had pride of place outside a store at 3 King Street, in Stirling. The beaver, dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, is now owned by Stirling's Smith Art Gallery and Museum, and was donated after a local resident rescued it from a bonfire. Museum director Dr Elspeth King says, "The beaver used to be mounted outside a hatter's shop. The new owners were about to fling it on to a fire. Luckily it was saved – just in the nick of time. What's very interesting, apart from the fact that the figure is very rare, is that it was carved by someone who had never actually seen a beaver in real life.

Much of Lennie's work entails providing specialist advice to town centre regeneration schemes. Rothesay, in Bute, was one such port of call. Here she helped in the effort to regenerate the once-popular holiday resort, which in its heyday attracted thousands of visitors who arrived by paddle-steamer. Today, however, few traces of the town's former glamour remain.

"A guided tour that I led around the shops of Rothesay town centre attracted over 50 people," says Lennie. "It was very encouraging to see so much interest there even on a freezing, rainy, morning. One of the best things about my job is helping others notice what is there under their noses.

"Many people walk past shops, look in the windows, but never appreciate the amazing architecture framing the goods inside. After I've done a training session, led a tour, or people have read something I've written, they often comment that they're now looking at shops in a different way. That makes me feel very positive about the future and that people will continue to take an interest in conservation."

Lennie's consultancy work also involves advising on the historic and conservation potential of shops. "I offer a specialist advice and training service to public and private sector clients, although much of my work will be with the town centre regeneration schemes, where the improvement and conservation of shop fronts is an integral part of grant funding. I recently worked with Leith Townscape Heritage Initiative, which held a workshop to inform local retailers about the importance of traditional shop fronts and the grants available for their restoration and conservation. It can be quite challenging. We can't be too nostalgic and have to realise that retailers need to run their businesses, however, you can usually adapt stores to suit modern uses. If a building is listed then there will be a requirement to get listed building consent for the exterior and interior. It doesn't mean you can't alter things, but you have to ensure that the authenticity of the fabric is maintained.

"There are lots of nice examples where a traditional shop is used by a modern business. Comrie, Crieff and Perth have some fantastic old shop fronts. Martin McQueens in Perth, for instance, used to be a butchers and now sells leather goods. Deuchars, in South Street, Perth, is one of the oldest shops in Scotland, and one of a handful which retain a bow-fronted window. In Crieff, Gills on West High Street is a fine example of a 1930s shop front, with the names of products sold in the shop etched on the window. In Edinburgh there is an extremely rare bow-fronted store at 515 Lawnmarket, one of only a handful in the country."

Another example of a cutting-edge business inhabiting a historic unit is the Focus store, at 270 Canongate. "They sell trainers," says Lennie. "(But] inside they've retained the beautiful hand-painted tiles of the old fishmongers, Croans. They have also used open-topped square containers to display their trainers in the front window, which is how the fish used to be displayed. I love this example, as you can't get further removed from an old fishmongers than trainers, but the new business lives quite happily in amongst the remnants of the old."

Store owners are usually receptive to Lennie's advice, seeing real advantages in restoring their premises. Naseer Ahmad of Pound Savers, at 37-41 Nicolson Street, approached Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH) after learning they were carrying out regeneration work in his area. He won a grant to fund structural repairs and work to the store's frontage, and the 138,000 project – part of a wider initiative by EWH aimed at properties along major routes and areas in need of regeneration – is now in its final phase. Once complete, the modern exterior will be restored to that of the original 19th century McIntyre's drapery store.

"I'm incredibly excited to see the building's original character emerge," says Mr Ahmad. "I believe this will encourage visitors and more people into my store."

&#149 Lindsay Lennie's research has been made into a book, Scotland's Shops, to be published by Historic Scotland this summer.