Cockburn Street's 1970s jeans shop heyday briefly reappears during shop refit

Hidden for decades, it recalls the halcyon days when Cockburn Street was Scotland’s stone-washed retort to Carnaby Street.

Friday, 4th June 2021, 4:00 am
Thom McCarthy ran popular denim emporium Jean City in the 1970s.

A store refit this week has uncovered a double blast of signage from the past, one being a 2000s poster shop.

But it’s the re-emergence of the sign for a once thriving jean store that attracted the likes of the Bay City Rollers more than 45 years ago that’s got tongues wagging.

In the 1970s, Jean City was just one of several denim emporiums to grace the famous serpentine-like street in the heart of the Capital’s Old Town.

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Thom McCarthy grew up in Queens, New York, and relocated to Scotland in 1971. He now lives in Peebles.

On a Saturday, an army of dedicated followers of fashion would descend en masse to pick up the latest threads.

Thom McCarthy, a Vietnam War veteran and co-founder of Jean City, says the “archaeological” discovery has brought back many pleasant memories.

"I flashbacked to us making that sign - it was a bit of a ‘wow, that’s cool’ kind of moment,” explains Mr McCarthy, 71.

Mr McCarthy was raised in Queens, New York, but came to Scotland precisely 50 years ago as an emotionally-scarred young man following his time in Vietnam during the brutal Tet Offensive of 1968.

The three directors of The Great Western Trading Company outside Cockburn Street Market in Edinburgh in January 1978. L-R: Fraser Mackay, Alan Wilson, Richard Thomson.

He recalls: "I moved here and met a Scots girl, Maggie Primrose. We fell in love, so I stayed.”

In the early 1970s, many units on Cockburn Street lay empty, impacted by the relocation of the Market Street fruit market.

For the budding entrepreneur, this was a clear opportunity. The Cockburn Street Market was born, with a little financial help from Mr McCarthy’s mother-in-law: “the Bank of Mom”.

He said: "It became Scotland’s Carnaby Street. We’d have piles of loon pants – all the colours of the rainbow – and sell 400 pairs on Saturday alone."

Thom McCarthy in 1973 outside Great Western Trading Co. in Cockburn Street.

Along with Fraser Mackay, Alan Wilson, and Richard Thomson, Mr McCarthy expanded his empire, opening the hippy-orientated Great Western Trading Company, women's outlet Suffragette, the more mainstream Jean City, children’s shop Orphan Annie, and music store Hot Licks.

By the mid-70s Jean City was attracting the attention of a certain local pop group that was about to hit the big time.

Mr McCarthy said: “The Bay City Rollers shopped at Jean City and suddenly all their fans wanted to buy jeans from us too - a little bit of the magic rubbed off.

“To be honest, it was a bit of an anathema for us – we were hippies and not into that scene at all.”

Thom McCarthy and staff outside the Great Western Trading Co denim emporium, Cockburn Street, in June 1973.

Business owner Aga Firat confirmed that the Jean City signage was briefly uncovered during a refit of the Cockburn Cafe, which after 12 years is to be rebranded Coffee and More.

In a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moment, the sign was exposed for around half an hour before being covered up again.

Now semi-retired and living in Peebles, where he runs a studio, Mr McCarthy says he is pleased his old sign remains in situ.

He concluded: “The Jean City sign was made 47 years ago. It’s great that they’re trying to preserve this history.”

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