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23 Jan 2024
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The History of The Scotsman

When The Scotsman first appeared, it was regarded as radical to the point of being 'incendiary'. Albert Morris reviews almost 200 years of a national institution.

The Scotsman's original office at 347 High Street

Into an Edinburgh shaking off an oppressive war-time atmosphere after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo came The Scotsman, an infant with lusty journalistic lungs that soon after its launch on 25 January, 1817 – appropriately enough Robert Burns's birthday – had so upset the capital's establishment that copies were often smuggled to readers who dared not be seen buying it.

Born in indignation, felt by Fife-born solicitor William Ritchie and customs official Charles Maclaren, at the "unblushing subserviency" of local newspapers to the establishment, its astringent and independent voice came as a tenpenny (including 4d stamp duty) thunderclap. Change was in the air of Edinburgh, which disbanded its creaking old City Guard and filled its new Calton Hill prison, and The Scotsman, a paper of liberal ideals, pledged to "impartiality, firmness and independence", flourished in the new age. The idea for an eight-page, quarto Saturday journal with a break-even weekly circulation of 300 copies, came to the two men when city newspapers refused to print, even as an advertisement, a story written by Ritchie on the mismanagement of the Royal (then New) Infirmary.

Soon, the paper, read openly or behind drawn curtains, also began publishing on Wednesdays. A declared enemy of privilege and corruption, it attacked unswervingly what it saw as the tightening grip of reaction, autocracy and municipal jobbery in Scotland. It was hot stuff. "That incendiary newspaper," fumed one Scottish lord. Others indignant were the municipal mafia of Edinburgh Town Council, described in Lord Cockburn's Memorials as "omnipotent, corrupt, impenetrable", the curtain of whose secret proceedings, The Scotsman often ripped open. In 1820, the earnest Maclaren also he "joked with difficulty" - became full-time co-editor and led The Scotsman robustly in support of parliamentary and municipal reform and Catholic emancipation and through other national controversies such as the Disruption in 1843 over the right of Church of Scotland congregations, and not landowners, to choose their ministers.

Editors of The Scotsman

  • William Ritchie 1817 - 1831
  • Charles Maclaren 1817 - 20 - 46
  • John Ramsay McCulloch 1818 - 1820
  • John Hill Burton (acting) 1843
  • Alexander Russel 1846 - 1876
  • Robert Wallace 1876 - 1880
  • Charles Alfred Cooper 1880 - 1905
  • John Pettigrew Croal 1905 - 1924
  • Sir George A Waters LLD 1924 - 1944
  • James Murray Watson 1944 - 1955
  • John Buchanan (acting) 1955 - 1956
  • Alastair Dunnett 1956 - 1972
  • Eric MacKay 1972 - 1985
  • Chris Baur 1985 - 1988
  • Magnus Linklater 1988 - 1994
  • Andrew Jaspan 1994 - 1995
  • James Seaton 1995 - Feb 1997
  • Martin Clarke Feb 1997 - Apr 1998
  • Alan Ruddock May 1998 - Feb 2000
  • Tim Luckhurst Feb 2000 - May 2000
  • Rebecca Hardy May 2000 - Dec 2001
  • Iain Martin Dec 2001 - Nov 2004
  • John McGurk Nov 2004 - May 2006
  • Mike Gilson Sept 2006 - Feb 2009
  • John McLellan Feb 2009 - Apr 2012
  • Ian Stewart Apr 2012 - present

He was the paper's only editor to fight a duel. Stung by journalistic attacks from Dr James Browne, the Caledonian Mercury's editor, Maclaren, with grave reservations concerning Browne's existence, agreed to meet him at Ravelston. The two exchanged shots, missed, refused to shake hands, and parted without apology.

Journalistic shafts could strike more woundingly than pistols. Acting-editor JR McCulloch locked editorial horns in 1820 with Blackwood's Magazine over the candidature of John Wilson (Christopher North) for Edinburgh University's Chair of Moral Philosophy. Wilson was crisply described by The Scotsman as a slanderer convicted at the bar of public opinion and a mocker of the Scriptures, whose appointment would be "an outrage on public decency without parallel since Caligula made his horse a Consul". The abolition of advertisement duty in 1853 and the repeal of the newspaper stamp duty in 1855 spectacularly boosted advertisements and sales.

