From outside it’s just a simple wooden hut with gabled corrugated iron roof that’s a little rusty, a brick chimney and not much else of note.

But through the doors of the tiny building in woodland near the rural Royal Deeside village of Ballogie is a fascinating glimpse of a long gone way of life, to days when most communities would have had their very own soutar – shoemaker – to keep them well shod.   

Built in 1896 by James Merchant on his croft land, the two roomed hut, with its well-ordered shop piled with boxes at the front and his packed workshop at the rear, served the local community with fine handmade leather shoes and boots.

When its doors closed in the 1940s, everything inside remained just as it had been left - frozen in time. Untouched down the years, today boxes of handmade shoes and beautifully-crafted children's boots still line the shop’s shelves, and the soutar’s tools and materials adorn the workshop.

Mr Merchant’s detailed ledgers were also left behind, their delicate pages packed with the family names of many local residents whose descendants still live in the area, along with details of their purchases.

Alongside are carefully written invoices from suppliers across the UK, some dating back to 1906.

The Herald: Boots and shoes lie where they were left when the shoemaker's shop closed


While in the workshop, there is a flashback to the long-gone traditional skill of shoemaking: pieces of leather used to make the shoes lie on the floor, a cutting machine, a large roller – 10ft by 8ft - to shape the leather, a stitching machine and foot-driven riveter.

Now, more than eight decades since Mr Merchant’s hammer fell silent, efforts are underway to ensure the remarkable little building – unique in the whole of the United Kingdom – is preserved for generations to come.

For despite having had basic repairs and maintenance, the outer shell of the building, which sits in a secret spot in the heart of the Forest of Birse, is said to be rapidly deteriorating.

To halt the decline, Birse Community Trust (BCT), which took ownership of the hut from the shoemaker’s relatives in 1999, has been awarded a share of a £60,000 grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund for critical repairs to secure the building and protect the entire collection inside.

It’s hoped that will ensure the inner shell of the building and its contents can be retained in their original condition, preserving the little shop and workshop as a remarkable time capsule and reminder of a time when rural soutar’s shops were widespread.

The Trust is also looking to maximise the accessibility of the building in different ways, making use of contemporary technologies including 3D scanning to allow people around the world to ‘visit’ the shop virtually and study its contents.

There are also plans to make the building accessible to small groups for guided tours.  

Until then, the Trust aims to keep the exact location of the little shop under the radar, in the hope it will remain undisturbed for a little longer.

Plain and unassuming on the outside, inside is a step back in time: boxes of ladies' shoes from the 30s and 40s remain on the shelves, and half-repaired shoes lie in the workshop, exactly where they were left in the 1940s.

Inside some of the boxes are tackets – small nails - spare heels and toes to repair shoes, and gaiters.

After James Merchant died of a stroke in 1941, his son, James jun., carried on the business for a few years. However, tastes were already changing, and soon shoe shops would push the  humble soutar’s role into decline. It closed for good in 1949.


The Herald: Inside the Royal Deeside shoemaker's hut, closed to the world for 80 years

According to the Architectural Heritage Fund, it appears to be the only surviving intact traditional rural soutar's shop, making it of significance not just to the local community but on a national level.

While there is a soutar's shop and workshop at the A Listed cottage of John Davidson in Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire – the 'Souter Johnnie' who features in the Robert Burns poem Tam O'Shanter – Merchant’s was purpose built, remains unaltered and with the original contents including his little stove, and price tags on the shoes.

Toni Watt, of Birse Community Trust, said: “The Soutar's Shop is just such a special place.

“At one time soutars would have been found in every settlement in Scotland but over the years they have been replaced and the original shops and workshops dismantled to such an extent that we think this is the last remaining in situ soutar's shop in Scotland.

“Walking into the building, it is as if the soutar has just left, closed the door and gone to have his lunch, everything seems to be just as he left it from the leather scraps lying on the floor to the posters on the walls.

“The original ledger has been taken out but we have a copy in the shop so local people can trace their families by their shoe repairs which can be a moving experience to find your family written in the ledger.


The Herald: Gathering dust: shoe moulds frozen in time inside the 19th century shoemaker's hut

“We have a local heritage group who are passionate about the shop and want to help Birse Community Trust, the custodians of the shop on behalf of the community, to raise the funds to help us secure its future.”

According to Historic Environment Scotland documentation related to its A List status, the building is an “outstanding example” of a rural shop.

“The survival of shoemaking fixtures and fittings, including tools, stock and ledgers found in their original place is considered very rare,” it adds.

“While rural soutar's shops were commonplace and widespread in Scotland until the end of the 19th century, the shop at Ballogie is the only known building of this type in Scotland which has remained unaltered.

“It is representative of the closing period of small industry and local life in the late 19th and early 20th century in Scotland. The building is considered to be an extremely rare surviving example of its type.”


The Herald: Inside the 19th century shoemaker's shop has been left untouched for generations

Gordon Barr, of the Architectural Heritage Fund, which helps communities find uses for historic buildings, said: “The Soutar’s shop is a unique and very important survival, and Birse Heritage Trust has the expertise and passion to make it work.

“The AHF is delighted to be able to support their plans to help deliver a long-term plan to restore and make this time capsule of a building accessible, by offering a grant to help fund some key surveys and other costs while they develop their plans.”