125 years of the Ross-shire Journal
The following article by Cynthia Rogerson is reproduced courtesy of the Editor.
Cynthia Rogerson celebrates a special anniversary in the history of the Ross-shire Journal’s service to your community.
This is how it began. In the winter of 1875, a serious young man from Invergordon named Lewis Munro ran a printing office on the High Street in Dingwall, on the space now occupied by Somerfield.
That’s right – probably near the spot you stand deciding what cheese to buy, Lewis used to pace energetically, shouting ideas and orders to his terrified young apprentices.
This office offered all sorts of printed products from calling cards and ‘do’ cards, to religious tracts and temperance literature. But Lewis, at 23-years-old, had bigger ideas. He wanted to produce a newspaper for Ross-shire.
There hadn’t been one since the Ross-shire Advertiser, which stopped in 1842. The time was ripe, it was overripe, and Lewis was just the man.
He used his office as a kind of pulpit and conducted worship with his employees every morning for 15 minutes before work began. Each member of staff had to read a verse from the scriptures. In a sense, he was an unordained minister.
On February 19, 1875, his office produced the first Ross-shire Journal. It was larger than the modern version, with up to seven columns, but only four pages long. It cost one penny.
The print on the back side of each page was upside down. Each letter had been chosen and set by the ink stained hands of a compositor and checked over by Lewis.
Imagine Lewis with his men and boys, for there were no women involved, kneeling down and saying an extra prayer this momentous morning. Probably it was snowing and boys were lining up outside, ready to deliver the new paper.
It was a dignified little paper, and did what it proposed to do. It advertised, and quickly became indispensable.
Episode 2 - On the move
If Lewis had secret thoughts of becoming a minister, he must have felt vindicated when later that year, he moved the newspaper to the sanctified premises of the first Free Church in Castle Street. This was where he had worshipped himself under Dr Kennedy.
Lewis had 30 employees now, almost all of whom were involved reporting, writing and setting the type. The procuring of adverts required minimal effort, probably one person, since business did not need wooing. There was no competition.
Lewis’s faith was his driving force, and not just in his office. He held weekly afternoon meetings for young people in Alness, Evanton, Muir of Ord, and the YMCA. On Sundays, he held a meeting at Brae Farm.
He was innovative and invented useful things, like a tapeless folding machine. A trend setter, he was one of the first car owners in the county, and bought the first typewriter in Dingwall. He bought the first safety bike, useful for reporters. A tricycle had been in use before, but had crashed at Bridgend, Alness. Everyone knew him – he was called the Prince of Printers. He devoted himself to enriching his community with information and spiritual guidance.
A charismatic, yet self-effacing man, whose name rarely appeared in the pages of his own paper. He ran the Journal for 16 years, set the permanent tone of neutrality and liberalism, until he died at the age of 45, leaving a wife and family.
The cause of his death is vague – the records simply talk about excessive strain and sincerity, which leads one to conclude he burned up, in a sense, so great was his zeal. Every age has men, and women, like this, and the Ross-shire can partially trace its success directly back to this young man.
Episode 3 - A brief tenure
Lewis must have been a hard act to follow, so maybe it is not surprising the next editor only lasted a year. One can imagine the whispered comparisons and torn loyalties.
W H Spence, from Morayshire, left very little mark on the Ross-shire, though his name will forever reside on the editorial list. He moved south after this brief interlude and worked at the Daily Telegraph in London for 25 years, perhaps shuddering anytime Ross-shire was mentioned.
This was also the year Sir William Bell of Scatwell obtained complete control of the Ross-shire, after previously purchasing the property of the paper, but not the printing plant. Had Lewis held out against the possible tyranny resulting from this transaction? Possibly.
Spence’s successor was Donald Henry. He was born in 1870 in Achterneed, Strathpeffer. He went to Dingwall Academy and was apprenticed in 1886.
Though only 16, he was so unusually able he was promoted to junior reporter in a few months. He was promoted to editor in 1892 at the ripe old age of 22. Donald was largely responsible for the formation of the present company.
Unfortunately, he died at 27 after a brief illness, leaving a wife and family. There are many testimonials to his integrity and vivacious writing. A life that made up for in quality what it lacked in quantity.
A year before Donald’s death, in February 1897, the Ross-shire Journal changed hands again. It was purchased by the Ross-shire Printing and Publishing Co, Ltd, which sounds very like Lewis’s original printing company. And indeed, it had Lewis’s tenacity and remained the owners for 84 years, publishing wedding invitations, booklets, brochures, etc.
Episode 4 - The start of the Watt reign
The next editor was David Watt, of Fraserburgh. Reading about the Watts, one can’t help thinking in terms of dynasties. It was the beginning of more than 100 years of Watt editorial reign.
David, or D. M., gave more than 50 years of service spanning both world wars. The size of the paper grew and shrank according to the current national state. During war time, it was small. Before, between and after wars, it was large. Uncannily, the price only rose by half a penny.
David’s writing style was concise and his editorials were restrained. He kept his opinions mostly to himself and concentrated on providing information and a democratic voice for the people.
He enjoyed writing a popular column called Looking Back, which did just that – a look back on personalities and places of old Ross-shire.
The popular Forty-Four Years Ago column came into being in 1919 at the close of the First World War, on the forty-fourth anniversary of the Ross-shire. Its first compiler was reporter Mr M. D. (Sammy) Revill on his return from the war. He had the idea people’s interest in their own past was one of the things that might ensure the paper’s popularity. A sort of retrospective gossip column. He was right.