On the first stamp-duty-free day, The Daily Scotsman (price 1d) was launched with front-page advertisements and a daily circulation of 6,000 copies. Ten years later, with "Daily" dropped, sales had increased to 17,000 a day. At first, The Scotsman circulated mainly in Edinburgh, stagecoaches taking copies further afield. Railways were spreading, but because of high freight charges few newspapers used them. In 1865, the proprietors produced a bold plan guaranteeing railway companies greater revenue from carrying The Scotsman alone than they earned from all other newspapers. They agreed to pay the carriage themselves so that agents, no matter how remote, could sell the paper at the published 1d price and make a farthing per copy profit. Soon the paper was received throughout Scotland. Circulation rose to 40,000 in 1873 and it became, in spirit and authority, Scotland's national newspaper. The years, 1879 and 1880 saw the Midlothian campaigns of Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, self-appointed rescuer of fallen women and eponymously linked to a well-known bag. The paper enthusiastically recorded his triumphant progress and volcanic version of Liberalism.

Later, The Scotsman attacked Gladstone's Home Rule bill for Ireland, claiming it would breach imperial unity, a marked difference from its championing of Scottish devolution in the next century. In 1881 the editor, Dr Charles Cooper, campaigned for provincial reporters to be included in the Commons Press Gallery. Gladstone suggested instead a dark and draughty area under the Commons' floor. Parliamentary voices could be heard but no speakers identified. Gladstone thought that no problem, but Cooper rejected it, and when the gallery was extended in 1881, The Scotsman got the first seat.

The Scotsman's North Bridge office

In 1899, the Boers, regarded by Britons as a poorly-tailored coagulation of farmers, badly in need of shaving, resisted imperial expansion in South Africa. The Scotsman, like most other newspapers, supported the resulting war, stating proudly at its end, in 1902, that it regarded Boers as genuine British subjects. The year before, Queen Victoria died, her death reported by The Scotsman with 32 black-edged columns.

In 1881, the dying Disraeli, told that she wanted to see him, cried: "Don't let her in; she will only want me to take a message to Albert!" The new century brought the greatest upheaval yet for the paper and its then stablemates, the Weekly Scotsman and Evening Dispatch. Born at 347 High Street, The Scotsman later moved to Cockburn Street offices, then regarded as among the finest in Britain. These became cramped, and when the North Bridge was widened, the proprietors built a 190-foot-high building – a superb flourish in English baroque, costing £500,000 – which, by 1905, with the Carlton Hotel, formed a romantic turreted gateway between the new and old towns. The building, with its showpiece marbled pillars and floors, mahogany and walnut-panelled walls, ornate ceilings and markedly plainer environment for staff, symbolised supreme commercial confidence.

