Edinburgh - Old Town

Independent Shopping Guide



Independent shops in the capital’s historic centre, presided over by Edinburgh Castle, take their aesthetic responsibilities seriously. That’s not to say that they’re all authentically restored and historically preserved properties frozen in time, nor have many businesses caved to city council pressures to tartan up for the tourists. Old Town shop fronts, tend, on the whole, to be little works of art.

Most of the areas covered in The List’s guide have one strong shopping centre, off which smaller tributary streets and retail clusters pivot. The Old Town has three centres; possibly four. Everything starts at the West Port, where the fabulously stylish high-end vintage clothing and accessories boutique Herman Brown, run by enthusiastic fashion historians, and the street-smart menswear indie Pageant act as a gateway to the West Port Books collective, six second-hand bookshops, each with a different specialism and a differently eccentric, passionate owner. The West Port also manages to sustain bleeding-edge skateboard shop Focus and hip, vintage-focused boutique Godiva.

The newly-pedestrianised Grassmarket, unique among Edinburgh social hubs for more or less managing to sustain a cosmopolitan festival air all year round, contains some of the most ruggedly individual retail institutions in the country. The long-standing Helios Fountain, for example, is a mesmerising magpie’s nest of beads and wooden toys. Matching it for longevity are Mr Wood’s Fossil’s (not just fossils, but dinosaur bones and sci-fi shop displays too); Fabhatrix, where a woman called Fawns creates hats that transcend ‘quirky’; Bill Baber’s shop-cum-fashion studio; the windows hanging with shimmering woollies, excellent amps and cut-price Casios at Red Dog Music; thoughtful plus-size fashion at Big Ideas; and of course, Armstrong’s, Edinburgh’s classic vintage clothing juggernaut. There are other, equally eccentric one-offs dotted around the area; strange knitwear suitable for wizards at Joyce Forsyth on Candlemaker Row, The Cadies and Witchery, a genuine little shop of horrors, the grimy geek-depths of Deadhead Comics and Aha Ha Ha, a joke shop decked out with a gigantic false nose and comedy specs.

Victoria Street, with its curving parade of coloured shop fronts peeling up from the foot of the Grassmarket, tends to attract younger, funkier store owners. Right down at the foot, there’s the crazily hip Analogue, a gallery and bookstore that works with guest artists to publish its own regular zines. Totty Rocks run by two former ECA fashion lecturers, has its own in-house label, as well as stocking Scottish designers such as Bebaroque, while Swish has been busily dispensing skate-smart unisex streetwear for well over a decade. There’s also the food, of course: you can’t ignore the rather forceful aroma of IJ Mellis, everyone’s favourite cheesemonger, and this is the site of the original Demijohn.

A couple of minutes away, curving off down the Royal Mile, Cockburn Street, crammed with youth-focused, grungy-cool clothes shops with pocket-money friendly pricing policies, has long been an after-school Mecca to Edinburgh’s more gothically inclined teenagers. There are some great one-offs to be found here: well-priced indie fashion labels at Pie in the Sky (for cool cotton fashion) and Cookie (fun-formal dresses), velvet goth frocks at Voodoo and graphic T-shirts at Fabrick, as well as mystical homeware at Eden, while the bong-laden windows of Whiplash Trash have attractions all of their own.

Finally, no Old Town shopping round up would be complete without the Jeffrey Street/St Mary’s Street/ Canongate intersection, which, by combining high-end designer fashion (Corniche) and cosy, arty Scottish woolies (Ragamuffin) with idiosyncratic eccentrics such as Present (brilliantly unusual gifts), is almost a microcosm of what makes Edinburgh’s indie shops great.

Shop Talk

Angus Ferguson runs Demijohn, ‘the world’s first liquid deli’, with branches on Victoria Street in Edinburgh and Byres Road in Glasgow
‘When I was a student, I lived very briefly in Naples in Italy. The Italians get their wine from cantinas; you take along a container, try the wine you like and they just skoosh it in from a sort of petrol pump. It seemed to me to be a brilliantly simple, good fun way of finding out which wines you like, and I couldn’t understand why we didn’t do it here. The idea stayed with me for years, during which I travelled all over the world with the Black Watch, tasting foods, oils and wines and growing into quite an adventurous foodie.

I’ve always wanted to do my own thing in life too, and the idea for a liquid deli, everything bottled in-house, so you could try the oils and vodkas before you bought them, just started biting me. We started a little hunt for this underworld of British producers and sure enough we found there were teachers out there, retired bankers, farmer’s wives, all having a go in their kitchen. That’s really when the idea started to come together – we could become a co-op, lots of small British producers working together. We definitely took the right direction of sourcing locally, British products where possible, sticking with quality and good sourcing: people really want that.’

0141 337 3600, 0131 225 3265 www.demijohn.co.uk

Area focus: The Grassmarket

The Grassmarket has long been something of a divided area; its increasing popularity as an al fresco drinking and dining location at odds with the traffic-logged roads. The brilliantly simple solution was to pedestrianise the area, creating a leafy, continental-style piazza underneath the castle.

What’s great about the Grassmarket is that despite not being a primarily residential area, there’s a co-operative spirit holding the individual businesses together. The mighty Grassmarket Traders Association, chaired by Jos Bastiansen of Helios Fountain, has a say in all developments in the area.