This was the Ross-shire’s longest period under one editor, and a large part of its present personality must be a direct inheritance from David. Looking at old copies, I can see it was a steady consistent paper, still heavily an advertiser, leaving the reporting of news to national dailies.
The general tone was eloquent, but never pretentious. If newspapers have golden eras, this might have been one. In the unstable climate of those decades, it must have been like a rock to the community.
Every Thursday, no matter what calamities shook the world (even when David’s eldest son was killed in France), out would come the Ross-shire Journal with all the information and news pertinent to local lives. And, behind it, the steady guiding hand of David Watt.
David died at the age of 82, in 1949, while compiling his weekly Looking Back column.
Episode 5 - Like father, like son
In 1949, the paper was taken over by David’s son, Norman Watt. It was also the year David’s grandson, also called David, joined the paper, having completed his national service. Perhaps not a day lapsed when there weren’t two Watts around the place.
Norman had already worked at the paper for 33 years, since he left Dingwall Academy, and was keen to carry on his father’s regime. He was editor for 17 years, until 1966, and succeeded in keeping the standards high. He was a skilled Linotype operator, renowned for his speed and efficiency.
He ran a tight ship and apprentices learnt to keep their machines clean. The mostly male staff was probably slightly awed and cowed by this strong boss. And yet, it was a good place to work; jobs at the Ross-shire had a certain status, though the money was never very high. Norman’s pride was contagious.
He was regarded as an unusually fine journalistic writer, and had a certain freedom of style. The paper was very readable. His favourite topics were sport and nature, the two loves of his life. A keen hillwalker and enthusiastic sportsman, like his father and son, he was often seen at out-door events, pencil and notebook in hand.
No doubt he had been an invaluable help to his father in running the paper long before he was editor. The Watt father and son had similar values, and must have made a good team.
In 1966, Norman died at the age of 65. The throne was empty and his eldest son David became editor and manager, sharing the position with Alasdair (Bodgan) MacBeath. A new era had begun, and changes were in the air.
Episode 6 - The wind of change
Since 1966, then under David Watt and Alasdair MacBeath, came the Ross-shire’s biggest changes. Like the county itself, the newspaper metamorphosed.
In the next three decades, it went from eight pages, to 16-plus. It went from three old pence to 40 new pence. It shoved the adverts to the back and focused on news reporting. It got colour. It got computers. It had to – it had serious competition and modern technology was essential for survival.
In 1981, it was bought by Peter Fowler, of Glencalvie. In 1988 it moved from the Free Church on Castle Street, which subsequently burned down, to premises on Docharty Road. A new printing press was installed only to be replaced by yet another technological printing miracle in 1998. The editorial staffing remained static while the sales staff grew, from being a predominantly male office, it became predominantly female. It was an exciting, sometimes bumpy, ride.
Of course, the same could be said for the entire community. The oil industry, the smelter, all the imported workers. The changing fortunes of the fishing industry. Sleepy towns like Alness getting 1,000 houses built. Ross-shire, in 15 years, swelled and boomed and crashed and no one knew what was happening.
The paper reflected all this, except it did not crash. It hung on, and every Thursday, Ross-shire residents read about their neighbours. What they were selling, who’d gone to court, who married who, who died and who was born, and what happened 44 years ago. And maybe read about themselves in that column.
Alasdair died in 1982, after 54 years’ service, leaving David to cope with the job alone.
David remained editor until 1991, when Laurence Ford took over. But David, like his father and grand father, still looks up old issues and writes the current version of the Reflections column. Local news never loses its bite.
Episode 7 - Ghosts of the past
A roll of honour of especially memorable staff: Hugh Maclennan – more than 60 years service, beginning with the paper’s birth. ‘A Prince of Compositors’.
Roddy Reid, ‘Big Tom’ Mackenzie, John Stenhouse, Mrs Bessie Dewar, Miss Mary Maclennan, Andrew Davidson and Sammy Revill – all gave more than a half century to the Ross-shire. And the countless, nameless boys and men.
Picture this: In the old church by oil light, a boy turns the wheel which revolves the printing press. A man stands on a box feeding each sheet into the turning wheel, while another boy takes each off at the other end. Shifts of two men at a time caul the wheel, stripped to the waist, sweat pouring. They swig lemonade and stuff Mair’s Ross-shire biscuits into their mouths. Finally, the newspapers are parcelled up and sent down to the station in hired hurleys from Jack’s or Fergusson’s van yards.
“All the hired men and printer’s devils sang sea shanties,” wrote one writer. “Those were happy nights and early mornings.”
So happy, perhaps, one editor could never quite reconcile himself to leaving it? There have been sightings over the years of the ghost of Lewis Munro. In 1948, David Watt wrote: “I have warded off the ghost believed to stalk the ground floor of the printing works, which was seen by machine men as early as the late 1880s or early 90s. There is no doubt that machine workers saw a ghostly figure and stampeded out of the building without halting to stop the running machines. Personally, I have only experienced the sensation once. A strange sound re-echoed through the building. The ghost materialised! It rushed out the door, banging it shut!”
Since that time, Lewis’s ghost was said to wander abroad on occasion, but has not caused any more stampedes.
Members of the current staff at the Ross-shire Journal Attribution: Ross-shire Journal
HRH Prince Charles when he visited the Ross-shire Journal offices last year, joined by Roy Fox, managing director of Scottish Provincial Press, and Ross-shire Journal editor Laurence Ford. Attribution: Ross-shire Journal