Falkirk’s historic shop fronts recalled

Callander's shop with the giant fountain pen

Callander's shop with the giant fountain pen

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With the weather cock in shiny new coat back on his perch and the refurbishment of the steeple well underway, attention is turning to other aspects of the Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI).

The main intention is to offer advice and guidance as well as cash to the owners of our older town centre buildings to help with repairs and restoration so that Falkirk once again becomes an attractive, historic place to shop.

One part of the project that interests me is the Traditional Shop Front programme intended to give us back some of the really attractive designed fronts that have been lost over the years.

From the very earliest days of the old burgh nearly five centuries ago Falkirk was the market centre of the district with people flocking to the cross below the steeple to buy and sell their wares. As well as the mercat cross and gallows the official ‘tron’ or weighing machine stood there to ensure that the bairns didn’t try to cheat one another out of their hard earned bawbees. Goods were laid out on tables often sheltered by coloured awnings no doubt made as attractive as possible to catch the eye of the shoppers.

By the middle of the 18th century ground floor shops opening from buildings along the High Street were common and this continued into the Victorian era when the town’s population expanded and the success of the iron foundries brought a measure of prosperity to the whole district.

Photographs from the period show a huge variety of small shop fronts displaying all manner of eatables as well as hats, coats and shoes, bicycles and pianos, cameras and cures for every ailment known to man.

The opening of the tramway system in 1905 gave retail business a boost as folk from Camelon, Larbert, Carron and Bainsford found easy access to the town centre. The rise in income encouraged the traders to expand and redesign their premises, and some of the grand shop fronts which graced much of the town until the horrible 1960s dated from this Edwardian upsurge.

A week or so ago I wrote about pawnshops and noted the return of the three brass balls, the sign of that particular trade. There were others too like fishes, clocks, mortar and pestle and the Newmarket Street umbrella which has survived. My favourite of all was the enormous Waterman’s fountain pen which graced the front of Callander’s stationers roughly where Thomas Cook stands today.

Now thanks to the first of the THI building restorations we have a large cow hanging above Johnston’s butchers in the Cow Wynd. I certainly hope that there will be many more and that the shop owners will follow that example. Sadly most of the signs today are of the ‘To Let’ variety.

As part of the THI project there is a fascinating exhibition of historic Falkirk shop fronts on at the moment in the Howgate Centre and if you have not been yet I would certainly recommend a visit. There are some great photographs as well as many beautiful shopfront illustrations taken from the original architectural drawings in Falkirk archives. Many lost but well remembered shops are there as well as some that still grace the streets of the town. There are also a few surprises. Shop signs long covered up have been rediscovered like Duffy’s outfitters with the name in beautifully painted script and the radio shop of John Hart (later Samwell Smith’s) where Logie Baird worked on the first television. The exhibition is located at the far end of the Howgate and continues throughout October and November.