The Scotsman at 200: Aspirations now woven into fabric of Scotland

As we mark the beginning of The Scotsman 200 years ago today, Ian Stewart reflects on the past and looks to the future

Journalists at work in The Scotsman's former offices on North Bridge. Picture: Contributed

Today is a very significant milestone in the history of The Scotsman newspaper – the 200th anniversary of the publication of this newspaper’s Prospectus, which set out the intention to publish a new title, the reasons why it was necessary, and the values of this publication’s founding fathers.

We have produced this special supplement to mark the birth of The Scotsman, and give a taste of those two centuries of history since the first edition was published two months after the Prospectus, on 25 January 1817.

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During our bicentenary year, we will be showcasing the best of The Scotsman past in a series of special editions, and looking to the future by bringing a host of new contributors to our pages from a huge range of Scottish life.

The Scotman's front page - a 5.45am special - as Scotland voted for home rule. Picture: TSPL

We will also embark on a year-long multi-platform pioneering project to bring to life the past, present and future of Scotland through the voices of 200 remarkable people who have played a major role in the nation in a series called 200 Voices.

We will also be organising a series of special events to celebrate The Scotsman’s 200th birthday, more details of which will be revealed later.

And a television documentary will be screened in the new year, charting the remarkable story of Scotland’s national newspaper.

We begin with this eight-page supplement to cast a glance back to when it all began.

The Scotsman's front page reporting the Piper Alpha disaster. Picture: TSPL

To give some sense of The Scotsman’s longevity, it is worth considering that the Prospectus was published just a year after the Battle of Waterloo had taken place, Queen Victoria wasn’t yet born, and the extent of democracy was such that the MP for Edinburgh was elected by just 32 people.

On these pages you see a selection of front pages from over the years, marking many of the great moments in recent Scottish history and the momentous events that have shaped the world during that same time – such as man landing on the Moon, the Piper Alpha and Lockerbie disasters, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9/11, and the devolution and independence referendums.

I say “recent” events because The Scotsman kept news off its front page for most of its existence, with the front switching from classified advertising to news and pictures in 1957.

Its introduction was a controversial departure from the long-standing practice of placing classified advertisements on the front, but this transformational measure was entirely in keeping with The Scotsman’s long history of embracing innovation and pushing the boundaries with new technology.

The Scotsman's front page the day after the Dunblane massacre. Picture: TSPL

We also today reproduce the original Prospectus statement from 30 November 1816, which sets out the original principles to shape the newspaper’s philosophy.

The Scotsman has never lost sight of those aspirations, and you will find an extract of that 1816 commitment in every edition of this newspaper to this day, published at the head of our leader articles:

“The Conductors pledge themselves for impartiality, firmness and independence … Their first desire is to be honest, the second is to be useful … The great requisites for the task are only good sense, courage and industry.”

The main reason behind the bold venture embarked upon by William Ritchie, a solicitor from Fife, and Charles Maclaren, a customs official from East Lothian, was frustration with what they called the “unblushing subserviency” of local newspapers to the Establishment.

The moon landings in 1969 made the front page of The Scotsman. Picture: TSPL

The eventual co-editors had tried and failed to persuade existing titles to print a story about the mismanagement of the Royal (then New) Infirmary in Edinburgh. An attempt to highlight the situation by placing an advertisement in the press of the day was also blocked.

Instead, Ritchie and Maclaren set out on their own, knowing that the prospect of their fledgling title surviving was slim – by the end of the 18th century, 70 newspapers, journals and magazines had come into existence in Edinburgh.

Most disappeared very quickly without trace, and in time, The Scotsman outlived them all, with the exception of the Edinburgh Gazette.

It’s fair to say that the founders didn’t make life easy for themselves.

As men of principle, their intention was to fund the newspaper on its cover price alone rather than by carrying advertisements, although an exception was made for a handful of “adverts of a literary character” such as for Encyclopaedia Britannica.

That lofty ambition of rejecting any other kind of advertisement did not last long, as commercial reality hit home.

The Scotman's front page - a 5.45am special - as Scotland voted for home rule. Picture: TSPL

The cover price was also a gamble, at a cost of what would be estimated at around £3 today, a sum which in terms of relative income value would be the equivalent of £50.

At that stage – and unsurprisingly at such expense – The Scotsman was a weekly title, publishing on Saturdays. It became bi-weekly in 1823, up-sized to broadsheet in 1831, became The Daily Scotsman in 1855 when newspaper stamp duty was abolished, dropped the word “Daily” from the title in 1860, brought in front-page news in 1957, reverted to compact size in 2004, and since then has evolved into a highly successful digital product through the website.

And yet it could so easily have been a short-lived affair, and barely a footnote in publishing history.

As if the cover price wasn’t prohibitive enough back in 1817, the Establishment also let the dogs loose after realising its position was under open attack.

It was also rumoured that government spies were tracking where The Scotsman was being delivered to – effectively smuggled into homes – while one Scottish lord told his subjects that he would supply them other titles at his own expense if they did not buy “that incendiary newspaper”.

If the founding of The Scotsman was a time of uncertainty for the “Conductors”, that commercial conundrum paled into insignificance when a war of words – in print – between Mr Maclaren and the editor of a rival publication escalated to the extent that they agreed to fight a duel with pistols at Ravelston Road in Edinburgh.

At 12 paces, the rivals both fired – and missed. I am pleased, if not a little relieved, to report that as the current editorial director of The Scotsman, there has been no requirement to settle differences in such a manner during my tenure. 
At least, not so far.

From such precarious beginnings was built a national newspaper which earned an international reputation, with its distinctive thistle-adorned masthead recognised the world over.

We hope you enjoy this first taste of what is to come, and will join us on the exciting journey of celebration that lies before us.

It is an honour and a privilege for me to continue the work of all the great journalists that have gone before, whose efforts, determination, skills and integrity have resulted in this newspaper becoming a part of the fabric of our nation, a position that I and my colleagues strive to maintain and enhance every day.

It is right that we take this opportunity to celebrate our past, while looking very positively at our future as we continue to play what we see as a vital role in our country, Scotland.

The Scotsman's front page reporting the Piper Alpha disaster. Picture: TSPL
The Scotsman's front page the day after the Dunblane massacre. Picture: TSPL
The moon landings in 1969 made the front page of The Scotsman. Picture: TSPL