Since The National launched, its support for independence has been derided by critics who labelled it ‘McPravda’. To celebrate the Sunday National’s first birthday, Alex Benchimol argues that, far from being an aberration, campaigning for constitutional change is part of the proud history of the Scottish press

THE newspaper you are reading has its origins in constitutional change and constitutional activism going back to the founding of the Sunday Herald in 1999, just before the first sitting of the re-convened Scottish Parliament, and The National, which was established in the wake of an energised Yes movement following the independence referendum of 2014.

The founding of the Sunday National newspaper in September 2018 at a time of daunting material challenges for the print media is an indication of a continuing popular appetite for constructive debates about Scotland’s constitutional identity, even amid the drip feed of (justifiably) gloomy reports about the ongoing Brexit crisis. It would be a mistake to think that this link between Scotland’s national press and constitutional change is a new phenomenon. Indeed, the origins of a Scottish national newspaper press can be traced right back those tumultuous years before the Union of 1707, when national debate was consumed with issues of economic and political grievance associated with the failed Scottish colonial project in Central America during the late 1690s, and power imbalances with the English kingdom resulting from an earlier Union – the Union of the Crowns – in 1603.

The Edinburgh Gazette, Scotland’s first newspaper of note, was founded in 1699 with a partial subsidy provided by the Convention of Royal Burghs, a key constitutional body responsible for local governance, economic activity and trade in Scotland’s burghs, which included the main cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. The first publisher of the Gazette, James Watson, played a significant role in the early history of Scotland’s newspaper press from his printing house in Edinburgh’s Craig’s Close.

Watson was also a vociferous critic of the constitutional status quo, indicted in 1700 for publishing a pamphlet entitled The People Of Scotland’s Groans And Lamentable Complaints, which was accused by the authorities of advocating for the restoration of a separate Scottish monarchy and a rejection of the Union of the Crowns settlement. He was jailed, fined and sentenced to banishment from Edinburgh for one year by the Privy Council, finding a temporary home in Glasgow’s Gorbals area where he continued to work as a printer.

Watson’s persistence as a printer was largely responsible for establishing a modern national press in Scotland, and he founded the nation’s key early newspapers, including the Edinburgh Courant (1705), the Scots Postman (1708) and the Scots Courant (1710).

These three newspapers were all established during a time of constitutional upheaval and public debate around the 1707 Treaty of Union that, as the historian Karin Bowie has noted, was particularly stimulated by those resisting the incorporating Union model proposed by Scotland’s political elite, and given voice in the context of a Scottish public sphere whose boundaries were expanding, with new possibilities for print media like pamphlets, newspapers and mass expressions of public opinion through print petitioning.

The parallels of this highly politicised multi-media landscape in early 18th-century Scotland with the grassroots social media ecology at the core of the Yes movement during the 2014 referendum are striking, and reminds us that newspapers can thrive alongside other media, like pamphlets and blogs, when attuned to the popular constitutional debates that gave rise to these forms of political communication.

It may be one key reason why a small nation like Scotland, in the past few years, has added three new national print newspapers – The National (2014), The Sunday National (2018) and The Herald on Sunday (2018) – when newspapers across the world in much larger media markets are closing at a rapid pace. The new forms of political communication in early modern Scotland often linked networks of local communities in defence of Presbyterian government embodied in institutions like the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and gave expression to key corporate bodies like the Convention of Royal Burghs through the printing of its addresses about contemporary parliamentary negotiations over the Treaty of Union. These popular interventions, as Bowie has noted, “forced the Court to make key concessions on issues of religion and trade to buttress its majority and reduce public pressure on parliament”.

These concessions essentially established the outlines of Scotland’s distinctive civil society after the 1707 Union, with national church governance, trade, legal and educational systems protected under the terms of the 1707 Treaty. These national institutions, in turn, provided the core readership for the print institutions, including newspapers, which made up Scotland’s 18th-century public sphere, with lawyers, merchants, teachers, academics and ministers as key segments of a literate Scottish public opinion.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Union settlement, James Watson made a case for the revival of a patriotic Scottish print culture to restore the nation’s honour. As King’s Printer in Scotland — a monopoly he shared with the Jacobite bookseller Robert Freebairn — Watson produced his remarkable History Of The Art Of Printing (1713), whose preface provided the first history of the press in Scotland, and where he sought to encourage a new form of cultural nationalism through the improvement of what he called the “Art of PRINTING” in Scotland.

IN an implicit critique of the economic imperatives driving the recent constitutional agreement with England, he stressed the significance of print to repairing Scotland’s wounded national identity after 1707: “We shall have this Honour, which is truly more valuable than immense Sums of Money or opulent Estates, that, for the Glory of our Country, we have retrieved the Art of PRINTING, and brought It to as great Perfection as ever It was here in former Times.”

