Over 100 years of the Ross-shire Journal

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The following article appeared in the Ross-shire Journal of 28 November 2016 and is reproduced courtesy of the Editor.

Over 100 years of the Ross-shire Journal

The Ross-shire Journal was founded in February 1875 by Lewis Munro, who was regarded as the prince of printers.

In 1891 he was succeeded by W H Spence (1891-1892), a Morayshire man who went on to join the Daily Telegraph. The third editor, Donald Robert Hendry (1892-1898), was born at Achterneed and subsequently resided at Maryburgh and Ardross. He passed away very suddenly at the age of 27.

On August 23, 1998, the Watt family completed over a century of commitment to the Ross-shire Journal – an association that began in August 1898 when David Watt senior became the fourth editor. He started his career with the Montrose Standard and at just 19 years old was appointed editor of the Fraserburgh Herald.

David Watt senior passed away in August 1949 after 51 years at the helm of the Ross-shire Journal. His twin brother Norman took over the reins and when he passed away in 1966 he had given over 53 years’ service to the paper.

David Watt junior and Alistair (Bodgan) MacBeath shared editorial duties for the next 17 years, although Bodgan had been with the Ross-shire Journal for a record 55 years, having joined as an apprentice Linotype operator before developing his journalistic skills.

In the early years the newspaper was hand-set and the typesetters, all local folk, had to have a good knowledge of spelling and grammar but, above all, possess some dexterity in handling type.

The coming of the Linotype hot-metal machine to the Ross-shire Journal in 1912 was a godsend. Its operation required skill and mechanical knowledge, and a five-year apprenticeship.  The firm kept abreast of developments in the type-setting and printing world, and the Linotype took precedence until 1988, when the Ross-shire Journal entered the age of the computer. No more is it all “hands to the stone” on a Tuesday and Wednesday making up pages. It is done at the touch of a button more or less.

The content of the paper has changed over the years too. In the past the Ross-shire Journal tended to stay clear of reporting local court cases, leaving it to the nationals. Meetings were reported verbatim, which required a good shorthand speed, and there were of course various sporting events.

When major industrial development came to Easter Ross in the 1970s, the circulation of the Ross-shire Journal rose to 13,000, which was maintained for many years.

Distribution was no problem. Rail and bus services were involved and one recalls the days when the week’s production was wheeled to Dingwall’s station on an old hurley to catch the evening train or bus.

With the closure of railway stations by Dr Beeching, the paper invested in what was locally called the “orange box” – an orange coloured mini-van which became a popular feature on Ross-shire country roads on publication day.

Everyone mucked in throughout the week and no job was too menial, with editorial staff becoming quite adept at melting metal or stitching programmes. But all that changed when the trade union came along.

In 1988 the Ross-shire Journal, which had been purchased eight years earlier by present owner Peter Fowler, moved premises from Castle Street to Dochcarty Road.

Since the 1800s the paper had been based in the former Free Church building where the Rev. Dr John Kennedy had held court in the mid-century until he took occupancy of the then new Free Church on the High Street.

Some of the locations in the old building retained their ecclesiastical names. For example, there was the vestry, which housed many samples of the Ross-shire Journal’s work over the years, including tourist brochures for the county.

Staff made full use of the various parts of the old church while it was the home of the Ross-shire Journal.

During the Second World War, one member of staff kept a flock of hens in the back yard.

The loft was also used to house a range of animals over the years, including ferrets and pigeons. The mass of pure guano that built up was something else. In fact, it provided a staff member who had an interest in gardening and flower show competitions with excellent compost!

Another staff member made use of the furnace area of the building for drying his clothes after an early morning goose-hunting expedition. In those days the furnace was subject to severe flooding at high tide and a pump was in regular use.

The editorial sanctum was based in Dr Kennedy’s session house, from which there was a strategic view all along Castle Street, so no one escaped the eagle eye of the editor.

The old Ross-shire Journal had its share of ghosts, as David Watt senior recalled in one of his popular “looking back” columns in May 1948.

He wrote: “For the half century I have occupied the session house – and, incidentally, warded off the ghost that was believed to stalk the ground floor of the printing works – I have never seen the ghost.

“Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the machine workers, while engaged in printing and binding one of Lady Aberdeen’s temperance magazines, Onward and Upward, claimed they had seen a ghostly figure. They all stampeded out of the building, not halting to stop the running machines! A logical explanation is that with much glass about the big room the stampede cast a shadow before them.

“Only once have I experienced a sensation. A strange sound echoed through the building: the ghost rushed out the door, banging it behind!”

No ghostly perambulations were recorded in the closing years the Ross-shire Journal occupied the premises.

The Castle Street building later performed various functions. At one stage it had been used as a granary, but towards the end of the 19th century it was purchased and adapted as a printing works by the Ross-shire Printing and Publishing Company

The old building was destroyed by a fire a year or two later. Now on the site stands an imposing new structure which has retained much of the architectural features of the old.

In fact, on a winter’s evening in the gloaming it bears an uncanny likeness to the old building when the lights burned the midnight oil as that week’s issue was “put to bed”.

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