Charles Maclaren, customs official, writer, journalist, duellist, co-founder and editor of the Scotsman newspaper, was born on the 7th of October, 1782.
‘The Scotsman’ was Scotland’s first, truly independent newspaper and, fittingly, it was launched on Robert Burns’ anniversary, Saturday the 25th of January, 1817. It began as a weekly newspaper that had been born out of the frustrations of two determined and opinionated men; Edinburgh solicitor William Ritchie and customs official Charles Maclaren. These two men had felt that there was no public platform for independent, outspoken views and resolved to make their words speak louder through their actions. Their conviction was that something was needed in response to existing newspapers’ “unblushing subservience” to the Edinburgh ‘establishment’. The grand idea was triggered in the minds of Ritchie and Maclaren when City newspapers refused to print, even as an advertisement, a story penned by Ritchie about the mismanagement of the new Royal Infirmary. Their ‘poke in the eye’ response to the good Burghers of Edinburgh was to publish for themselves. And so began ‘The Scotsman’ as a weekly paper, which appeared on Saturdays at a cost of 10d (ten old pence) – including stamp duty of 4d. The paper was formally entitled ‘The Scotsman or Edinburgh Political and Literary Journal’, and it took a Liberal or Whig standpoint and aimed to offer “impartiality, firmness and independence”. It included the following, stirring motto, attributed to Junius, the anonymous contributor to the ‘Public Advertiser’, under its masthead: “This is not the cause of faction, or of party, or of any individual, but the common cause of every man in Britain.”
The opening lines in the first issue ran thus:
“Before proceeding to the ordinary business of our paper, we beg to observe, that we have not chosen the name of Scotsman to preserve an invidious distinction, but with the view of rescuing it from the odium of servility. With that stain removed, a Scotsman may well claim brotherhood with an Englishman, and there ought now to be no rivalry between them, but in the cause of regulated freedom. In that cause it is our ambition to labour; but we must remind our more sanguine friends, that it is impossible in a first number to develop all our principles. Time and change of circumstances afford the only sure tests of human conduct. And it is of much more consequence that we redeem our pledge, as occasions offer, for firmness, impartiality, and independence, than that we should surprise by temporary brilliancy.”
Today, the Scotsman newspaper is a quality broadsheet newspaper that, like its rival, the Glasgow-based Herald, has contributed much to the culture of Scotland. However, back in the 19th Century, it had a few enemies, such as one Scottish lord, who described it as “that incendiary newspaper”. In fact, it had so upset the Edinburgh ‘establishment’ and in particular the indignant members of the Edinburgh Town Council that copies had to be smuggled to certain readers who dared not be seen buying it. ‘The Scotsman’ was the self-declared enemy of privilege and corruption, which it attacked unmercifully and without deviation, and the Councillors, who were described by Lord Cockburn as “omnipotent, corrupt and impenetrable”, were ruthlessly exposed. Maclaren further strengthened the paper's editorial viewpoint by supporting parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation and other national controversies such as the 1843 Disruption over the right of Church of Scotland congregations to choose their Ministers.
The revolutionary newspaper began life as an eight-page, quarto, Saturday journal with a weekly circulation of three hundred copies, but soon interest grew and a Wednesday edition was published. Sales escalated in 1855, when advertisement and newspaper stamp duty were abolished. ‘The Daily Scotsman’ was then published at a price of 1d, with front-page advertisements and a circulation of 6,000 copies. At first, it ‘did the rounds’ only in Edinburgh, but then stagecoaches took copies further afield. Because of high freight charges, few newspapers used railways in those days, but in 1865 the proprietors produced a bold plan. They agreed to guarantee the railway companies greater revenue from carrying The Scotsman alone than they earned from all other newspapers combined. In effect, the paper agreed to pay the carriage so that agents, no matter how remote, could sell it at the published price and make a farthing per copy profit. The ‘Daily’ was dropped from its title when the Scotsman was received throughout Scotland and sales increased to 17,000 a day. Its circulation rose to 40,000 in 1873 and it became, in both spirit and clout, what it remains today; Scotland's national newspaper.
Charles Maclaren was born at Ormiston in Haddingtonshire (East Lothian) on the 7th of October, 1782. He was almost entirely self-educated, but was able to earn himself a job as a clerk in Edinburgh. By 1817, he was a clerk in the custom house and friends with William Ritchie, the solicitor with whom he conceived and launched ‘The Scotsman’. Maclaren acted as the paper’s political editor and later, from 1820 as its full-time, controlling editor. He contributed greatly to the embryonic paper and shaped its policies, supporting reform at home and liberalism abroad. Maclaren resigned in 1845, but during his tenure at ‘The Scotsman’ he also ‘doubled up’ as the editor of the sixth edition (1820–23) of ‘The Encyclopædia Britannica’. Some biographies suggest he also performed editorial services for the 4th, 5th and 7th editions of the ‘Britannica’. Maclaren was the author of the ‘Genealogy of Fife and the Lothians’ and, from 1864 -1866, he was President of the Geological Society of Edinburgh. His services to science were recognised by his election to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Maclaren was not only a courageous man when it came to printing his forthright views, he had the balls to fight a duel. The gunfight at Ravelston involved Maclaren and Dr. James Browne, the editor of the ‘Caledonian Mercury’, whose journalistic attacks had offended Maclaren. The protagonists agreed to meet and exchanged shots, but they both missed and that was that. They parted un-reconciled and without shaking hands. Charles Maclaren thereafter hung up his guns and died peacefully at home in Edinburgh on the 10th of September, 1866.