Scotsman 200: A long history and a proud milestone

On this title's 200th anniversary, it's time to celebrate its remarkable story says Donald Walker

The gold leaf plaque bearing the pledge from The Scotsmans Prospectus is refurbished at North Bridge, 1965. Picture: TSPL

After 53,220 editions, over one million pages of newsprint, five offices, nine owners and 26 editors, we arrive today at the 200th anniversary of The Scotsman.

For anyone working here, living up to the standards set during two centuries of this remarkable institution can be daunting. But for readers, The Scotsman is a way of life; part of the fabric of the nation.

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Its distinctive thistle masthead has been at the heart of debate over Scotland’s future throughout that time, and has touched – and at times spiked – Scottish life at all points.

To celebrate the happy occasion, we’re bringing our readers a flavour of the events and times that have shaped The Scotsman since it was founded by Charles Maclaren and James Ritchie with their pledge for “impartiality, firmness and independence” via the great requisites of “good sense, courage and industry”.

The eight-page first edition of The Scotsman, published on Saturday, 25 January, 1817, had a modest run of 300 copies selling at 10d – a small fortune in those days, dictated by a prohibitive stamp duty. Aside from displaying a masthead on the front and having columns of type inside, at first glance there is little comparison with today’s newspaper, but a closer look reveals a forthright editorial column, domestic affairs, analysis of the markets, and a “features” page with literature, poetry, fine arts and drama. And in an opportune link between past and present, the international section (‘Foreign Intelligence’) carries news of the US presidential election. On the back page, there is a display of advertisements – although only literary interests were permitted at that stage – promoting publications such as Encyclopaedia Britannica.

It is, of course, a tall order to try telling the full story of two centuries of endeavour, but this year we will showcase the very best of The Scotsman over the past two centuries, as we take a look at momentous events that have filled its pages while at the same time looking to the future – the torrid start this “seditious rag” only just survived, as it was smuggled into homes; a pistol duel between the editor and a counterpart at a rival title; the newspaper’s evolution from political and literary journal to daily paper with – gasp – front page news; running its own trains to ensure sales around the country; its famous headquarters at North Bridge; a proud history of innovation; the household names who forged their careers at The Scotsman; and those who are here today in the digital age, another pivotal time in this publication’s long history.

The first “big” story The Scotsman carried was the Burke and Hare murder trial, and the newspaper’s reputation was built on covering Scottish affairs and interests with “peculiar attention” yet also giving due prominence to British and global concerns. For example, while momentous occasions such as the moon landings received unprecedented treatment in these pages almost 50 years ago, award-winning coverage of the recent banking crisis demonstrated the newspaper’s core strength.

And in times of achievement, The Scotsman has championed Scottish success stories, from events as varied as Andy Murray winning Wimbledon to University of Edinburgh professor Peter Higgs being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

We’ve learned a lot along the way. The Scotsman was the first to report on the existence of the Ice Age – perhaps the most extraordinary exclusive in the history of newspapers, coming as it did thousands - or millions -of years after the event took place.

But there have been hard lessons too. In April 1912, the first edition of The Scotsman – like other titles – carried early reports of breaking news: “Accident to Titanic – Collision with an iceberg – All passengers rescued.” Just an hour later, the next edition of that day’s paper told a very different story: “Death toll may exceed 1500.”

Those stories, and many others, will be featured as we dip into the great moments in Scottish, British and world history each month, bringing you the events as they were reported in this newspaper.

When the centenary history of The Scotsman was published, the Russian Revolution was about to unfold in spectacular fashion. With a glance towards this changing world, the author’s final word was to consider what lay ahead.

“A hundred years ago we [Britain] had done little more than ‘peg out our claims’ in the great overseas territories which are now homes of daughter nations… to what will the British Empire have grown by the time The Scotsman celebrates its second centenary?”

As The Scotsman marks that 200th anniversary, we hope you will forgive us if we avoid the pitfalls of attempting to predict the future, and join with us in both a celebration of a wonderful milestone for any publication, and a reminder of why, after 200 years, The Scotsman matters today as much as it did in 1817.

Donald Walker is Deputy Editor of The Scotsman