A ghostly tour of Kirkcaldy’s bygone era

The faded sign for John Davidson & Son on Kirkcaldy High Street
The faded sign for John Davidson & Son on Kirkcaldy High Street

How many of you have seen an actual ghost sign?

Remnants left behind from a bygone age, advertising goods and businesses. They may not be immediately noticeable but they are there.

This sign for the East Fife Motorcycle Club is on Factory Road

This sign for the East Fife Motorcycle Club is on Factory Road

For example, how many of us have walked through Kirkcaldy town centre, never noticing the sign left behind by John Davidson & Son? A successful bookseller in the Victorian era, their warehouse took up a large part of the High Street.

But what is a ghost sign? Sam Roberts, a Londoner who set up the Ghost Signs website, Facebook and Twitter pages, says there is no real definitive answer.

“Lots of people interpret that in different ways,” he said, “it’s actually the title of an essay in the book we recently published. “We take 5000 words to arrive at the definition ‘fading painted signs’!”

Kirkcaldy may not have ghost signs in the huge number that bigger cities north of the border such as Edinburgh and Glasgow offer, but if you look they can be found, with examples on Links Street, Factory Road and Commercial Street.

John Haig's, a former newsagent on Links Street

John Haig's, a former newsagent on Links Street

Sam says that it was in the late 1800s when such advertising signs truly came into force. “It was the turn of the 20th century plus or minus 30-40 years that seems to have been the real heyday for these signs” he said. “It’s not just a UK thing either, they’re all over the world.

“Its a window into another time and they are the history of the ordinary.

“They’re not the history that normally gets documented in books, they’re the everyday commercial products and services that everybody would be familiar with and use.

“I like how they can offer ways to look at the industrial heritage of particular areas.

Just one of a few faded signs which can be found at the side of the former Kings Theatre on Kirkcaldy High Street

Just one of a few faded signs which can be found at the side of the former Kings Theatre on Kirkcaldy High Street

“I do a couple of walking tours in London and in south London we pass through an area where the leather industry used to be situated and another where there was a big brewing heritage. And walking through those streets now it’s only really through the ghost signs that you get that perspective because these are now residential areas.

“So they tell you a story that otherwise would pass you by.”

A lot of people include carvings in their definition of a ghost sign, which Sam says “includes signage that has fallen redundant”.

He added: “You look at a sign that doesn’t give any clue to the current content of the building, that could be considered a ghost sign too.”

Another ghost sign on Links Street, but which is slightly harder to decipher!

Another ghost sign on Links Street, but which is slightly harder to decipher!

Kirkcaldy has its own examples of these kind of carvings. There is the former Parish Council Chambers on Hunter Street, with the old Post Office, which opened in 1902 and closed around the start of the ‘90s, on the same street.

And if you look right at the top of the building at the bottom of Kirk Wynd you will see a carving bearing its original name, Swan Memorial, a reminder that it was built in 1895 in memory of Patrick Swan who served as Provost of Kirkcaldy for a remarkable 45 years from 1841-86, and died 1889 aged 81.

With the factories and warehouses which made Kirkcaldy such an industrial hot spot throughout most of the 20th century now nearly all gone, there are perhaps fewer ghost signs left behind than there used to be.

But, if you look closely enough, you may see one when you least expect it...

Visit wwww.ghostsigns.co.uk.

The former Parish Council Chambers on Hunter Street

The former Parish Council Chambers on Hunter Street

This crumbling sign above the former Pathhead Post Office on Commercial Street, shows an even older one underneath

This crumbling sign above the former Pathhead Post Office on Commercial Street, shows an even older one underneath

A reminder of the former Post Office HQ at Wemyssfield/Hunter Street

A reminder of the former Post Office HQ at Wemyssfield/Hunter Street

The former Swan Memorial Hall on Kirk Wynd

The former Swan Memorial Hall on Kirk Wynd