Regal bearing worn down by the rise in tat

OF ALL the images by which Scotland's capital city is known throughout the world, that of Princes Street with its magnificent view on to the gardens and Edinburgh Castle is the most iconic. So how, in any sense, can it be considered to have disappeared?

Its topography and aspect - a near-mile long procession of shops with a broad pavement along one side, with the other open to Princes Street Gardens, the National Gallery and the Scott Monument, seems timeless, though it is less than 200 years old.

The character and ambience of many of the shops has greatly changed. From a retailing point of view, Princes Street is a problematic location - an Oxford Street rather than a Bond Street. Much of its fine architecture and Scottish character has gone in the insistent advance of standardised retail chains and global brands. This loss of distinctiveness is as corrosive as it is cumulative.

To help gauge this loss, I called on Beryl Beattie, a long-standing writer on retail matters, who has forgotten more about the capital's retail history than I could ever hope to know. We met at the Caledonian Hotel to begin the journey on a perfect autumn day.

My abiding memory of the Caley was of a visit in the late 1980s, when even then the plumbing was so antiquated that a modest flush of the toilet was like unleashing a vast and echoing Gothic waterworks, draining the entire building.

So at the west end of Princes Street we set off east. Today, with more sets of traffic lights than China can churn out, Princes Street is almost continuously clogged with a stately procession of Lothian Buses and double-deckers that rarely seem to carry more than a handful of passengers.

Little here has changed and I cannot help but wonder if it would not have been more efficient - and probably cheaper - to convey Edinburgh shoppers from one end of Princes Street to another in Sedan chairs. Historic Scotland would love it, though I suspect the Cockburn Society would insist the cabbies were dressed in period vernacular.

Only yesterday, it seemed, we could meet at Maule's, that perfect city-centre rendezvous point aided by the West End clock. But Maule's became Binns, the clock was moved in 1962 and Binns was lost to Fraser's in 1976, with its bland and nondescript retail offer.

A few doors up and Noble's Amusement Arcade is hard to avoid with its hideous jackpot machines and once- elegant gold and blue relief badly painted. Those who applaud the new Princes Street for the diversity of its retail offer might pause to note the rash of mobile phone shops. I counted ten. I can only assume that if you buy a phone at the west end, the model will need serious updating by the time you arrive at the east.

And why is it that, if these shops are so popular with the public, a notice on the counter at Vodafone gently warned customers that aggression towards staff was inappropriate?

Press on, past HMV in lurid pink, but notice the elegant bay window with the Byzantine frieze above Waterstone's. Try not to look up at the architectural monstrosity next door. Scoot past if you can the pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap tat of Pride of Scotland, with the blaring music. Post-modern irony does not begin to capture its horrors.

On to Debenhams, close to where the Darlings department store was sited, remembered for its fur coats once carefully wrapped by the staff in layers of tissue paper and caressed into elegant boxes. In the 1950s, Princes Street seemed more of a pleasurable experience for women, more exclusive, more dedicated, the ambience of the shops more calming and the care taken with customers so much more attentive. All this has disappeared with the brash, noisy and crammed walk-in stores, a frenetic mess of retail potage that would horrify an earlier generation.

On the corner of Princes Street and Frederick Street there is a grievous loss. The Three Bears have long gone. In the 1950s, it was a thrill for children on the top decks of buses to catch sight of them. The bears, which endured all weathers, belonged to Marcus the Furrier. Salisbury's bag shop later took over the site.

So many were the fur shops, little wonder that Edinburgh women were once satirised as "All fur coat and nae knickers". Today, the opposite seems true: the fur shops are gone, knickers shops are two a penny and young girls endure the skimpiest of clothes even in late autumn.

Head down past Levi Strauss and its hideous faade, grieve at the loss of the wonderful kilt shop at No95, now yet more Spirit of Scotland (sic), and soon we are at an abomination of architecture that could only have been conceived by someone who truly hated Edinburgh: the steel and concrete excrescence that houses British Home Stores.

Just by the entrance to Boots, and often obscured by the queue for a Bank of Scotland cash dispensing machine, is the entrance to Number 86 Princes Street and Edinburgh's most prestigious club. This unprepossessing door, opened only to visitors after they have sprained their throats bellowing their name into a perforated steel grille, leads into a dark passageway and carpeted staircase that could have come straight out of Ceausescu's Romania.

