Why 'ghost signs' are becoming more fashionable and where to find them in Edinburgh

The faded paint of an old R Dolan Chimney Sweeper advert caught her eye as she looked up to a building front in the city’s Barclay Place. It was this moment, 32 years ago, which sparked Leila Kean’s curiosity in Edinburgh’s ghost signs.

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The city has its fair share of them, from the remnants of Leith's shipping company and distillery signs to those of former banking establishments and agricultural merchants of the New Town.

Leila, who founded the Edinburgh Ghost Signs Facebook page, says they provide glimpses into the rich social history of Edinburgh's past and can trigger a sense of nostalgia which often relates to a particular shop, trade or business.

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She believes ghost signs are becoming more fashionable with people and businesses increasingly wanting to uncover and preserve them. For instance, the Edinburgh Beer Factory recently decided to keep the old 'surgical instrument makers' sign unveiled during refurbishment for the new Paolozzi bar and restaurant in Forrest Road.

Ceramic tiling from a former Buttercup Dairy in Great Junction Street, the old Edinburgh Meat Market sign and the N. Martinot in Nicolson SquareCeramic tiling from a former Buttercup Dairy in Great Junction Street, the old Edinburgh Meat Market sign and the N. Martinot in Nicolson Square
Ceramic tiling from a former Buttercup Dairy in Great Junction Street, the old Edinburgh Meat Market sign and the N. Martinot in Nicolson Square
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The premises, on the site of a former bank on the street corner at Lauriston Place, is named after Scottish sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi. It is thought the sign dates back to the surgical instruments maker Archibald Young & Son Limited who originally traded there.

Leila says: "Whatever it is, it's going to be unique to that location It's always going to be something different in different places.

"It doesn't have to be an 18th century merchant down at the shore but could be a grocer that everyone remembers in the '70s, so nostalgic and in living memory. There's no historic time stamp in terms of what qualifies as a ghost sign.

The N. Martinot in Nicolson Square with products advertised on the building wall.The N. Martinot in Nicolson Square with products advertised on the building wall.
The N. Martinot in Nicolson Square with products advertised on the building wall.

"It's all about what you can find out about the sign and getting to know your home city and finding out about its past. But there's an aesthetic about it too and how hand-painted signage has changed through the years."

Edinburgh’s ghost signs

Leila, who works in brand development, started her Edinburgh Ghost Signs Facebook page in the summer of 2015 and it now has more than 5,300 followers.

She says graphic designers are one particular group who like to study the handwriting styles of old shop signs which can provide inspiration for their work.

Fire Master's sign - handwritten signage remains from old firestation at Junction Place, LeithFire Master's sign - handwritten signage remains from old firestation at Junction Place, Leith
Fire Master's sign - handwritten signage remains from old firestation at Junction Place, Leith

The 42-year-old, who lives in Leith, says it doesn't take long to start spotting hints of her local area's rich past, from brewing and distilling to the shipping trade which used the port for centuries, and lettering above doorways in Great Junction street from pawn shops of the late 1800s.

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She says there are many ghost signs along Leith Walk if you look closely enough, including Joseph Pearce's bar in Elm Row which still has the Wine & Spirit Merchant sign above it.

As it's a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, the Georgian New Town is another great place to start on a ghost sign 'hunting' tour of the city. From signage for Victorian Luncheon Rooms in Caste Street to the Pianoforte salesroom on Hanover Street, former banking establishments and agricultural merchants in Frederick Street.

The Scotsman newspaper's former home on North bridge (now a hotel) still has the old lettering up, and if you look up at it when leaving Waverley Station in Market Street a more 'ghostly' version can be seen in the sandstone wall.

Harvey's furniture - Candlemaker RowHarvey's furniture - Candlemaker Row
Harvey's furniture - Candlemaker Row

Leila says the Royal Mile reveals wireworks manufacturers and Nicolson Square boasts probably the best example in the city, N Martinot's Manufactures, which once sold all sorts of items including fancy leather goods and walking sticks.

Other images frequently shared in her group include remnants of the old Buttercup Dairy Company, a retail empire which started in Kirkcaldy in 1904 and once boasted 250 shops across Scotland with a head office established in Leith. The old Buttercup Dairy sign in Marchmont's Warrender Park Road was recently uncovered during a refurbishment, while intricate ceramic tiling displaying the Buttercup image are still visible at some of the old shops.

Lettering for the old Edinburgh Meat Market can also still be seen engraved in stone pillars that were moved and reconstructed as part of the development of offices around Fountainbridge and Morrison Street.

Leila says: "Ghost sign hunting is a kind of global movement these days, in no small part fuelled by the ease of sharing finds and images across social media.

"I think maybe a couple of generations back, people just did not see the need to preserve but certainly in the last 10 years, I would say there has been more of a joy in uncovering it.

British Linen Bank - corner of George Street and Frederick Street - an example of a stone engraved ghost sign.British Linen Bank - corner of George Street and Frederick Street - an example of a stone engraved ghost sign.
British Linen Bank - corner of George Street and Frederick Street - an example of a stone engraved ghost sign.
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"For the moment, it's definitely likely to be more driven by independent businesses. If someone comes in and sees something and that business looks like they can preserve from the past, it tells you a lot about who these people are. It looks more and more like we are seeing people hoping they will find it through doing refurbishment and willing to keep it."

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