They’ve also leant their seal of approval to the upcoming GrassMarkets (see what they did there?), a new monthly outdoor market using all of that newly accessible pedestrian space. There have been occasional markets in the site before, of course, but this new, quality controlled collection of stalls selling organic local produce, arts, crafts and ‘cool collectibles’ is a regularly scheduled event, taking place on the first Sunday of every month from May to September. The GrassMarkets are the centrepiece of a new programme of events, including music and theatre performances, to be run in co-operation with local traders and shop owners. It’s a nice nod to the area’s historic roots as a marketplace and social hub; that said, public hangings are probably not part of the upcoming schedule.


83 Grassmarket, Edinburgh, EH1 2HJ

There is no better place in Edinburgh to take a walk down fashion's memory lane than WM Armstrong & Son. Established in 1840 and locally known as Armstrong’s, its two branches (the other is at 64 Clerk Street) combine to make a huge emporium of…


64–66 Clerk Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9JB

Whether you're a fashion student or just a dedicated follower, a visit to the granddaddy of Edinburgh's vintage stores is essential for anyone with even the slightest interest in clothes. The Grassmarket branch has by far the bigger, more eclectic…

Big Ideas

96 West Bow, Grassmarket, Edinburgh, EH1 2HH

This bright little boutique showcases fashion-forward plus-size womenswear (size 16 and up). Although it's aimed at an older age range, the clothes are decidely un-frumpy: there's a wide range of interesting designer lines in store, and some…

Bill Baber

66 Grassmarket, Edinburgh, EH1 2JR

All natural womenswear designs by husband and wife duo Bill and Helen Baber, who've been in the business since 1977. Jewel-bright woollens, cashmeres and silks hang in the window of their cosy shop and studio, and shoppers can watch as all garments are…

The Cadies & Witchery Tours

84 West Bow (Victoria Street), Edinburgh, EH1 2HH

A unique ghostly gift shop located in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town. As well as selling a variety of skulls, witches, dragons and magical fairies, the shop also serves as a booking office for ghostly walking tours that have been a major attraction…


29 Cockburn Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1BP

Pretty cotton print frocks, brief, patterned smocks and edgy T-shirts from the likes of Eucalpytus, Yamama, Ruby Walk and Sugarhill. Certainly at the top end of the Cockburn Street price range, but still that little bit more affordable than anywhere…


2 Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1DT

Edinburgh's original designer label boutique offers outrageous creations (at equivalent prices) for boys and girls from the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Yohji Yamamoto, Katherine Hamnett, and Comme des Garcons.


32 Victoria Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2JW

For those not in the know, a demijohn is a large bulbous glass bottle used to store liquids and it's the method of choice for Edinburgh's liquid deli of the same name. Filling these laboratory-esque decanters are a colourful array of liqueurs, spirits…


13 Cowgatehead, Edinburgh, EH1 1JY

Where did you get that hat, old bean? Well, Fabhatrix, actually. Top hats, clôches, trilbies, Scottish felt hats, vintage style, silk wedding hats, red hats, bowlers, straw hats, quirky tweed deerstalkers and feather fascinators …Fabhatrix sells nothing…

Focus (Edinburgh)

70 Canongate, Edinburgh, EH8 8AA

Skate and street wear for the boys, with labels like Stussy and Nike, Skullcandy headphones and Nixon watches; also stocks an excellent range of DVDs and is, like, the only place to go to get a new deck for your wheels. Right?


9 West Port, Edinburgh, EH1 2JA

One of the most original independent boutiques in Edinburgh, with a big front room stuffed full of exciting local design talent and a back room of vintage that's particularly good for boys. Recycled rara skirts, lovely frocks by local designers, and…

Herman Brown

151 West Port, Edinburgh, EH3 9DP

Seriously gorgeous selection of top-end vintage accessories and shoes hang alongside a carefully selected, colour-coded range of 1950s-1980s fashions. The very best place to lay hands on retro sunglasses, diamante hat pins and patent stilettos.

Joyce Forsyth Scottish Designer Knitwear

42 Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh, EH1 2QE

Strange, beautiful and completely unique hand-made knitwear suitable for lovely witches and stylish eccentrics. Prices range from £5-£265.


278 Canongate, Edinburgh, EH8 8AA

Gorgeous, tactile knitwear for wool enthusiasts; stock includes several hard-to-find Scottish and European designers, and there's a quirky in-house label too.


22–24 Victoria Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2JW

Street-edge fashion for big and little kids over two floors and two shopfronts. Ladieswear labels include Gsus, Religion and Putsch, and they're great for retro handbags and manbags, as well as skate-cool trainers and gifts. Cheap it ain't, but you pay…

Totty Rocks

40 Victoria Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2JW

Totty Rocks is the main outlet of the clothing label of the same name, set up by two lecturers from the Edinburgh College of Art's fashion course. Young, fresh and seriously gorgeous girl-fashion at prices that'll make you think twice before drinking…

Whiplash Trash

53 Cockburn Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1BS

So much a Cockburn Street institution that it practically defines the area's identity, this tiny, dark little shop sells legal highs and all the assorted paraphanelia, as well as the odd saucy nurse outfit. Difficult to define, but very much part of the…


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