Here is the city's discreet retreat for business folk and legal bigwigs: the New Club, dating from at least 1787 (the club that is, not the members). There is really precious little that is new about it, save for the ghastly 1960s frontage famously dubbed "Airport Georgian" by the late Sir Nicky Fairbairn.

At the heart of the club is a "school dinners" dining room. Here time has truly been suspended. Members still sink their spoons into Mulligatawny soup under a commanding portrait of Queen Victoria, the folds of her dress by the ankles giving the most unfortunate impression that she has stepped out in a pair of giant bedroom slippers. The club tries to be modern, but at heart it's a retreat for a species of an Edinburgh that is in long, genteel and relentless decline.

Thorntons, purveyor of waterproof coats has gone and so, too, has the shortbread shop JW Mackie with its striking balconies and pillars on the upper floors where you could sit and enjoy ice-cream and gaze out across Princes Street Gardens to the castle. It appealed, it claimed, to "the aristocracy and higher social circles generally". How very Edinburgh. There was always a queue to get in.

Here and there, care has been taken to preserve the Victorian architectural frontage. Some of the larger stores have made an effort with outstanding window displays (Debenhams, M&S, Gap, Zara) while some bring sparkle and lan (such as Swarovski, literally). Oghams, so small you could miss it in a blink, packs an acre of retail effort in the tiniest space.

On past Bookworld and the ghastly "Jimmy hats" and the charred husk of Romanes & Paterson, past where C&A used to be, to that grand lady dowager of Princes Street: Jenners. Here is not so much a store as an institution that brought real class to Princes Street, a Scottish rendition of that exuberant, thrilling store in Emile Zola's The Ladies' Paradise.

It is often said that Glasgow people never really "got" Jenners. Parts of Edinburgh take this as the highest compliment. Over the years, it has aroused both fanatical devotion and utter bewilderment at how to get round it.

This was until recently a family-run business, controlled from a tiny but immaculately maintained oak-panelled boardroom on the top floor that today's retail tycoons would scoff at.

Of course, Jenners has not "disappeared". The building is as imposing and handsome as ever. But since its acquisition by Fraser, its sense of uniqueness has gone. Recently, an outraged reader of The Scotsman wrote an anguished two-line letter to the paper, a true scream of pain: "The barbarians are inside the gate", it declared. "They're playing Muzak in Jenners."

It's the small things that customers miss, the careful way in which the assistants would say on returning your credit card and wrapping your purchase, "And would there be anything else, Mr Jamieson?", suggesting you were remembered from your last visit months ago. This is the "retail is detail" minutiae that distinguishes class acts from the rest. Jenners has not disappeared. But the store has lost its heart.

And from Jenners to the east, Princes Street falls away with a few honourable exceptions to a succession of yet more mobile phone shops, discount retailers and then Burger King. Gone is RW Forsyth, a true battleship of a department store, the only remaining trace after its closure in 1981 being a small, discreet signage carved into the stonework referring to its store in Renfield Street, Glasgow.

As well as school outfits, it was well-known for its ferocious barber shop, where young men looking for a Tony Curtis wave would emerge with their hair shorn and plastered down, aged like a 60-year-old army colonel.

But never judge retail Edinburgh by Princes Street. For the more accurate guide to this city's character is George Street. Everything about it, from the broad central aisle through the impressive bank buildings to the sandstone Lubianka of Standard Life Investments, holds in fine balance pride and discretion, scale and prudence, wealth and under-statement. Some famed retailers have gone: Greensmith Downes, which Beryl insists was the derriere cri of ladies wear; Martin & Frost, fine furnishings; and Kinloch Anderson for kilts and Aitken & Niven for school uniforms (relocated). At the far west end was Willis, the butchers shop famous for its dazzling crystal-glass chandelier. Only in George Street could you buy a pound of mince under a chandelier that could have come straight out of the Winter Palace of the Romanoffs.

I miss the small antiquarian bookshops that used to pepper this street. But great retailers remain: Crombies, Hamilton & Inches and, of course, Grays, the city's most loved ironmonger.

The prestigious bank offices have not disappeared; indeed, their conversion into restaurants and caf bars has on the whole been tastefully done. They have helped to preserve a vanishing world of pride in our buildings.

Princes Street is in danger of forgetting that at the heart of retail is aspiration. It raised us up. Now it plays down. What has disappeared is not the street, of course, but its distinctiveness, the best of Scottish retailing and above all, that priceless sense of betterment.

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