The Buteman: all the news from Bute for 158 years

The print works at The Buteman's former home in Rothesay's Castle Street in 1954, on the occasion of the paper's centenary. Those pictured are Robert McLay, Bertie Grant, May McKenzie, Tommy Reynolds, Dick Bainbridge and Donald Currie.
The print works at The Buteman's former home in Rothesay's Castle Street in 1954, on the occasion of the paper's centenary. Those pictured are Robert McLay, Bertie Grant, May McKenzie, Tommy Reynolds, Dick Bainbridge and Donald Currie.

To mark The Buteman’s 158th birthday on December 13, here we publish an updated and extended version of an article which first appeared in our 150th anniversary issue in 2004...

The idea of a local newspaper for the island of Bute and the surrounding areas was not new in 1854. In fact, when the first issue of The Buteman (or, to give it its full title, The Buteman, A General Advertiser for the Western Isles) was published on December 13, 1854, local people might have been forgiven for being less than overwhelmed.

In fact, they might well have seen it with outright scepticism. The Buteman was not the first attempt at a newspaper for the island; R.D. Whyte, in a lecture to members of Buteshire Natural History Society on The Buteman’s 95th birthday on December 13, 1949, stated that that honour belonged to The Rothesay Advertiser and Literary Journal, although five years later The Buteman’s own centenary issue claimed that the Rothesay Mail came first.

Yet another account of the early days of newspapers on the island appeared in The Buteman’s golden jubilee issue in December 1904, when one of the paper’s founders ascribed the first attempt at journalism to one Samuel Girdwood of Kilmory, creator of The Bute Record of Rural Affairs, a journal intended for the use of farmers and published by Rothesay’s only printer, Alexander Anderson.

The first general newspaper for the island, however, was The Rothesay Advertiser and Literary Journal, first published on May 29, 1847 - it was printed in Greenock and lasted only four issues. Later still, The Rothesay Journal and General Advertiser for the Western Isles, a monthly publication, ran from June 1852 until December 1853 and was published by Rothesay bookseller John Wilson, but printed in Glasgow.

All, however were short lived, so the local reading public could have been forgiven for a touch of scepticism about the new title’s chances of surviving. Nor were The Buteman’s chances helped by the publication, on the very same day as the first issue, of yet another new newspaper, The Buteshire Advertiser and Rothesay Monthly Gazette, published by A. and W. Clerk of 27 Montague Street. This, however, would only last one issue, a fact that wouldn’t have done much to persuade islanders that The Buteman’s chances were any better. A laminated copy of this rival newspaper is now held at the Bute Museum.

A government tax on newspapers didn’t make it any easier to establish new titles - described by its opponents as “a tax on knowledge”, this had been as high as fourpence in the early part of the nineteenth century, although it had fallen to a penny by 1836 and was abolished in 1855.

But at least two newspapers from further afield - The Campbeltown Journal and The Dumbarton Herald - had thought it would be worthwhile to try and establish a Rothesay connection, although one of The Buteman’s founders later noted, rather sniffily, of the former title that “appreciating the inspiration the distilleries of that ancient town afforded, it was hardly the source from which intellectual aspirations could be fed”!

The interest from other titles in the area, along with the repeated attempts to start up newspapers on the island, meant the appetite for local news was definitely there.

At least, that’s what a group of young men from the Rothesay Young Men’s Literary Association felt. James McIndoe, John Thom, D. Macbeth, Robert McFie, John Orr and John Gillies were all agreed that there was a need for a newspaper printed and published in Rothesay, and set about finding out how to establish it.

That idealistic group of six young men did not last long. Orr was attracted by the Australian gold-fields; Gillies likewise crossed the globe, this time to New Zealand; and Thom died, leaving the trio of McIndoe, Macbeth and McFie to shoulder the burden on their own.

The three young men did not rush headlong into their new venture with their eyes completely shut - McFie was taught some of the more important aspects of the trade by Glasgow publisher Dr John Blackie at his Villafield printing works, and it was McFie, as a result of this education, who became The Buteman’s first ever editor.

Today’s paper rolls off the presses in less than half an hour. The Buteman’s founders discovered that Mr Anderson, printer of that very first Bute newspaper so many years before, was unwilling to shoulder the commercial risk of the new venture, and a hand-press capable of two hundred impressions every hour - technology already some 60 years old - was the best the fledgling business could manage. At that speed, printing The Buteman today would take some 16 hours - and an awful lot of elbow grease!