This patriotic imperative sought to make “print a site for sustaining Scottish identity against the subsuming threat of Britishness”, according to the print historians Stephen Brown and Warren McDougall – a threat materialised for the early 18th-century Scottish media industry in the increasing availability of English news-sheets as a result of the cross-border trade encouraged by the new Union, embodied in the 1707 Treaty’s fourth article.

Watson’s partner in the Scottish print monopoly, Robert Freebairn, took this patriotic call in a more explicitly political direction by publishing the Declaration of the Jacobite Earl of Mar two years later, and activity participated in the Rebellion of 1715, using a captured printing press to publish a partisan report of the Battle of Sheriffmuir.

The early Scottish press continued with its Jacobite inflection through the activities of the Ruddiman brothers, Thomas and Robert, who had associations with Freebairn in early 18th-century Edinburgh. From 1724, the Ruddimans printed the Caledonian Mercury newspaper, a Jacobite periodical founded four years earlier that proudly displayed its political affiliation through the Scottish coat of arms on its masthead for the first 45 numbers. As the print historian Stephen Brown relates, the newspaper “initially found the bulk of its subscribers among those who still opposed the Union”.

In 1729, the Ruddimans took over full control of the newspaper and expanded its coverage of Scottish affairs, as a means both to increase advertising revenue and to appeal more directly to the needs of its domestic readership. The Caledonian Mercury also pursued a partisan political approach to the century’s most severe challenge to the Union of 1707 by providing “an essentially Jacobite gloss to the proceedings” of the 1745 Rebellion, according to the cultural historian Murray Pittock.

Sir Walter Scott gave the newspaper a prominent plug in his famous novel of the rebellion, Waverley (1814), as “the only paper then published north of the Tweed” during the conflict, conveniently omitting the Edinburgh Evening Courant, which was strongly opposed to the constitutional claim of the Pretender.

The partisan approach of the Mercury landed Thomas Ruddiman junior, by then the editor of the newspaper, in Edinburgh Tollbooth in December 1746 for the news-paper’s criticism of British government policy. He died after his release as a result of this incarceration.

James Watson’s patriotic aspiration for the Scottish press took on a different ideological inflection a generation later in the founding of what became the nation’s monthly periodical of record, viewing the Union as a springboard for a project of national improvement to equal the material development of Scotland’s southern neighbour.

This vision was articulated in the preface to the first volume of the Scots Magazine in 1739, where the journal’s conductors declared “for as our labours, so are our wishes employed on the PROSPERITY OF SCOTLAND”. The Scots Magazine was founded by a group of booksellers and printers: Alexander Brymer, William Sands, James Cochran and Alexander Murray. Perhaps fittingly, the firm of Murray & Cochran occupied premises within Craig’s Close in Edinburgh, the same close which James Watson used for his publishing activities earlier in the century.

THE Scots Magazine also echoed Watson’s patriotic vision for Scottish printing in a preface to the 1748 volume of the periodical, which presents the magazine itself as a physical embodiment of the cultural and material improvement it seeks to encourage in Scotland, with the very print used in its pages emblematic of the manufacturing potential of the country: “The kind of encouragement however given to our Magazine, as it does us a great deal of honour, so it has also done some small service to our country.

“For thereby its proprietors have been enabled to encourage, not only the labours of CALEDONIAN pens, but the mechanical manufactures of SCOTSMEN, particularly that curious one of type-founding, an art but lately known in Scotland. Nor can it fail of giving pleasure to every SCOTSMAN, to see our Magazine, which has these two years past been printed on SCOTS types, vie in beauty, as well as correctness, with any work of the same kind produced by the ENGLISH press.”

This explicit material linking of the manufacturing and cultural dimensions of Scotland’s wider project for national improvement brings together printing and literary activity as complementary aspects of the nation’s emergent identity.

In this enterprise the conductors were demonstrating their allegiance to a form of print patriotism first articulated by Watson in the decade after Union, when material and cultural improvement are embodied in the skill, professionalism and innovation printers could provide to the nation.

The conductors of the Scots Magazine affirmed their periodical’s identity as a dedicated vehicle for public debate north of the Border in 1749, arguing that the country’s unique developmental needs require a distinctive national periodical press to both articulate and publicise them: “And tho’ SCOTLAND is but a part of the kingdom of G. BRITAIN; yet as our laws and church-government are different from those of ENGLAND, and as each of the countries requires its peculiar improvements, and has its own branches of trade and manufacture, a SCOTS MAGAZINE, tolerably well managed, must be instructive and entertaining to SCOTS MEN.”

This position was made explicit by the Scots Magazine in the same communication to readers in 1749, when the conductors emphasised the benefit of being headquartered in the Scottish administrative capital, and thus uniquely placed to report on – and facilitate debate within – the institutions of Scotland’s civil society.

“Its being published in the capital,” the conductors wrote, “where the Supreme courts civil and ecclesiastical hold their sessions, and where the other national affairs relating to this country are usually transacted, must give it some singular advantages” over London-based periodicals.

