Fancy a walk round the shops?

Niall Hendry-Chynoweth discovers that there's more to Rothesay's shop fronts than an idle glance might suggest... IT'S eleven o'clock on a bitterly cold February morning, and I'm waiting patiently as a group of 40 or so followers huddle together for a picture before a guided tour of the shop fronts of Rothesay.

The tour, led by Dr Lindsay Lennie, who has spent many years researching the history of Scotland's shops, starts at the Isle of Bute Discovery Centre and progresses through the streets of the town centre, via the many architectural and design marvels that are our shop fronts.

Soon after the picture is taken we set off across the street and find our first destination – Mackinnon's - is directly opposite us. According to our expert guide, the architecture of Mackinnon's is that of the early 1930s, which was a period of particular economic growth for the island.

Its shiny, black fascia (the fascia is the horizontal board on which the shop's sign is placed) is made of a substance called Vitralite, which was put to great use at the time, and gives the shop front a minimalist, Art Deco-ish look.

Adjacent to Mackinnon's, we move to Butterflies, another early 20th century design, although this time slightly older than its neighbour.

This was originally Birrell's confectionery store, a very high class business established around the turn of the century which had many outlets around the country.

Next, our guide leads us a little further on still to Intersport, which Dr Lennie says was previously a Victorian chemist. This shop has several features, including black-and-white tiled floors and timber counters, which show it is the work of Archibald Hamilton, a well known shop designer of the time.

Dr Lennie also says this shop is quite a spectacle as it features a mixture of its original Victorian design and the more modern features of its current use.

Our last stop on this section of the tour is Glen's, on the corner of Tower Street and Victoria Street, whose curved windows in the entrance – once a common feature of many Rothesay shops – create an open feel by allowing more visibility into the shop's interior.

Another interesting detail of the Glen's entrance is the art nouveau mosaic tiles on the step, which date back to the early 19th century, and which are matched by similar mosaic tiles on the stallrisers (the section between the pavement and the bottom of the window).

The group marches onwards through Tower Street – though by this point my fingers are positively numb due to the cold! - passing more shops with display islands in their entrance ways (the new Calum's Cabin shop) and Vitralite signs (Slaven's fishmonger).

We emerge into Montague Street and head towards Guildford Square, but not before stopping opposite Fraser Gillies' gents' outfitters - another shop front bearing a mixture of Victorian and more recent designs.

Dr Lennie says the windows of this shop have unusually designed chrome frames, while the frontage's ironwork can be identified as MacFarlane's by a faded stamp on its pilasters.

Once again, we are alerted to the black and white floor tiles in the shop's entrance, although this time the shop was not previously a chemist, but rather a Lipton's grocery outlet, a name some older readers may recognise).

Across the street, we stop by the premises occupied until December by the Haddows off-licence chain; this has a distinct, turn-of-the-century design, with blocked up ventilation grilles below the fascia of the store.

Travelling parallel to Guildford Square we pass the Edwardian Oxfam, with more curved glass windows, and arrive at the shop next to Toffoletti's which was most recently used by the Bute Community Land Company during the Rhubodach forest ballot.

This particular shop front, Dr Lennie points out, has a noticeable bookend console - a bracket which marks the termination of one shop and beginning of another.

The bookend variety of console tends to be deeper than a normal console, and they are generally placed with an angled fascia - a very fashionable design in the 1880s and 1890s, when the shop was built.

Our group then travels along West Princes Street and struggles to contain itself on the narrow pavement as Dr Lindsay points out the interesting features on the frontage of what used to be Bute Bathrooms.

This shop front features a fairly plain Victorian design, though it does have a set of double storm doors, an unusual feature of Scotland's shop fronts most usually found in seaside resorts because of their hard-wearing qualities.

Most notable here, however, is the lifting window the shop possesses - a feature once favoured by many butchers and fishmongers, as they preserved the feel of a market stall and enabled the owner to show off his wares to passers-by.

A short walk away to Bishop Street and East Princes Street, Dr Lennie points out the ornate cast-iron grille above the front door of A. & M. Macqueen's butcher shop, a feature hidden to most passers-by under the shop's canopy but commonly used by such businesses to help ensure generous ventilation.

At Zavaroni's fish and chip shop we are shown a combination of 1930s Art Deco design, suggesting an inter-war confectionery design, and sixties mosaic tiling around the outside of the frontage.

Then we cross at the nearby roundabout - no mean feat with 40 people waiting to cross, several cars queuing up as we do so, and roadworks just a stone's throw away!

After making it across the road intact, we stop at Picture Bute, where Dr Lennie's interest is concentrated on the quaint Victorian design of the interior, with its bordered plastered ceiling, and the large display cases which sit underneath.

Our next stop is one of the most interesting on the tour - Taylor's Amusements. Though it is relatively modern now, it used to be one of six hundred Burton's tailoring shops across the UK, following the company's habit of setting up in corner locations.

The Burton's company can still be seen on many British high streets, and though they've long since left Rothesay, their mark remains on numerous logos along the side of the stallriser (the section between the pavement and the shop window), which read 'Montague Burton - The Tailor Of Taste'.

Our last few stops include the former James McIntyre butcher's shop in Victoria Street, which Dr Lindsay says most likely has a late Victorian design, recognisable by its granite-tiled interior, which, regrettably, is no longer used; Ritchie's fishmonger, the former Country Living store on the corner of Deanhood Place, and then, back on Victoria Street, Calico Moon.

This shop, and the hair salon beside it, are both of Edwardian design, according to Dr Lindsay, who points out the imitation mosaic design and the clerestories above the display windows.

And with that Dr Lindsay's tour comes to an end, leaving all her captivated participants enlightened and inspired, if not a little cold. It would be extremely pleasing to see another tour like this one happen again - though warmer weather would be essential!