The Scotsman timeline

  • 1817; The first issue of The Scotsman, subtitled The Edinburgh Political and Literary Journal, is published on Saturday 25 January, as a weekly paper devoted to liberal institutions. Set up by solicitor William Ritchie and customs official Charles Maclaren, it is sold at 10d per copy. Early circulation figures average 800-900 copies. Offices are based on Edinburgh's High Street.
  • 1822; The paper goes twice weekly.
  • 1831; January 1, The Scotsman increases in size and changes its front page from editorial to advertising and announcements.
  • 1836; The price is reduced to 4d.
  • 1855; The paper changes its name to The Daily Scotsman. First daily on June 19.
  • 1855; Stamp duty is repealed in June and The Scotsman starts publishing daily editions.
  • 1860; The offices move to 30 Cockburn Street. The paper is enlarged, "Daily" is dropped and it is sold for 1d per copy.
  • 1865; The Scotsman becomes the first paper to sell directly to readers through retail agents.
  • 1872; The Scotsman is the first company to run its own train, delivering papers to Glasgow and the west of Scotland.
  • 1873; Circulation reaches 40,000.
  • 1886; The company publishes a new sister paper called Evening Dispatch.
  • 1904; On 19, December the paper moves to new premises at North Bridge.
  • 1922; February 3, first photograph published (of a brooch) within editorial of the paper. Previously only adverts had used photos.
  • 1926; The paper is the first to print the news without stopping the presses.
  • 1928; The Scotsman is the first newspaper to telegraph pictures across from the Continent.
  • 1947; Editor J Murray Watson is on the first Edinburgh Festival committee.
  • 1953; Roy H Thomson acquires the majority share-hold.
  • 1955; The Scotsman celebrates its centenary as a daily paper.
  • 1957; 17 April, The Scotsman front page changes back to editorial from advertising.
  • 1962; The Scotsman is one of the first British newspapers to publish a magazine supplement.
  • 1963; The Scotsman company takes over the Evening News and merges the Evening Dispatch into it as the company becomes a subsidiary of the Thomson Organisation.
  • 1971; Decimal currency sees The Scotsman priced at 4p.
  • 1980; April sees the first edition of The Scotsman Magazine.
  • 1987; The North Bridge HQ undergoes a multi-million pound development, heralding the end of hot metal printing and the start of computer technology.
  • 1988; On 6 August, a Sunday sister paper, Scotland on Sunday, is launched.
  • 1990; On October 1, first front page using a colour photograph is published – Hamish Campbell's picture of the Forth Rail Bridge.
  • 1995; The Scotsman and The Scotsman Publishing Ltd are sold to the Barclay brothers' Ellerman Investments.
  • 1999; The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Evening News move to new purpose-built offices at Barclay House on Holyrood Road.
  • 2000; Scotsman.com replaces the existing website to develop the best newspaper website in Scotland.
  • 2003; The 50,000th edition.
  • 2004; The Scotsman publishes a compact edition on Saturdays beginning March 6th.

During the First World War, The Scotsman, reflecting the patriotic mood, called for Scottish volunteers and unswervingly supported the war effort, even in the darkest days. In 1917, two significant events occurred – the paper's centenary (by which time cost one and a half pennies due to a rise in the cost of paper) and the Russian revolution. The Scotsman was proud of its achievements (even though the price increased again in 1918 to 2d). It had, for instance, introduced 32 Linotype machines – a significant development in newspaper production – that produced lines of type in hot metal, accelerating typesetting and saving labour. Less enthusiastic about Bolshevik achievements, it stated: "Whatever the fate of Russia, it will not be determined by Lenin or Trotsky." During the 1926 General Strike, The Scotsman and its sister papers continued working, their only competitors initially, the government's British Gazette and the Daily Worker. A grateful government offered proprietors, John Ritchie & Co., free air transport to send daily copies of The Scotsman to newspaper-starved London.

That was loftily refused because of unfairness to competitors. Always barometrically sensitive to the climate of Scottish opinion, its editorial thunder rolled for great and small causes. In 1928, it fought successfully against a planned National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle that would have towered above the battlements, but lost its fight against a plan, "lacking taste and natural feeling", for a men's toilet at the foot of the Mound. Unmoved, the council went ahead at its own convenience. Two years later, spiritual guidance may have given it a scoop concerning the design for St Andrews House.

At an Edinburgh Town Council meeting, the Office of Works banned newspapers from photographing a design model. The Scotsman's chief reporter, James W Herries, a keen spiritualist, felt drawn to leave the City Chambers. Outside, he found, sketching the Tron Kirk, an art student who agreed to draw the model. When the sketch appeared in The Scotsman, public reaction was seismic and a new plan was approved. After 1937, the paper, remembering the last war's carnage, initially supported what was later despised as appeasement, but during the Second World War was under no illusions about Hitler's ambitions and gave impressive coverage to the triumphs and disasters of the allied effort.

The paper reported graphically Edinburgh's first taste of the war – on 17 October, 1939 – when German bombers attacked the Forth Bridge and naval ships. Anti-aircraft fire was dismissed at first as practice, a view abruptly dispelled when black-crossed bombers flew low over streets, the enemy coolly breathing the capital's air.