In addition, a stock of type and ‘other necessary plant’ had to be purchased for the paper’s first home at number 23 in Rothesay’s High Street - round about where the Clydesdale Bank is now. But the faith of those six young men was well founded; in McIndoe’s words, the new paper, with McFie as editor, a single competent compositor as the only full-time staff member and a small army of willing assistants, was “hailed with acclamation” by the local populace. So much so, in fact, that it took two days to print enough copies to satisfy local appetite for the new title!

The first issue had four pages, each twenty-two and a half inches by seventeen and a half inches, containing a total of sixteen columns, each of fifteen and a half inches in length. It cost twopence; a price reduced to three halfpennies a few years later, then, with the removal of the ‘taxes on knowledge’ previously mentioned, the price came down to the popular penny.

The news in the paper’s early issues was a much greater mixture of local and general items than The Buteman covers today. The first issue, for example, included the Queen’s Speech, read in Parliament the previous day, while that and subsequent issues carried the latest updates from the Crimean war - far from an unusual occurrence for local papers of the day - and a translation of the text of the Charter of Confirmation, granted to the Burgh of Rothesay by King James VI in February 1584, provided a rich source of copy for Robert McFie 260 years later.

Advertisers included Mr Hicks, the chemist, looking for an apprentice; James Black, draper, “respectfully intimating that his stock of winter clothing is at present well assorted”; and Donald McMillan, cabinet and chair maker, of Bishop Street, “begging to solicit a share of Public Patronage”.

Among the local news items are brief reports of the town council, the Presbytery, the Agricultural Society and the Patriotic Fund Committee; a report of a downturn in trade at the Broadcroft factory; grumbles about public wells and the Literary Society; an extract from a letter from New Zealand, written by “a gentleman lately holding an official appointment in this town” (probably Mr Gillies, the town clerk); and articles on the Chapelhill and on the New Year, the latter denouncing the drinking customs prevalent in Rothesay at the festive season.

“Temperance festivals will be abundant throughout the land,” wrote McFie, under the psuedonym ‘Common Sense’, encouraging readers to “flee to the city of refuge and there, by thy precept and example, put down the drinking customs of this land.”

He continued: “We rejoice that such a change has taken place in public sentiment; a few years back and the bottle was the boon companion and first footing a general habit; now, however, thousands have abandoned it, the bottle and all its accompaniments has at last been ditched upon an inclined plain, down which it is doomed to descend, and become numbered among the things that were.”

The earliest years of The Buteman were not without times of trial and stress. At first, the community showed a collective dislike of the concept of advertising - the island’s traders must have seen the idea either as somewhat vulgar or, as was remarked in the golden jubilee issue of 1904, were “too penurous and canny to invest their money in an enterprise in which they did not receive goods in bulk in exchange”!

Many column inches in the early issues were given over to what McFie and his colleagues saw as ‘The Wants of Rothesay’. These included a thoroughly equipped public Academy, a public park and promenade, a popular public library, “a reforming school for the overweening youths” and a proper public water supply for the town.

“Let not our readers stand aghast at the mention of these positive wants in our Burgh,” he wrote. “We hope to see the day when they shall all be realised, and towards their furtherance our efforts as becomes a Buteman shall be at all times directed.”

The question of a public water supply was a particularly important one in 1850s Rothesay. The town was supplied at that time by a few spring wells, scattered here and there, and when these gave out - as was not uncommon at the time - the townsfolk’s only recourse was to the waters of the Lade. Repeated attempts to persuade Rothesay Town Council to take the lead in attempts to establish a public supply had fallen on deaf ears, but this didn’t stop The Buteman championing the cause at every chance it got - a position which finally bore fruit with the formation of the Rothesay Water Company Ltd.

However, the most controversial Rothesay improvement in the second half of the 19th century was the proposed reclamation of some of the seashore to provide the town with a proper frontage. In 1854, the front of Rothesay ended where Victoria Street is now - it wasn’t until the 1870s that the area on which the Esplanade is now sited, then home to coal piers and boat yards, was reclaimed and filled in. And it was a controversial scheme too, which The Buteman attracted severe criticism for supporting.

“The cause which The Buteman espoused was not popular,” admittted its then editor, W.A. Wilson, in 1904, “but this journal has never set its sails to catch the passing breeze.