To be an effective vehicle for Scottish constitutional debate it helps for the press to be headquartered in the nation which is the subject of its reports, something perhaps more true today than it was more than 250 years ago, with the presence of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government now firmly established as the primary bodies of Scottish representation and administration.

UNDER the ownership of John Robertson from 1772, the Caledonian Mercury newspaper sustained its patriotic activism from earlier in the century, this time from a Whigp erspective of liberal reform.

In the mid 1770s it gave voice to Scottish criticism of the British government’s conduct of the American crisis, suggesting that Scotland could also challenge unfair taxation and tyranny by renegotiating the terms of the Union in imitation of the rebellious American colonists’ protest at their taxation by a remote and unrepresentative British state.

Continuing with this liberal constitutional activism, the Caledonian Mercury published an innovative series of open letters in 1782 and 1783 by the wealthy Edinburgh burgess Thomas McGrugar advocating widespread reform of the administration of, and representation in, Scotland’s burghs. These “Letters of Zeno”, after the signatory’s classical pseudonym, argued for a re-calibration of Scotland’s ancient patriotic martial identity to fit a new age of constitutional rights in the wake of the American Revolution: “Our ancestors were always distinguished for valour and intrepidity in the field: But I cannot, with equal truth, aver, that they have been often remarked for a love of civil liberty, or for that firm and determined opposition to arbitrary establishments, which truly characterise the patriot “ (CM, 9567, 23 Dec. 1782).

The letters in the Caledonian Mercury also invoked Scottish constitutional reform as a means to equalise Scottish and English rights within the Union: “Why should the Burghs of Scotland be denied a right which is exercised by the Burghs of England?” “The people are the same; their advantages ought to be equal.”

McGrugar, perhaps drawing on the newspaper’s Jacobite heritage, invoked an ancient Scottish patriotic language to bolster the appeal of this project of modern constitutional activism within the Union: “Let us then, Gentlemen, remedy the defects of our civil constitution before it be too late, and when an opportunity invites; lest, by fatal delays, the citizens of Edinburgh, from being the subjects of a free state, be, in time, reduced to the condition of slaves.”

This letter series in the Caledonian Mercury led to a national convention held in Edinburgh in 1784 that proposed an extension of the municipal and parliamentary franchise to all resident burgesses in Scotland, which would have been a considerable democratic advance from the constitutional status quo.

Meanwhile, the Glasgow newspaper press was catching up to its Edinburgh rivals in this project of Scottish constitutional activism. The Glasgow Advertiser – the forerunner to today’s Herald – was founded in 1783 and soon became a key platform for a variety of constitutional reform campaigns.

The newspaper, like the Caledonian Mercury, gave much column space to the civic and parliamentary reform campaigns to improve representation and administration in expanding Scottish cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. After the defeat of a parliamentary motion in favour of burgh (or local government) reform in 1791, the printer and editor of the Glasgow Advertiser, John Mennons, delivered an impassioned defence of the campaign’s goals of constitutional reform.

“The motion respecting the Scotch boroughs has again been lost,” he related to his readers. “One great point, however, has been gained; the House is now pledged to enter into an enquiry on that business as soon as the next sessions begin,” Mennons continued.

“The request of nine tenths of the people of Scotland comes with a powerful claim, and when it is considered that the request is moderate and reasonable, we do not see how their purpose can be defeated by argument at last,” he said, adding that “these are not the times for the exertion of power against argument”.

Mennons’s newspaper continued to support constitutional reform in Scotland and Britain after the French Revolution, being one of the few periodicals to keep its pages open to the voices of Scottish radical parliamentary reformers like Thomas Muir. Mennons did this at considerable personal risk, and was indicted by the High Court in Edinburgh in 1793 for publishing a radical notice from the Partick Sons of Liberty in the Glasgow Advertiser in late 1792.

The recent history of constitutional activism in Scotland’s national press demonstrates how a revitalised public sphere has responded to new political possibilities for re-making national identity in a continually evolving process of self-government north of the Border. But it would be unfair – and historically illiterate – to consider the activities and concerns of Scotland’s national press in the pre-devolution era going right the way back to 1707 as facilitating some kind of Unionist dark age. Indeed, the remarkable history of Scotland’s national press in the century after the loss of its national parliament shows how the terms of the Union were continually debated and challenged within a civil society that had to defend its institutional autonomy while also promoting a distinctive agenda for improving the material well-being of Scotland.

At a time of pressing constitutional debates about the legal and political trajectory of Brexit, the timing and feasibility of a second indyref and, lest we forget, the ongoing accrual of competencies for the Scottish Parliament – all which hold huge implications for Scotland’s future constitutional, material and, indeed, existential identity – the vehicle for public democratic deliberation remains the distinctive cultural space of the national press that was carved out of the settlement of 1707.

Alex Benchimol is senior lecturer in Scottish Romantic Print Culture, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow