This newspaper is the latest in a line of “Mercuries” that began on 31 December, 1660, with the launch of Mercurius Caledonius – arguably Scotland’s first newspaper.
Written and edited by Thomas Sydserf, the son of the Bishop of Galloway, it was royalist in tone, but irreverent always. Sydserf was a playwright known as the “comedian” and his newspaper lives up to his moniker, written as it was with flare, panache, wit and a little bit of the burlesque. Set up to distribute “the affairs now in agitation in Scotland with a survey of Forraign [sic] intelligence” the newspaper brought reports from London papers, much of it of questionable interest to his Scottish audience, but also contained home and parliamentary news.
Sydserf, like most good editors, was not afraid of a fight and his provocative sketches and reporting quickly landed him in very hot water. He offended the establishment, and when his constant irreverent criticisms came to the attention of Charles II, then the writing wasn’t so much on the printing press, as on the wall.
After only twelve editions the paper was suppressed, and the good name Mercurius abandoned for a time.
After a gap of nearly sixty years, the Caledonian Mercury was launched in Edinburgh on 28 April, 1720. It was set up by an Edinburgh lawyer, William Holland, although within nine years it had transferred into the hands of Thomas Ruddiman, a Latin grammarian and publisher. Like the Mercurius, this paper also reproduced content from London papers, which in turn covered news from abroad.
The front page of the paper set out the stall for this second iteration of the “Mercury”, letting its readers know that they could expect “a full, faithful and impartial Account of the News taken from the English and Foreign Prints and also from the Letters written to them from their Correspondents”.
The paper also promised to take “particular care” to insert speeches or papers that were valuable whilst promising “all imaginable impartiality”.
This was all yours for the yearly subscription of 15 shillings, delivered to your door three times a week “just a few hours after the arrival of the post”.
Like all new businesses it took a few weeks for the revenue to kick in, but by June the paper was carrying a page full of adverts covering the usual range of land and goods sales.
The Caledonian Mercury ceased in 1867 and this most ancient of Scottish press names might have been forgotten. But it was too good a title to resist which is why Stewart Kirkpatrick chose it for this, the third iteration of Caledonian Mercury:
“The Mercurius Caledonius was the first Scottish newspaper,” says Kirkpatrick, “and as Scotland’s first truly online newspaper we wanted to lay claim to the heritage of journalistic innovation.”
And so it is that Scotland’s oldest newspaper is re-born as Scotland’s newest. It is fitting, therefore, that we take as our motto, that of Thomas Sydserf. In his February edition in 1661, he revealed his mission statement after he was leaned on particularly heavily by members of the establishment.
Typically for a playwright, he looked to Cicero when he declared: “Ne quid false dicere audeas, ne quid veri non.”
And we here today also promise to you our readers “to assert no falsehood and to hide no truth”.