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Scotland's larder: Liz Crossley-Davies from The Star Rock Shop in Kirriemuir

Liz Crossley-Davies tells us what it like running Scotland's oldest, continuously trading sweet shop, The Star Rock Shop in Kirriemuir.

Published: May 25, 2021
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Kirriemuir is a small town with steep braes, red sandstone buildings topped with grey slate roofs.

It is also connected to two diverse talents, Sir J. M. Barrie, writer of Peter Pan and Bon Scott from AC/DC.

Sir J.M Barrie was born here, and had a long association with the town. He gifted The Camera Obscura and cricket pavilion after he moved to London.

When visiting Kirrie, he would stock up with a local delicacy, 'Starry Rock.'

The Star Rock Shop still makes and sells that same recipe.

The Star Rock Shop Liz Crossley Davies
Star Rock or Starry as it is known locally. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The current guardian, Liz Crossley-Davies explains, "Sir J.M. Barrie was born 30 years after the shop opened, so he would have grown up like the kids now, with the shop on the corner."

Open all hours

The shop was established in 1833 by Mr David Ferguson, he was a stonemason but an accident at work left him blinded.

Liz said, "he made rock because he needed an income, and the demand was so great he opened a shop in his front room."

At the time, cheap sugar was exported from the West Indies and every street would have a sweetie-wife who made sweets.

Liz said, "it was a tradition at the time but it was normally women who made rock."

The shop was owned by relatives of David Ferguson for 140 years and by a series of different owners ever since.

Liz explains, "The history was something that really attracted me.

"It has been there before me, and it will be there after me. I'm currently the custodian of it and it's my turn to look after it.

The Star Rock Shop Liz Crossley Davies
The magical interior of The Star Rock Shop. Picture Lisa Ferguson

"It comes with a lot of responsibility, it belongs to the community as it has been here so long."

Sweethearts

Liz is originally from Warrington but has lived nearby on her parents farm for the past 20 years, with husband Darren and two sons, Josh (18) and Louis, (16).

She met her husband when she was as a catering manager in Warrington, "he worked on the security gate and on our first date we just decided to get married," she said.

Her father owned his own haulage business, in Widnes, but after it was compulsory purchased he decided to be a farmer in Scotland, "although he has now retired, it is an idyllic place to live," she said.

Liz has had a varied career: as a surveyor then a professional chef.

She said, "I was very fortunate I was always told, if you work hard enough, you can do whatever you want.

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"Learning to cook professionally was the best thing I ever did, you can always fall back on cooking.

The Star Rock Shop Liz Crossley Davies
Liz Crossley Davies stirring things up. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

"I am very pro, vocational skills, as I have two sons, one who is very academic and the other who is very practical, so I say there really isn't one path."

School of Rock

Being a stay at home mum wasn't entirely for Liz, so she enrolled as a mature student for a second degree in Economics and Marketing, at Dundee University.

She graduated in 2010 but by the end of her course, she admits, "I just wanted a job."

Liz then had a series of different roles; working for a seed potato company, a marketing company, and a start up company The Gin Bothy.

She reflects, "I learned everything about business from these jobs, from accounts to marketing and everything in between.

"I'd always wanted to be self employed but I was worried I wouldn't get an opportunity."

Liz Crossley Davies.
Liz Crossley Davies, weighed buying the shop up carefully. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

However, The Star Rock Shop came up for sale.

Initially she dismissed it, "but when I looked at it a bit more, I saw the potential for the business and I was really excited about it.

"I never thought I'd be a retailer, but I found out about its historic recipes."

Sweet Dreams

She mulled it over and realised, "the shop, was combining everything from my cooking to my marketing and my business skills, so it was a dream opportunity.

"I wanted a business we could build because that was the example I had been shown growing up, with my dad's haulage firm."

Her father worked incredibly long hours in his own company, she explains, "my dad would go out before we all got up and come in after we had gone to bed so we saw him at weekends and holidays.

"I know that feeling now, every day is a work day when it is your own business."

Cinnamon Star Rock. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Cinnamon Star Rock. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

They had childhood holidays in Cornwall and she remembers buying white Bon-bons, she said "they are still my favourite, it is funny that memory has stuck in my head."

Another memory is of Everton mints being thrown into the crowd at Goodison Park, as the family were season ticket holders, she said, "so they were one of the first things I restocked."

Soor Plooms

Entering the Neverland of The Star Rock Shop, the first thing you notice is the smell.

Liz explains that it's a firm favourite with shoppers as, "everybody says they wish you could bottle that aroma or make it into a candle."

Rock has been made in the shop for 188 years, so the sweet sugary smell is in the walls.

