Capital’s ghost signs spelling out city’s urban past

Picture: Contributed
Picture: Contributed
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They offer a tantalising glimpse into a bygone age, having withstood the onslaught of time to bridge the gap between past and present.

A rich variety of historic hand-painted slogans and signage, more commonly referred to as ghost signs, can be found all over the Capital.

Picture: Contributed

Picture: Contributed

The phantom advertisements tend to be of a commercial nature, and tell us lots about life as it was generations ago.

Examples date from the late Georgian era right through to the 20th century when modern signage and billboard ads took over. Chipped and weather-worn, many are barely legible, while others uncovered during shop refurbishments can appear as fresh as the day they were painted.

But it is only a matter of time before the city’s fading ghost signs vanish for good, and that is why one Edinburgh woman took it upon herself to start an online community dedicated to recording them.

The Edinburgh Ghost Signs Facebook page was set up in the summer of 2015 by local enthusiast Leila Kean, 39, and has managed to notch up several thousand followers.

Trafalgar Street. Picture: Cameron Foster.

Trafalgar Street. Picture: Cameron Foster.

Page curator Leila, who works in the city as a senior brand development manager and copywriter, says her fascination with documenting the faint remnants of Auld Reekie’s civic heritage stems from a deep love for the city and compares it to visiting a new city for the first time: “When you visit somewhere like Manhattan, you’ll spend a lot of time looking up.

“Ghost signs are a way of checking in on another era.”

There is also an art to collecting surviving examples.

“It’s a bit like Pokemon Go for Edinburgh history enthusiasts,” Leila said.

Leith Athletics Ltd. Picture: Contributed

Leith Athletics Ltd. Picture: Contributed

“Collecting bits of the city’s past and posting what you’ve caught online.

“They offer a nostagic appeal, a piece of ephemera relating to a particular shop or trader from long ago.”

And for Leila, it is best to get in fast: “It’s important to just get out there and photograph them, if I don’t have my DSLR on me then a mobile phone is fine. They’re not going to last forever – fail to catch them today and they might be gone tomorrow.”

The types of signs found in Auld Reekie also differ greatly from those in other British cities. In Edinburgh a lot of the signs belong to small businesses like shoemakers, loan offices, and tailors, whereas the commercial signage common elsewhere – old “soda pop” ads in New York or London and adverts for tobacco and whisky in Glasgow – is not so prevalent here.

“Perhaps it’s an indication of Edinburgh’s more conservative attitude and desire to better protect its architecture compared with some other places,” Leila said.

Leila would like to see her page continue to grow.

“I encourage contributions, it’s a real community page in the truest sense,” she said.

“I love when people write in saying ‘my grandfather was a signwriter’ wondering if I can help them identify stuff he might have painted.

“That’s what’s makes ghost signage so valuable; the personal connections between past and present.”