A Potted History of the Buttercup Dairy Co. Ltd.
The Buttercup Dairy Co. devised one of the most artistic and coherent retail house styles to be found on Scottish high streets in the 20th century. The shops of few other Scottish grocery or provisions chains have fared so well.
The business was founded by Andrew Ewing (1869-1956), a farmer’s son from Stoneykirk who had been apprenticed to a grocer in Dundee before opening three small shops in the city in the mid-1890s. In 1896 he acquired the Country Supply Stores in Forfar, running it as a cash-only business. Four years later he moved to Kirkcaldy where he traded from 148 High Street.
In 1904 Ewing launched the Buttercup Dairy Co. with branches in Kirkcaldy, Burntisland and Kinghorn. A year later the head office was established in Leith and Ewing moved to Edinburgh. The Leith depot, comprising a cold store, warehousing and offices, relocated to a larger site in Easter Road in 1915.
At its peak, in the late 1920s, Buttercup had around 250 branches. These shops were concentrated in eastern Scotland, with some outlets in the north of England. They were staffed entirely by women to keep labour costs to a minimum.
Initially Buttercup sold a restricted range of products: eggs, butter, margarine, cream, tea, cooking fat and milk. Although a poultry shed – with display windows facing the street – existed on Easter Road, most of the eggs sold by the company were imported until 1922. In that year Buttercup became a private limited company and purchased a farm called Clermiston Mains at Corstorphine, Edinburgh, as the site of a huge poultry farm where eggs were produced on an industrial scale. Eggs laid on the Sabbath were donated to hospitals and charities.
Ewing’s philanthropic nature, inspired by his religious beliefs, seems to have adversely affected the financial health of his business, which became encumbered by bank loans. It may have been a mistake to turn down offers from the Meadow Dairy Co. and Home & Colonial Stores, both of whom tried to acquire the Buttercup Dairy Co. in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s the shops were struggling, and in 1936 fire destroyed the hatchery at Clermiston Mains, bringing an end to the poultry farm. Over the next six years around 40 retail branches were closed.
Wartime shortages and rationing simply aggravated an already dire situation and in 1948 the remaining 207 shops were put up for sale or lease. Some were acquired by their managers, others by local retailers, or even banks. In Arbroath, Mary White took over the branch she managed at 5 Keptie Street, whilst 193 High Street was taken on by Scott’s, a neighbouring grocer who turned it into an experimental self-service extension.
Over 170 shops had been disposed of by 1951, and just four remained by 1961. The cold store in Leith was now the company’s greatest asset, prompting its purchase by Christian Salvesen Ltd. in 1964. The last shop closed in Edinburgh in 1965.
Buttercup Dairy Shops
Buttercup Dairy shops were designed by the architect James Davidson Cairns (1866-1947), who was also responsible for the firm’s offices, warehouses and farm buildings. At least 23 shops survive in Scottish towns in a recognisable form.
Edwardian photographs, for example of the relatively plain Kirkintilloch branch of 1906, show that the house style was not imposed at the outset. It must have been introduced after Cairns started independent practice in 1908, most probably around 1915, when he became involved in designing Buttercup’s Leith headquarters.
Once established, the house style was adhered to throughout the life of the chain. It would have proved impossible to maintain – in terms of craftsmanship, materials and sheer expense – had Buttercup continued to expand and modernise after the Second World War.
Some Buttercup shops, like Innerleithen, were double fronted. The standard shop, however, had a single window alongside a lobby entrance.
The lobby wall was clad in a tiled scheme with an oval pictorial panel. This depicted a young girl wearing a blue bonnet and a pink dress. She held a buttercup to the chin of a placid brown cow (as if asking ‘do you like butter?’) whilst gathering buttercups in the folds of her apron.
The panel was based on a painting by the Scottish artist Tom Curr. It was presumably a commercial commission, like Curr’s well-known image of a kilted shot-putter, created for Scott’s Porage Oats. As well as featuring in the lobbies, a transparent roundel of the Buttercup girl hung in windows above a large ‘Buttercup’ sign.
Above the tiled panel, framed by a buttercup garland and swags, was the Buttercup monogram, with the signature of James Duncan & Co, who supplied the tiles.
The distinctive tube-lined technique is typical of Duncan’s work elsewhere, for other retailers and for Glasgow’s tenement (‘wally’) closes. He decorated blanks from various manufacturers, including Maws of Jackfield, who sent Duncan tiles for the branch at 48 Warrender Park Road, Edinburgh, in 1917. This has recently been restored to accommodate the offices of a firm of architects.
The Buttercup name or monogram was repeated in the usual way on the stallrisers, the globe lamps, the lobby floor and the fascia. Surviving Buttercup fascias with gilded lettering under glass have been uncovered in Selkirk and in Warrender Park Road, Edinburgh.
Cairns carefully considered every aspect of Buttercup’s shop design, creating a cohesive aesthetic effect by using a predominantly green, yellow and white palette, and by repeating decorative motifs in different materials.
The arts and crafts tradition was reflected in the chequered borders (also favoured by early R. & J. Templeton shops) and in the heart motifs which adorned the iron grilles that closed lobbies and protected windows at night (see Warrender Park Road and Haddington), as well as featuring in the tiles. Buttercup garlands and swags reappeared in transom lights at the branch in Warrender Park Road and can be seen on hanging signs in old photographs.
Shop interiors were reportedly clad in white tiles with green borders, though the surviving interior of the Buttercup Dairy in Denny, Stirlingshire, has painted tongue and groove panelling. Denny retains some original shelving units with a buttercup pattern adorning the uprights. A dark green tiled counter front, decorated with the Buttercup monogram, is displayed in the People’s Palace Museum, Glasgow.
It is well worth keeping an eye open for these gorgeous shopfronts whilst exploring Scotland’s historic towns.
Photographs © Kathryn A. Morrison. Please do not reproduce without permission
Bill Scott, The Buttercup. The Remarkable Story of Andrew Ewing and the Buttercup Dairy Company, Leghorn Books, Alnwick, 2011