Edinburgh’s ‘ghost signs’, Leila Kean

I CAN vividly remember the first ever ‘ghost sign’ I saw in Edinburgh. Our family had just moved to Bruntsfield Place, and there, as I looked up to the first floor of a tenement block on Barclay Place, was a hand-painted sign for ‘R. Dolan Chimney Sweeper’. 

I was born in Ottawa, Canada, and grew up in a fairly rural, semi-suburban town in Québec. We moved to Edinburgh in 1988, and – the film, Mary Poppins, aside – I hadn’t previously encountered the concept of a chimney sweep.

That sign echoed of trades and domestic needs of a different time.

It was therefore unsurprising that my then casual observations began to turn into a more active hobby. I had a general curiousity, an interest in ephemera, and a romantic sense of nostalgia. Plus a tendency to always have a camera in hand.

Around about the same time, journalist, author and photographer, William Stage, had a book published, titled ‘Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America‘. 

And so, searching for ghost signs is something that has followed me through the decades. Oftentimes, a distraction to a well-trodden walk or bus ride to work, sometimes as a means of scrutinising a new neighbourhood, others as part of a photographic hunt in a new city whilst travelling. 

There are so many layers to what a ghost sign can reveal. In Leith, it’s often its incredible maritime and trading heritage: of ship’s victuallers, glass merchants, chandlers and old, whisky bonds. In the New Town, it’s an Edwardian luncheon room, a bank, a goods merchant or pianoforte sales room.

Elsewhere, it’s the small family-run businesses, which every local neighbourhood depended on: the forgotten tailors, dairies, wine & spirits merchants, fishmongers, greengrocers, tobacconists, butchers and poulterers, and pawnbrokers. 

Thankfully, once discovered, many ghosts signs are preserved. Some, such as the ghost sign on the new Virgin Hotel at the top of Victoria Street, are actively celebrated. Others, meanwhile, appear only teasingly, visible during a refurbishment but then gone forever.

For however long they appear, they are a testament to the signwriter’s craft – still going strong, I am glad to report, mainly above independent shops and businesses.

Today, it is still rare that a walk doesn’t involve passing a much-loved ghost sign, and on a good day there’s the satisfying moment of spotting something for the first time, whether recently uncovered, or only-just noticed. 

Leila Kean works in food and drink brand development and is the founder of Ghost Signs Edinburgh on Facebook.

Pictured: Victoria Street, Edinburgh. It appeared during refurbishment (pictured) and remains in the building’s new guise, as a Virgin Hotel, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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