Fiona MacGregor finds they're alive and well –but not amused by the troubles of another capital institution
'NO! They had no cashmere! My mother would turn in her grave." The ground outside on Morningside Road may be icy underfoot, but it's nowhere near as frosty as the faces of the ladies in Loopy Lorna's Tea House when discussing the decline of that once-great Edinburgh institution, Jenners: a drop in standards dramatically demonstrated to one of these ladies three weeks before Christmas when she made the shocking discovery that there was no cashmere to be had in that store's menswear department, none at all.
For, while those outside the capital might have written them off as a fictional breed or certainly an extinct one, the Morningside Lady – who has long reigned resplendent in our imaginations as the epitome of a Jenners customer – is alive and well and has plenty to say about what has gone wrong with the formerly independent store since it was taken over by House of Fraser's Icelandic owners Baugur, a company that now faces going into administration leaving Jenners to face an uncertain future.
So what exactly are the values of a Morningside Lady and how do these fearsomely reputed women feel about the changes facing their once favourite store?
The Morningside Lady title is one which is often used a little mockingly by those from outwith the area, and suggests those who bear it may perhaps be fond of giving themselves "airs and graces".
But in Loopy Lorna's amid the dainty china teacups, indulgent cakes and respectably pitched chatter, I didn't even have to finish explaining to a gaggle of three well-dressed, well-spoken matrons why I'd chosen there to seek out the perfect example of a discerning shopper.
"Ooh the Morningside Ladies," slender hands flutter up to their tastefully covered collar bones with mock primness, and they giggle (though not, of course, to the detriment of their perfect enunciation).They're very well aware of their reputation, and there's pride as well as amusement in their assumption of the role.
"It's a bit of a generalisation, we joke about it. This place is very 'Morningside'," they gesture to the refined surrounds of Lorna's where, from the hand-knitted tea-cosies to the antique cups, not a thing could ever be suspected of being mass produced. Between them these ladies chalk up almost 100 years of residency in the area, so they should know what they're talking about. Morningside certainly doesn't approve of globalisation.
What has happened at Jenners, one of them tells me, "is indicative of shopping across the UK, every shop is identical." Now the famous store is like any other House of Fraser, or worse, like Debenhams, which they "hate".
What has been lost, and it's the reason they don't go to Jenners nearly so often these days, is its "individuality".
This value on individuality and uniqueness, one quickly learns, is key to the Morningside ethos. Its residents prize the village-like nature of the community. The Dominion cinema and the Canny Man's public house, two institutions independent to the point of eccentricity, are among the most prized businesses in the area. And, having lived in Canaan Lane in the heart of Morningside for a year as a student, I can confirm that it really does have a village atmosphere. Within a week I knew the florist, the pet-shop owner, the fishmonger, the baker (and indeed the bar-staff of the Canny Man's) by name, and vice versa.
This is important in understanding the nature of the Morningside Lady's emphasis on propriety. When everyone knows who you are, you can't afford to let your standards slip for a moment.
"You always know someone, who knows someone," is how my ladies put it, with a knowing look.
So far, so jolly. Yet, having been away from Morningside for many years, it was not without some trepidation that I sought out in their home territory these guardians of middle-class morals and manners. Like some nervous temple novitiate seeking words of wisdom from the goddesses of disapproval, I feared I would somehow manage to offend.
My nervousness was not unfounded. On hearing I worked for The Scotsman, one of the ladies told be about an article she had read that morning in this paper, of which she had heartily disapproved. I did try to explain I was the author of the offending words, but she didn't immediately comprehend this. By the time she did, I was already a quivering mess and drafting my letter of resignation in my head.
Yet her horror on realising she might have offended me outweighed even her indignation at the content of my article and she was at pains to reassure me it was just one person's opinion, and she would re-read the piece when she got home. In Morningside, manners maketh the matron.
At another table Ruth Bayne, a retired headteacher, and her friend Engelina Davids are having a good gossip.
Bayne is delighted to tell me what she thinks has gone wrong with Jenners, she only wishes her late mother (she who would be turning at the lack of cashmere) were here to contribute to the conversation.
She laughs as she tells me about her ill-fated search for a quality Christmas jumper, but she and Davids are quite genuinely upset about the fact that "all the things we really looked forward to (about going there] have just disappeared". This list of vanished treats includes the old caf, the best quality embroidery threads and Helena Rubenstein make-up. It's not that they object to the Vivienne Westwood necklaces or the Bobbi Brown cosmetics but, after all, "you can get those anywhere".
We're back to the importance of individuality.
I ask them what they think it is about Morningside that has gained its ladies such a special reputation. What makes it different from other parts of the city, which boast equally expensive houses and well-brought up residents?
"I think this is a little village all of its own," says Bayne. "We have our fashion shops, jewellers, a gift shop, it's nice to potter around here. Many people who've come to visit us say it's unique. People from Corstorphine will say it's not quite so good there." Though she concedes Stockbridge does share "some elements" of Morningside's desirable qualities.
So what other values come with being a Morningside Lady? Strict, formal, high standards, perhaps? they agree with all those descriptions.
"Conservative – is that a small c or a capital," they add, laughing. "Traditional, middle class, professional. We've got our cinema, it's also independent – like Jenners used to be."
There is that independence again. Would they say, like an older Edinburgh version of Destiny's Child, they are "independent women".
"I'll tell you a story," says Bayne. "James Walker has been an independent jeweller's here for over one hundred years, but now they're selling up. They have a prospective buyer, and when I was in there, (the owner] said to me, 'I hope (the new owner] has what it takes to meet the needs of the average Morningside lady,' I was going to ask him, 'What do you mean by that!' but I think really that sums (the expectation of a certain quality] up. It's the uniqueness that makes Morningside different."
It's a Thursday morning, but Loopy Lorna's is full.
It's just over three months since it opened, but as Michelle Phillips, chef/manager of the tea-room explains, Morningside was the natural location for the proprietor's dream of opening an old-fashioned tea shop.
It certainly seems to be popular and I express surprise at quite how busy it is here given we're in the middle of recession.
"In Morningside", Phillips tells me cheerfully, "there is no credit crunch".
Whoever takes over at Jenners would do well to bear that in mind when considering who to ask for ideas about how the store might be run in future. The ladies of Morningside will be happy to advise.