If there's one thing you tend to do a lot of when visiting a city for the first time, it's looking up. Looking up at buildings, street signs, monuments. Anyone who's ever visited Manhattan will know the neck ache that inevitably follows after a few days' sightseeing. As a local, you sometimes forget to look around and you miss what stands out from the ordinary. In Edinburgh we have been gifted a city jam-packed with outstanding architecture, and it goes without saying that most of these buildings will have seen a fair few changes in their use over the decades. Indeed, over centuries in some cases.
Ghost signs, the remnants of hand-painted advertising signage past, are a way of checking in on another era. Above doors, on stone walls, never intended to last forever, they offer nostalgic appeal, a piece of ephemera relating to a particular shop, trader or business in times gone by. Often revealed during refurbishments, you'll sometimes catch one for a week before new signage is banged up and it'll be out of sight for another few years. Sometimes they've been well preserved, other times just a faint hint of lettering remains. A recent walking tour of Leith revealed everything from flour and cereal importers to tea merchants, hosiers and stationers. Hanover Street still has the faded Pianoforte salesroom, The Royal Mile reveals wireworks manufacturers and Nicolson Square boasts probably the best example in the city, N Martinot's Manufactures, which once sold all sorts of things including fancy leather goods and walking sticks. Nice. You also come across a lot of imperatives too. 'No Nuisance Allowed', 'No Bills', 'No Entry'.
Once you catch the bug, hunting around for these ghost signs seems to quickly become an obsession, and you're just as likely to hear yourself say an emphatic 'YES!' with accompanying fist-pump on sighting one as you are to feel a little disappointed if you're out about about and don't find one. There's not yet a comprehensive archive for Edinburgh's ghost signs, but check out the Edinburgh Ghost Signs community Facebook page for a few gems.
See more things to do in Edinburgh from Time Out.