BBC documentary to chart 200 years of The Scotsman

Ex-Scotsman journalist Andrew Marr takes part in the new documentary The Paper Thistle: 200 Years of the Scotsman.
Ex-Scotsman journalist Andrew Marr takes part in the new documentary The Paper Thistle: 200 Years of the Scotsman.
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For nearly two centuries it has been reflecting the changing face of Scotland and reporting the events that have shaped the nation.

Now the full story of The Scotsman is about to be told in a major new television documentary ahead of its 200th anniversary later this month.

The BBC Scotland film, The Paper Thistle, will go behind the scenes at the newspaper’s headquarters in Edinburgh and explore its vast archive.

Current and former journalists relive their experiences of the newsroom. The impact of long-serving editors, major stories, industrial disputes, reporters’ rebellions, managerial shake-ups and new technology are all featured.

The documentary, to be shown on Tuesday, recalls how the trial of Burke and Hare, the sinking of the Titanic, the Dunblane shooting, the Lockerbie disaster, and the miners’ strike were reported.

The Paper Thistle looks at how the paper has been at the heart of the debate over the nation’s future for more than a century, exploring the controversies over its support for devolution in the 1970s and opposition to Scottish independence in 2014.

BBC broadcasters Andrew Marr and James Naughtie, Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, and award-winning sports writer Hugh McIlvanney are among the former Scotsman journalists to appear.

It recalls when the paper was launched by Fife solicitor William Ritchie and East Lothian customs official Charles Maclaren in frustration with what they called the “unblushing subserviency” of local newspapers to the establishment.

Glasgow University media historian Dr Alex Benchimol said: “It announces itself as an insurgent newspaper. Its claims of firmness, independence, impartiality are in a way intended to highlight how the other newspapers of the time were not like that. If you read through the first ten or 15 years it is a very idealistic, crusading newspaper.”

The documentary recounts the shock for readers when The Scotsman abandoned a long-standing tradition of devoting its front page to classified advertising, which ran from 1831 to 1957, and its proud role as a “newspaper of record,” maintained until the mid-1990s when Magnus Linklater became editor.

Recalling being asked if the tradition would be upheld, he said: “My immediate answer was no. I remember the intake of breath from the assembled company. I thought the newspaper ought to be campaigning, investigating, and reporting in-depth. That was far more important.”

The documentary features recollections of the hard drinking culture, the bitter disputes, the lingering sounds and smells, and the colourful characters of iconic former offices on North Bridge, which operated from 1902 until 1999.

Alan Taylor, former managing editor, said: “The building lent itself to people being able to disappear. We had people who had separated from their partners but were actually living in the building and people who had retired but used to come into work every day.”

Among the former editors recalled fondly in the documentary was Eric Mackay, who was at the helm from 1972 to 1985.

James Naughtie said: “Eric Mackay came from the north-east. I always think of him being hewn from a granite quarry. He had a solidity and a kind of immovability that was remarkable. My goodness, he cared about that paper and he knew every word that appeared in it.”

Long-serving reporter Robbie Dinwoodie, who covered the Troubles for the paper during the Mackay era, said: “It could get quite hairy. This was real seat of the pants stuff. It was a notebook and a pen, there were no mobile phones. It was great and it was exciting.”

The documentary explores the experiences of female journalists breaking into a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Recalling a visit to Scotland from then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former reporter Julie Davidson said: “She swept into the room and sat down. I seem to remember I was the only woman at that press conference. I eventually put up my hand and asked her: ‘what do you think about the current movement for women’s rights and should there be women in the House of Commons.

“She said: ‘I hate the expression women’s lib’ - which I’d never used - and went on to denounce it because it made women who stayed at home bringing up their children feel inferior. She kind of cut me short and said: ‘Enough of that - we’ll bore the men.’”

Lesley Riddoch, who came up with the idea of renaming the paper ‘The Scotswoman’ in 1995, said: “The guys upstairs were noticing that women readers were pealing away from The Scotsman. They concluded that they needed to do something but didn’t know what it was.

“Sitting on an editorial board of 13 people, of which I was the only woman, it seemed kind of obvious to me. Eventually one day I cleared my throat and said: ‘what about this idea?’ To my astonishment, at least half the guys on the board agreed to it straight off.”

Ruth Wishart is among those to recall one of the most troubled periods in The Scotsman’s history, when staff were locked out at the height of a dispute with management in the 1980s.

She said: “I had a choice to make because I was technically editorial management. I guess I thought it was a better class of people on the picket line.

“I remember standing outside the staff entrance to The Scotsman the first time I had been designated to be one of that day’s pickets.

“Up the streets came a number of people who worked for The Herald who lived in Edinburgh and were coming home off the train. As they passed they pressed bottles of drink into our hands as a nice gesture of solidarity.”

The documentary explores the turbulent tenure of Andrew Neil as editor-in-chief for a decade from the mid-1990s, when the paper went through eight editors, took an anti-Establishment stance and was fiercely critical of the new Scottish Parliament.

Fraser Nelson said: “He basically asks his staff to jump to the moon. You kind of think: ‘That’s crazy, you can’t jump to the moon.’ But you ending up jumping higher than you ever thought you could jump.”

However Alan Taylor said: “He (Andrew Neil) was just a guy in a hurry. That wasn’t going to work in Edinburgh, which has a fantastic ability to be resistant to anything somebody wants them to do if they don’t want to do it.”

Recalling her many bosses, Alison Gray, the current magazines editor and one of the longest-serving journalists on the staff, said: “We’ve had very shouty editors, we’ve had less shouty editors, we’ve had calmer ones, we’ve had mad ones.”

Ian Stewart, the current editor, reveals how he agonised over the stance The Scotsman should take over Scottish independence, eventually opting to argue against separation.

He said: “I gave it a lot of thought. It wasn’t my position, it was The Scotsman’s position. You are trying to maintain the authority and the credibility. I’ve never felt it more than I did that night.”

Looking towards the future, Andrew Marr says: “There is a view of the world in Scotland which is different from the view of the world in Manchester, London or Paris. It’s incredibly important that Scotland has voices in print which represent the best of Scottish thinking and the best of the Scottish world view. That in my view ought to be The Scotsman.”

The documentary will be aired on Tuesday 17 January on BBC Two Scotland at 9pm. The 200th anniversary of The Scotsman is on 25 January.