In the war's bleak aftermath, Edinburgh, astonishingly, created an event – an international festival of arts and drama – that shone like a beacon of hope in shattered Europe. The old, grey city seemed ill-suited for a venture smacking of gaiety – it was like asking Lady Macbeth to dance the exhibition Paso Doble – but its architectural and geological drama matched the vision that Rudolf Bing, then director and general manager of Glyndebourne Opera and creator of the festival's grand design, had for a setting to rival Salzburg. With the enthusiastic backing of Edinburgh's Lord Provost, Sir John Falconer, and J Murray Watson, editor of The Scotsman, both members of the founding committee, the Festival was launched on August, 1947. A fervent supporter of the Festival and its lively Fringe, The Scotsman's coverage of events is unrivalled and its "Fringe First" awards for new plays highly prized by performers.

By 1951, the cover price had gone up to 3d and on 3 September, 1953, The Scotsman Publications Ltd was taken over by Mr Roy Thomson (later Lord Thomson of Fleet), a Canadian millionaire of Scottish descent who started work as a newspaper delivery boy, eventually owning radio stations and newspapers in Canada and America. On the day before negotiations began, Roy Thomson covered pre-talks ground by taking a 6d tram ride for a top-deck view of Edinburgh. He brought vigorous business skills and much-needed money into the company, reorganising management but not interfering with editorial control. The Scotsman soon showed the healthy flush of increased profitability.

In 1955 – its centenary as a daily newspaper – tributes, including congratulations from the young Queen Elizabeth, indicated that it would be difficult to imagine Scotland without the authority, influence and unchanging character of The Scotsman. Two years later, The Scotsman changed dramatically – to front-page news, an event that some readers thought would shake the cosmos but which transformed it into a truly modern newspaper, surging from a circulation of 54,000 in 1956 to nearly 67,000 and, by the end of 1965, to over 70,000. The Scotsman has won many design awards and gained an impressive number of commendations.

The evolution of The Scotsman masthead since its launch in 1817

Lord Francis-Williams, in the New Statesman, described it as "one of the best written, best produced and, in many ways, most civilised newspaper in Britain". In an expanding service to readers, it started in 1962 – the first British newspaper to do so – a separate, 12-page Saturday magazine supplement covering literature, arts, education, science and general interest topics. From it, the present tabloid-format Weekend Scotsman, with Listings, an entertainment information insert, was developed. In the campaign preceding the referendum on 1 March, 1979, for a Scottish Assembly, The Scotsman nailed its devolution battle ensign to the mast. When the majority of Scots voted for an Assembly but in numbers less than the required 40 per cent of the electorate, resulting in the repeal of the Scotland Act, the paper attacked the "doubting cries of the faithless" and pointed out that had the normal rules of British politics been applied, the Act would have been enforceable by the narrow majority.

In 1987, a new industrial revolution came to North Bridge with direct input of editorial and advertising material into a £4 million Norsk Data computer system. The new printing technology – as different from the old method as Concorde from Bleriot's monoplane – ended hot metal printing and transferred most of the printers' work to sub-editors using keyboards and visual display units to edit or reshape copy to size and for reporters to keyboard-type and correct their stories on VDU screens. One of the company's greatest technological advances was made when the giant £6 million-plus, web-offset Goss Colorliner press opened in 1990 at Newhaven Road, part of a £20 million programme involving modernising and relocating production facilities.

The press can print in full colour up to 48 pages of a broadsheet newspaper at 75,000 copies an hour. The new printing company, Caledonian Offset Ltd, is one of the most modern newspaper production centres in Europe. Shortly after the opening, The Scotsman again took on a new look, with a complete redesign of its pages and a new masthead. The three thistles, symbols of a proud and independent nation and newspaper, were still there – in colour, but just as prickly. The new, elegant, and visually-impactive typeface was generally approved by readers, although one claimed that the masthead showed the English thistle. The Scotsman treated the matter with humorous indulgence and refused to be nettled. On 31 October, 1995, The Scotsman and its stablemates in TSPL were sold to Ellerman Investments owned by David and Frederick Barclay. The holding company is Press Holdings.

