A peek at Google Maps’ excellent ‘time machine’ function allows us to track the changes that have taken place since the first Street View images appeared a decade ago, but after that we are left with whatever scraps we can manage to get our fortuitous mitts on.
Suffice to say, when it comes to store frontages in working class strongholds of Edinburgh, the photographic record is pretty limited. Going back thirty years or more, there just weren’t that many folk engaged in the business of photographing their local pub, bookshop or Chinese restaurant.
And that is precisely what makes former art teacher Catherine Stevenson’s collection of images so valuable and unique.
Back in December 1981, she took on the laborious task of capturing the shopfronts of Gorgie and Dalry in a bid to spark ideas for a visual arts project.
“I was studying at the Edinburgh College of Art and took them for a project I was working on,” explains Catherine from Edinburgh.
“We had the freedom to do anything we liked so I chose the shopfronts of Gorgie-Dalry.
“They had been done for a specific reason at the time and I just put them away and forgot about them.”
The idea to share the photos publicly came to Catherine very recently while browsing old photographs on the Lost Edinburgh Facebook group.
Since uploading the series to the group, she has been overwhelmed by the positive response.
“The reaction was very unexpected,” said Catherine, “I guess so much time passes and they (the photos) become something else. It’s a record of things that are no longer there.
“I like the idea that they (the Lost Edinburgh followers) are communicating to each other: all the ‘I went there’, ‘do you remember this...’. Suddenly there’s a whole community talking to each other about what they remember. That’s very satisfying to me.”
Almost four decades on, Catherine’s images show a very different Gorgie-Dalry to the one that exists today.
Gone is the eclectic mix of grocers, butchers, toy shops, shoe shops, DIY stores and confectioners that once peppered this quarter of Auld Reekie.
While the photographs show that people still have a need for pubs, fish and chip bars and newsagents, other businesses, largely thanks to the rise of the web perhaps, have dropped like flies.
Strachan’s famous toy shop and dolls hospital at the Haymarket end of Dalry Road is now a barbers, Wotherspoon’s plumbing supplies now sells aquatic pets, and Richardson’s children’s clothes shop at 139 Gorgie Road is now an optician’s.
One of Catherine’s best images shows a young woman in a very 1980s leopard print coat leaning against a bus shelter. In the background, an older man looks on. Whether or not the man has just emerged from Sven Books, a ‘members’ only’ adult magazine and continental film store, is unclear. Perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt.
The presence of The Spastic Shop charity in one of the photos is just one example of how much society has changed. In the same frame is a newsagent and confectioner’s emblazoned with hand-painted advertising for The Scotsman and Evening News. Rather amazingly, the shop is still there and still advertising the local paper. The Spastic Shop, along with that very outdated term, is ancient history.
One of the saddest discoveries, however, is that more than half of the available outlets have disappeared, as in they are no longer shops at all.
A quick comparison of the same locations today reveals that most of the outlets in Catherine’s photos have since been boarded up or undergone conversion into flats.
Data released just last year reveals that around 10% of retail units on Britain’s high streets are lying empty - a figure you can easily believe looking at these photographs.
In some cases the buildings have been demolished altogether.
Unlike many other districts of Edinburgh which have experienced gentrification since the 1980s, Gorgie and Dalry, from a commercial perspective at least, appear to have hit upon a period of economic decay. Sadly, in this case, the camera does not lie.
Catherine agrees: “In some areas of the city it’s still okay, but others, like Gorgie and Dalry are changing too much.
“For people who grew up there they would find that very sad.”
Now retired from teaching art, Catherine, 60, remains an avid painter and enjoys creating landscapes in acrylics and oils.
Last year she contributed to a book of watercolour paintings of Edinburgh entitled ‘A Sketchbook of Edinburgh’, published by Birlinn.