Hamish Scott explores Edinburgh's bespoke brushmakers, Cresser's of Victoria Street
Victoria Street, in Edinburgh's Old Town, is the very model of a city centre back-street. Curving through a gorge below the Royal Mile, where slick and prosperous establishments cater for the needs of tourists, the cobbled lane is home to specialist food shops, lively restaurants and bars, jewellers and antique dealers. The atmosphere is at once sophisticated and bohemian. This is a place to come in search of the unusual or to find the unexpected.

The most unexpected sight of all, in a row of colourfully trendy shop- fronts, is the facade of Robert Cresser, specialist brushmakers. A canvas awning proudly states 'Established 1873' above a window filled with sturdy brooms and strange, old fashioned implements. Inside, the shop is Dickensian and dark, with a wooden counter and bare floor. Long brooms and tin pails dangle from the ceiling, whilst smaller brushes, in every shape and form imaginable, bristle on the crowded shelves, hidden behind rolling pins and wooden bowls, bales of string, and bootjacks.

"This is called a 'nosey parker'" Stan Ross explains, picking up a curiously angled brush. "It's for cleaning under banisters, but it gave the maid a good excuse to eavesdrop on the drawing room. And this one here's a 'spokie', for scrubbing between wheel-spokes. If you haven't got a vintage car, it's just the job for radiator pipes." Mr Ross knows the name and proper use of every brush, having been employed at Cresser's for more than quarter of a century.

Robert Cresser was the eldest son in a family of brushmakers who had lived and worked in the medieval tenement since way back in the 19th century. But though he and his brother John were fine craftsmen, it was their sister Susan who possessed the business brain. In 1873, she turned their lower rooms into a fine, up-to-date emporium providing for all the cleaning needs of Edinburgh and the grooming of its citizens.

For more than half a century, Susan ruled over the shop and her two brothers, keeping a close eye both on their workmanship and drinking habits. In a city with a reputation for refined perfectionism, Cresser's had to meet demanding standards. On her retirement in 1930, Susan sold the firm to her book-keeper, Mrs Athie, confident that she was a woman after her own heart who would never countenance the unnecessary extravagance of change. So, for another 40 years, business went on pretty much as usual and residents of Morningside could still rely on Cresser's for their telescopic cornice brushes, whilst artists in Grassmarket had a ready source of hog's-hair 'fitches' for their watercolours. Then in 1970, Mrs Athie died and to the horror of her loyal work-force, her daughter showed no interest in brushes.

It was a young, ambitious employee who saved the day. Stephen Gilhooly, then in his early 20s, bought the business and moved Stan Ross down from the workshop to serve behind the counter. Since then there have been times when it was touch and go whether Cresser's would survive the advent of the plastic dustpan. Two years ago the shutters closed for eighteen months and it appeared that yet another corner of old Edinburgh had vanished. It was the pressure and encouragement of customers whose families had shopped at Cresser's through the generations that persuaded Mr Gilhooly to reconsider his decision. Where else could they find a proper bath-brush, curved to match the tub's contours and with a two-foot handle to save them from back-ache?

At the end of June this year, Cresser's doors reopened, the interior unaltered. The shop's location, in the heart of what were previously gloomy tenements and sinister dark wynds, is now revitalised and fashionable, though Mr Gilhooly sees no need to keep up with passing fads. Trendy health- care shops may extol the properties of skin-care brushes made from Mexican organic fibres as though they were some new discovery, but Cresser's has been selling them for 40 years. The mysteriously vast requirements of the Boy Scout movement for bales of sisal binder-twine have not diminished since the days of Baden-Powell and nor has global warming yet saved Edinburgh's householders from needing sturdy 'wet and dry brooms' to clear each winter's snow. What reason could there be to rationalise the product list or rearrange displays that have been perfectly acceptable since 1873?

There are now signs at Cresser's that a cautious business eye is being cast towards the future. Mr Ross, in idle moments, has been scraping rotting plaster from the ancient, barrel-vaulted stairs. Although the building is not being modernised, it is undergoing some much-needed restoration. With the main workshops now in Portobello, there are plans to allow the public up to the upper floors where repairs to well-loved brushes are still undertaken at benches that were antique even in Miss Athie's day. There is even talk of a mail order catalogue some time in the next few years. For the moment customers appear satisfied with the traditional arrangement of telephoning with requirements and paying on delivery. "Hopefully, there's not a brush we can't do," Mr Gilhooly claims with pride. If what you need is not out on display, stuck somewhere behind binder-twine and bootjacks, it can probably be made to order. That has always been the system. No-one who knows Cresser's would wish to see such a tradition swept away.

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