The Scotsman's current office was opened in 1999 and is situated at 108 Holyrood Road

By 1999 the old, Gothic building on North Bridge, with its labyrinthine corridors and 13 floors, had become an inadequate home for a modern newspaper. The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Evening News moved into a purpose-built, up-to-date building at Holyrood, in the imposing shadow of Salisbury Crags. The building's soaring atrium allows as much natural light as possible to spread over all three floors, with largely open-plan accommodation for a staff of about 600 leading directly from it. It is very different from the warren of offices in the old North Bridge building, and allows the grouping of common departments that were sometimes separated by several floors in the former head office.

The year 2000 brought a further redesign, a change in typefaces and the launch of our daily S2 features tabloid. Also in 2000, Scotsman.com was born, a sister company to The Scotsman Publications Limited, set up to take The Scotsman's existing website – already the most comprehensive newspaper website in Scotland – and transform it into a portal for Scotland and all things Scottish on the internet.

Making the news while on the move

The Scotsman has come a long and illustrious way from the days when Lord Cockburn described it as "the first Scotch newspaper that combined independence with intelligence and moderation with zeal."

A brooch given to Princess Mary by Edinburgh Corporation was the first photograph to be published

In an age of swiftly-changing technology – carrier-pigeons were still being used early this century to carry local football reports – and in its task of reporting news and commenting on the convulsions of the human spirit, The Scotsman, its editorial vigour undiminished, continues to strive to maintain the traditions and character of that "tenpenny thunderclap" so admired by the learned lord.

In February 1922, it published its first picture (above), of a brooch given to Princess Mary by Edinburgh Corporation. And it was the first paper in Britain to have a telephoto machine. The first picture telegraphed appeared in August 1928 and was of the pilgrimage to the Menin Gate in Paris.

In a display of the bold commercial acumen of the Victorian age, The Scotsman was, in 1872, the first British newspaper to run special early-morning, high-speed trains to deliver its papers from Edinburgh to Glasgow and the west. Loaded at a special siding in Waverley Station, the train had a carriage bearing the newspaper's livery and manned by packers who, during the jolting, swaying journey, made up parcels which were thrown out at various stations. The time lapse between publication and delivery in Glasgow was narrowed to only 70 minutes and Glaswegians were able to settle down to breakfast with their copy of the paper at the same time as the citizens of Edinburgh.

Because of the trains' success, special parcel-tossing rail runs to Perth and the Borders were organised, and where The Scotsman led, the Times followed and, in 1873, introduced its own special early-morning train from London to Birmingham. In 1866 The Scotsman, always a technical and commercial innovator, with a view to improving its efficiency, hired a special wire for its sole use from the Electric Telegraph Company – a system quickly adopted by the provincial press. Two years later, it led newspapers outside London by opening an office in Fleet Street and, afterwards, obtaining the use of a private telephone in the House of Commons with a direct line to its London office. Perhaps a reflection of the paper's national outlook, its Glasgow office was not opened until 1872, a year which saw it becoming the first newspaper after the Times to use rotary printing presses.

In 1926, works manager Edgar Smith invented a device that inserted "stop press" news without halting printing presses and, two years later, The Scotsman was the first newspaper to own and operate a picture telegraph system and to telegraph pictures from the Continent and in 1947 led all British newspapers in the use of a mobile telegraph van containing picture telegraph and teletype equipment.

Now in the forefront of information-age newspaper technology, it uses satellites to receive stories and pictures from news agencies and leads in electronic integration of text and colour graphics. It was ahead of the pack in launching an internet presence, which developed into a full newspaper website in 1999 – the first Scottish newspaper to provide such a comprehensive net service, and followed quickly by its sister papers Scotland on Sunday and the Evening News. The Scotsman took the web so seriously that in 2000, Scotsman.com was born – a one-stop point-of-access for Scotland on the internet, and a bold step into the new media of a new millennium.

Another giant leap forward took place on 6 March, 2004 when The Scotsman published a compact edition on Saturdays. On Monday, 16 August the paper "took the plunge" and became compact six days a week.