Thirty Years at Hamilton & Inches by Ninian Dunlop

Hamilton & Inches has been an integral part of Edinburgh since it opened its doors on the 28th May 1866. Then situated on Princes Street, it provided those with means the ability to buy a range of jewellery and silverware and then, in 1883, watches and clocks.

With almost 154 years of history, comes stories of the people, products and parties of days gone by, many of which are being uncovered by our archivist Amy Cawood.

But the real jewels in our historical crown are our long-standing members of staff who have a first-hand account of what H&I Life was like over the years; some even have generations of the same family working for the business.

On the 26th of March 2020, Ninian Dunlop celebrated his working anniversary at Hamilton & Inches. Joining the company in 1990, he has watched the business transform over the past thirty years migrating from the ownership of the Inches-Carr family through to the current refurbishment project, helping to breathe life into the architecture of 87 George Street.

Looking back over the years, Ninian shares with us his story of Hamilton & Inches.

In 1989, the world wide web was born, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and Prince Harry would turn 5 in September. Life went on without mobile phones, digital advertising and Google.  I was a young man working at Mappin & Webb on George Street and my only connection to Hamilton & Inches was a sterling silver Celtic-bordered quaich gifted to me for my christening.

I knew the name of course, most people in Edinburgh did. My parents shopped there, my grandparents too; I distinctly remember sterling silver toast racks they received as wedding presents in the 1920s.

It didn’t take long before I was introduced to Deirdre, the great-granddaughter of founder Robert Kirk Inches, and her husband Malcolm Carr – both then directors of the company. They painted an irresistible picture of what life was like over the road at 87. Within a year, I joined.

What I didn’t appreciate was that Hamilton & Inches was more than just a shop. Above and below the ever-tranquil showroom lies a hive of activity; goldsmiths, silversmiths, polishers, engravers and watchmakers occupy a rabbit warren of workshops, each fashioning some of the most beautiful items I had ever seen.

When I started in March 1990, the front of the shop was, I think, dark green with gilt lettering. Inside, there were old wooden and leather topped desks, long glass sliding doors, pale blue walls, white columns with gilt capitals. The repairs desk stretched across the top of the shop blocking the view of the Robert Adam fireplace – this was rectified when Asprey took over the shop and renovated it later on that decade). Beneath the repairs desk was a dumb waiter that brought repair items to the showroom from the bowels of the building.

Opening hours, then, were quite different. On a Saturday morning, the staff congregated for a cooked breakfast at T G Willis, the delicatessen that had a café upstairs. We then ambled along to start our Saturday. The shop closed at 12.30pm, ready to re-open on a Monday morning. Life had a sort of lull to it. In the mornings, Deirdre and Ian Inches would visit. She was a stern woman with “strong character”.

Over the years, I have been lucky to help thousands of customers find items to celebrate significant milestones in their lives, or to simply make them smile. Of all the people I have helped throughout my career, one person sticks out in my mind.

Quite a few years ago, I had a visit one Monday morning from a lady who had visited the shop on behalf of her friend. Her friend had recently moved to St Columba’s Hospice and, having seen an advert for a beautiful ring, decided she would like to treat herself albeit she wouldn’t get to appreciate it for very long.

Whilst I smiled politely and said I would enquire, internally my heart sank. This was a ring we didn’t have in stock and, at that time, it would be weeks rather than days for it to be ready.

However, working with our team and explaining the situation (stressing the need for urgency), we tracked the ring in question down and ensured it would be with finished in just two days, the Wednesday.

Right enough, the ring was ready on the Wednesday morning. I boxed it up, marched down to the Hospice and met the lady herself, propped up in bed. I can’t remember if she put it on while I was there, but she certainly did that afternoon. On Thursday, at some point, she passed away.

Years later, I was told by her friend that whilst she had only had the ring for a day, she had been completely delighted by it. That is the customer I remember the most and why I love the profession I am in – these beautiful items can bring such utter joy. 

Of course, the memories I have made over the years are not just limited to sales. I am lucky enough to be around amazing colleagues who have provided me with the best working environment I could hope for.

Throughout my career I have met some characters. Our polisher’s Father-in-law, Fred Scupham provided much hilarity. Fred liked to play golf and that meant regularly practicing his swing. He had devised a setup involving a golf ball and string but ended up hitting the ball so hard it took off at full speed as far as the string would allow. Of course, it then had to return to base, or in this case Fred’s forehead- thereby knocking him off his feet- and out.

He appeared at the shop the next day with a red round mark on his head that said

ILFXAM POLNUD

on it and he – and we – laughed and laughed.

The people who work at Hamilton & Inches – current and past – are like an extended family. Each brings something to the team; from Danny’s expert piano playing to Ruaridh’s expert mastery of Karate. Whilst I might not be working here in another thirty years’ time, I will never forget the people and products that helped shape such a huge part of my life.

Find out more about the history of Hamilton & Inches.