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It's a combination of tablet and rock and the different herbs and spices that are used.

Then there is visual overload, she said, "I have got about 300 jars around the walls and they are all brightly coloured.

"It is a really happy kind of place. For many people, they walk in and their age disappears, the smell takes them back to their childhood.

"During lockdown, it has been horrendous and really sad to be in a dark closed shop. I just grinned from ear to ear when we reopened.

"The support we've had has been fantastic. You just don't get grumpy people in a sweet shop, it just doesn't happen."

Liz Crossley Davies The Star Rock Shop
Liz Crossley Davies said, "the support we've had has been fantastic. You just don't get grumpy people in a sweet shop, it just doesn't happen."

Having decided to buy the shop, the hand over process then started, and she had to learn the secret recipes, Liz explains, "there is a lot of trust involved, as the sale was not finalised."

Past Times

One of her first jobs was to research the history of the owners and create a timeline.

In the 1980's Ken and Minnie Little owned it, and she said, "I would like the children that come in now to remember me like that in 40 years time."

She has also been visited by the daughter of former owner Fred Brown, who remembered moving into the flat above the shop aged 5, in 1940's.

Liz said, "she was in her eighties and her daughters had brought her back especially to see the shop.

"Those kind of things make it so rewarding, it is a unique place."

The Star Rock Shop Liz Crossley Davies
The Star Rock Shop Liz Crossley Davies

Star Rock humbugs and Star Rock Sticks are the two products, still made onsite, which date back to the original owner's recipe.

The most popular flavour of these is horehound, other rock flavours are lemon, mint, clove, cinnamon, butter scotch, ginger as well as honey and eucalyptus and she always uses natural oils.

The horehound oil, anecdotally, is good for the stomach and tickly coughs. Liz explains, "everyone in Kirrie lives on it during the winter months.

"I nearly I didn't have it post lockdown, because my regular supplier stopped stocking the oil."

A worldwide search ensued and Liz eventually tracked some down to Serbia.

Rock n Roll

The ingredients are boiled to 155 degrees and it is poured onto a steel slab to cool slightly, then it is folded initially with a palate knife because it is hot.

When it has cooled down more you can then start to manipulate it with your hands .

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You take a portion of the mixture, and you pull it on a double ended hook in the wall. (You never know J.M. Barrie might have taken inspiration from that for a certain pirate.)

Liz Crossley Davies.
Captain Hook? perhaps. Picture Lisa Fergsuon

This process changes the structure of the sugar.

That Rock is then rolled on the marble counter top until it is a long sausage shape, and it is then pushed through the humbug machine or rolled into sticks.

The hand cranked humbug machine predates the 1940s.

Liz explains, "I don't add any colour so you get a pale golden colour which is verging on cream."

She also buys a huge range of traditional favourites direct from other sweet producers.

"If someone walks in and I haven't got something, I love the challenge, if it is still there and it still exists then why can't I stock it?" she said.

Sweets galore, over 300 different types. Picture Lisa Ferguson
Sweets galore, over 300 different types. Picture Lisa Ferguson

To stand out from the crowd Liz stocks the things you can't buy anywhere else, and has also launched her online shop.

It is a small shop with a finite amount of space, so she added more shelving during lockdown, "but it was overflowing again the day after," she said.

Bonfest

The other well known son of Kirriemuir is Bon Scott, and the town host an annual festival to celebrate his talents.

Liz said, "I wouldn't say I was an AC/DC fan but I definitely like some of the music. I'm actually a fan of Bonfest fans."

The event has been cancelled for the last two years, due to Covid, but Liz always brings out a special edition Rock for Bonfest.

She said, "It sells out in 48 hours so the next one it will be quite a celebration."

Fans at the opening of the AC/DC information board.

She also supports the local school, Webster's High, and has commissioned a blue raspberry and sherbet sweet to help their fundraising efforts.

She also invented a sweet to supported Maggie's.

Liz said, "people going through chemo often feel sickly or have a metallic taste so I made a sweet with a strong orange taste with ginger in the middle to quell sickness, and again profits from sales of that go to the charity."

She tells us that the shop will never move, but that she now needs to find more space to support it.

Liz is also hoping to find a local apprentice to help keep The Star Rock Shop's future shining brightly.

Liz Crossley Davies. in The Star Rock Shop. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The Star Rock Shop

25 Roods, 
Kirriemuir
DD8 4EZ

01575 218518

starrockshopkirriemuir@gmail.com

• READ MORE: Scotland's larder: Sandy Pattullo Asparagus & Sea Kale farmer from Eassie

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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