The journey that brought a local newspaper to life
It was founded by four friends who met at the University of Dundee; Jim Innes, Dave Scott, Jim Wilkie and myself. I might have let the 50th anniversary pass without nostalgia if it hadn’t been for a Facebook post from my old friend, Father Colin Macinnes. “I have often said”, writes Colin, “that the West Highland Free Press has done more to prepare the Islands and the Highlands for the 21st century than any other institution or social force”.
Shortly after, I had a long lunch with the “boys” of Runrig – as we all were then – and the conversation went the same way; the impact of the free press by tackling long dormant issues and embracing, in word and deed, the values of the old Highland Land League summed up in: ‘An Tir, An Canan ‘sna Daoine’.
The story really started on Arran where I had a fringe role in a short-lived newspaper called The Islander when I was a student. This venture failed, but the idea of an island newspaper stayed with me. In those carefree days, the idea offered an attractive alternative to early entry into the more formal job market.
I had edited the student newspaper in Dundee but needed training. I was lucky enough to win a place on Britain’s first post-graduate journalism course at University College Cardiff, run by a great man, Tom Hopkinson, who had been editor of the Picture Post in wartime, then a multiracial magazine in the South. Africa. He greatly encouraged the idea of the free press.
There were only 16 people on the course and the one who became a lifelong friend and great journalist was Donald Macintyre. Don had, or so he said, inherited a small inheritance and put £2,000 into the Free Press. In return, he was named fifth director. It was our only capital.
We placed an advert in the Oban Times looking for premises in Skye – ideally a house that could be used as both a home and an office. There were half a dozen replies but discussions with the first owners didn’t last long, neither the advertised lens nor my long hair lending itself particularly well.
The last option was at Kyleakin; a house near the ferry called Coille Bhurich which had been inherited by two sisters, Kay and Flo Reid. Kay had been matron of Broadford Hospital while Flo was soon to retire as manager of Kyleakin. They had no particular plans for their recent inheritance: a beautiful five-bedroom house.
Best of all, Kay and Flo were politically active as stalwarts of the Skye Labor Party and the Isle of Skye Peace Centre. When I explained the nature of our project, they completely identified with it. The rental conditions were quickly agreed. Stumbling upon a pair of such empathetic women in Skye who had a house to rent was a defining stroke of luck.
We have set a target of the first week of April to launch the journal. There remained, however, the small question of how it would be printed. Investigations around Kyleakin revealed old stable buildings behind the King’s Arm Hotel which were empty and a deal was struck. We knew a printer who wanted to join the adventure and had been duly recruited.
Don’s £2,000 was to be invested in equipment and the printer was responsible for scanning Exchange&Mart for the appropriate purchases. He identified a machine called the Vari-Typer and a small litho press that would produce pages smaller than ideal but large enough to look like a real newspaper.
Gordon the printer, Dave and I set off for an industrial estate in Walthamstow where this almost useless junk was acquired. The Vari-Typer had been a great innovation in its time. Sadly, that time was 1937 when it was introduced to New York as an electronic advance on the typewriter with “the ability to print in a variety of different sized compositions”. It was a heavy machine that slowly produced uneven text, as we were soon to discover.
I set about establishing outlets for the newspaper, having decided that the circulation area should include the Inverness-shire Isles of Harris to Barra. It was only later that we tried to make inroads in Lewis, particularly after the local government reorganization that brought the islands together.
Throughout my college years, I promoted entertainment as a vacationer and it became a source of funding for the Free Press. My first visits to Stornoway were in this role and I used to go to the Gazette office to chat with Donnie Macinnes. One day, Sam Longbotham, managing director of the Gazette, joined in the conversation and asked me what I planned to do after college.
In all innocence, I replied, “I’m thinking of putting together a journal on Skye.” Major Longbotham adopted his full military guise and said, “If you start an article on Skye, we will fight you and we will destroy you.” I was a little surprised but also from that moment determined that the Free Press would indeed be present in all of the Western Isles!
There were many more stores than today and I walked around all of them, looking for orders. A dozen here, half a dozen there. I remember making my sales pitch to the elderly caretaker of the tiny post office in Drinishader. He listened patiently before replying: “My son, the last newspaper we sold here was the Bulletin”. Since this estimable newspaper ceased to exist in 1960, it was not encouraging.
However, like everyone else, he agreed to take a few copies and see how it went. When, a few weeks after publication, Drinishader’s order went from 12 to 15, I knew we had arrived.
Macintyre’s was Portree’s only newsagent and was clearly going to be important. I explained the new diary to Hamish Macintyre. He looked dubious and said, “Okay, send us 100 copies.” Hamish must have seen my face fall and he asked, “Is this sale or return?” “. When I said yes, he came back: “In that case, send as many as you want”. For many years MacIntyre’s sold 1000 copies each week and Hamish paid the bill – often a lifeline – on the spot, without taking a day’s credit.
Meanwhile, Dave Scott was working on the publicity side and getting a remarkably good response. The first issue would feature a full-page ad from our old friends, The Corries, and inexplicably, even in these less regulated times, Benson & Hedges. Advertisers as diverse as the Glenlight Shipping Company and, to my delight, the Conservative and Unionist Association of Inverness-shire joined in the spirit of the launch.
In the stables, however, doubts were creeping in. The Vari-Typer was turning copy into type at an alarming rate via a clattering keyboard. I was focused on assembling the content and it wasn’t until the start of our first week of publishing that I had to face the fact that it just wouldn’t happen if we left it to a print shop assembled on the basis of despair – optimism.
At this point, with a very real chance that the West Highland Free Press will never see the light of day, Jim Wilkie has emerged as the key player with a cool head. He started phoning the printers in Inverness to see if there were any who could help us. Amazingly, he struck gold.
Eccleslitho was a small printing works located in what had been the parish hall of the FP congregation in Inverness and an offshoot of a larger typographical printing works. The companies were run by twin brothers, Donald and George MacAskill respectively. Later, both would become ministers of the Associated Presbyterian Church.
This initial conversation between Jim and Donald ensured a short-term solution. However, it was the longer-term relationship Jim secured that gave the Free Press a future. The deal was that Eccleslitho would do all the work. We would keep the first £100 of income to live on and they would take the rest. It was a surprisingly generous arrangement that allowed us to keep body and soul together while they took all the risk on how much, if any, they would be paid. And everything was done on the basis of trust.
Later it was often written that the Free Press was started with money from the Highlands and Islands Development Board. In fact, I had written to HIDB asking for help but, probably because it seemed so implausible, I didn’t even receive a response (although they later faced political criticism for becoming favorable when the paper moved to its own home in Breakish).
The reality was that the paper started entirely with £2,000, which had been largely used to purchase unnecessary printing equipment and was saved from instant extinction by the goodwill of two free Presbyterian brethren who placed their faith and their faith in a group of long-haired radicals they had only just known about. The Macaskill brothers are high on the list of those to whom I owe a lifelong debt of gratitude.
Free press policy has always been defined by the stories it covers, rather than any ideological mission. It is first and foremost a local newspaper that enlightens and challenges authority. It also fueled other major initiatives which for a time brought issues such as land ownership, depopulation, historical awareness and the future of Gaelic to the fore. These, in turn, drew me into political activism, which eventually gave me the opportunity to do at least something about them.
Fifty years later, the paper still exists, it provides jobs, it has a good-skinned editor Kyleakin who understands what it’s always been. The old order is changing, but it is a set of outcomes that, had they been offered, the Founding Fathers would have seized with both hands. And the need for good local journalism with a radical edge is not diminished.