How The Scotsman broke the story of the Ice Age

A Scotsman reporter was sent in 1840 to follow geologists William Buckland and Louis Agassiz as they visited the Highlands. Picture: Donald Macleod/TSPL
A Scotsman reporter was sent in 1840 to follow geologists William Buckland and Louis Agassiz as they visited the Highlands. Picture: Donald Macleod/TSPL
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Of all the exclusive stories that have been revealed in the history of newspapers, they don’t come much bigger than the discovery of the Ice Age.

In 1840, The Scotsman’s editor, John Hill Burton, sent a reporter to follow geologists William Buckland and Louis Agassiz to the Scottish Highlands. Research by the two geologists found “scarring on the landscape” which could only have been caused by ancient glaciers.

Three years before, Agassiz was the first to propose the Earth had been subject to a past ice age.

He suggested ancient glaciers had not only flowed outward from the Alps, but that even larger glaciers had simultaneously encroached southward on the plains and mountains of Europe, Asia and North America, smothering the entire northern hemisphere in a prolonged Ice Age.

He travelled to Scotland with Buckland to find evidence to back up his theory.

The findings led to an exclusive story published in The Scotsman on 7 October that year, prior to the publication of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which implied that the earth was not created in seven days and that an Ice Age had occurred several thousand years ago. The Scotsman was the first newspaper in the world to reveal this had happened.

“I can’t think of anything of scientific discovery which really changed the whole way you look on the globe and its history, which was revealed in a newspaper,” says Neal Ascherson, the former Scotsman journalist and author of the book Stone Voices – The Search For Scotland. “They [the newspaper reports] are quite difficult to read now but none the less they represent what one would call a scoop of gigantic scale. The Scotsman’s biggest scoop – the Ice Age.”