One of the benefits of the Easter long weekend/fortnight, not that the retail group in the University ever rests, is a small amount of time to catch up on things. I first became aware of Lindsay Lennie some years ago when her Ph.D. work on historical shopfronts caught my attention. Her booklet on the Historic Shopfronts of Perth became available in 2008, and turned out to be a precursor to, and a small part of, what was/is a major tour de force/labour of love, involving Scotland’s physical retail heritage.
In 2010, her volume on Scotland’s Shops was published, but it has taken me until now to get around to reading it. It had simply not registered that it was available; something that was my loss, until now.
Published by Historic Scotland, this highly visual and magnificent volume is a bargain at £15, not least for the photographs and illustrations it contains and the context of retail and urban change into which our outstanding historic shopfronts legacy is placed. The book maps the history and development of retail buildings in Scotland, including conservation case studies and a gazetteer of retail buildings around Scotland. This is a volume that deserves a wide readership, discussion and above all else, action, to protect, cherish and reuse/re-energise shopfronts that provide a sense of grandeur and place across Scotland’s high streets.
At a time when so many decry the generic blandness and clone-like nature of Scottish retailing and Scottish towns, this book points to the dramatic and still (just) present legacy of our historical shops and shopfronts. Why do we neglect them so readily and not adapt them into our modern townscapes? Fronts and facades are just that; modern retailing could readily fit behind them and towns and high streets benefit from them, if we make the effort.
But too often, we acquiesce in the monolithic neon and plastic modern frontages sporting the latest corporate colour. Elements of our history and streetscape are destroyed and obliterated, lessening and cheapening our town centres and high streets. We desire places to be different, special and individual and shops can add to that sense of place. When and why did design and quality become second rate and second place?
Can we cherish and save our shopfronts, at the same time adding their historical wealth to our newly focused and occasionally regenerated high streets? Can we insist on high quality design from our buildings (and not just retail ones) whenever they are? Why not? Our towns and high streets deserve better than they are currently given and require incentive to incorporate the historical gems that still remain. Understanding our shop and street pasts may be a guide to how to make them perform better in the future.
Lindsay Lennie’s book is a timely reminder of what we have, as well as what we have lost. We now need to make it more than an epitaph or historical curiosity.
Lennie, L. (2010) Scotland’s Shops. Historic Scotland, Edinburgh. ISBN 978-189170376. Pp 199. £15. Available at http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/v1/product_detail.htm?productid=1782