“We were convinced that the policy we then advocated would promote the best interest of the town, and being so convinced, we did not deviate one hair’s breadth from the course which we saw it was our line of duty to pursue.

“Looking back, who that took part in the opposition to that great improvement - the beginning of Rothesay’s later prosperity - will defend the course they then took? The industries which Rothesay even then possessed are gone, and gone forever.

“The future of our Royal Burgh lies in the development of its natural resources, with the addition of every attraction which the ingenuity of man can devise to bring people to our shores, and keep them in our midst as long as possible.

“The policy of the sagacious men we have alluded to saved the burgh from ruin, and this was only accomplished by the union of many of the best and most influential men of both political parties.

“It would seem as if in days gone by every improvement in Rothesay was destined to be opposed, and as if it were the special duty of The Buteman to advocate them. But there is nothing which The Buteman has done during the fifty years of its existence which should give more satisfaction to the community than the part it played in that Titanic struggle.”

Elsewhere, on the question of the education of the island’s youth, Rothesay Academy was established in 1890, thanks in no small measure to the bequest of local figure Duncan Thomson, whose name adorns many of the school’s end-of-year prizes for academic achievement to this day.

Interestingly - though probably not surprisingly - complaints about the arrogance and presumption of the day’s youth were as common then as they are now, and will probably still be so in another 158 years’ time!

So involved was McFie in every stage of the production process that the paper and all its belongings soon became his own property. But his time in control of the enterprise was to be relatively short-lived - he died on December 22, 1861, aged just 34.

His obituary appeared in The Buteman six days later - although in that same issue, a great deal more space was given over to reporting the death of Prince Albert! Complete with a plug for the paper - of which McFie would undoubtedly have approved - it read as follows.

“Death, ever busy, has taken from among us Mr Robert McFie, the Proprietor and Editor of this Journal from its commencement seven years ago.

“On Sabbath last, while in his own room, about one o’clock p.m. he was seized with illness which proved fatal, notwithstanding every effort of medical aid.

“He was in his 34th year and leaves a widow and young family. The Buteman will be continued in the meantime for their benefit under the practical management of Mr William Wilson, who has been foreman in the office for several years.

“It is hoped that it will meet with the generous support of the public and that subscribers and contributors will lend their aid in an increased degree.”

After McFie’s death in 1861, the Wilson family enjoyed a connection with The Buteman lasting some 40 years. William managed the enterprise until 1908, then his son Joseph D. Wilson took charge for the next five years. Under the father’s ownership, the enterprise grew steadily and continuously, on editorial, advertising and commercial printing fronts - developments which required moves first to a place known as Moodie’s Court, then to 11 Montague Street, and finally to the premises at 10 Castle Street which were to remain The Buteman’s home until the spring of 2002.

One of the most important developments under the Wilsons’ leadership was the move to mechanical composition - part of Mr Wilson’s continuous quest to take advantage of improved production methods. Such was his success in building up the business that he was treated to a public banquet in the Bute Arms Hotel to mark the paper’s golden jubilee!

The Buteman became a limited liability company in 1913 - the same year in which the Wilsons’ ownership came to an end - and Charles M. Stevenson, then the editor of the Paisley Gazette, was appointed both editor and manager of the business. At the same time the company bought the Rothesay Chronicle, which had been started in 1864 by a John C. Harvey and had its premises in Watergate, just yards from The Buteman’s office.

Stevenson died in 1936, editorship passing to his wife Janet - though the family link to the paper is still alive today, almost a hundred years on, through our reporter Karen Keith, the Stevensons’ great-granddaughter. But the strength of The Buteman in a still competitive local newspaper market was underlined when the directors of The Buteman Ltd joined forces two years later with M. Mackenzie and Son Ltd, the publishers of the Rothesay Express, first printed in 1877, to form Bute Newspapers Limited.

Both newspapers continued to be published every week - the Express on a Tuesday, The Buteman on a Friday - under the management of John Mackenzie, and both survived the economic hardship of the Second World War. But the publication of two entirely separate newspapers a week by the same company, under the leadership of one man, didn’t last much longer - in 1951 the scarcity of paper and relentlessly rising production costs finally forced the inevitable amalgamation of the two titles into a single newspaper, published every Friday and entitled The Buteman and Rothesay Express, eventually shortened once again to The Buteman.

John Mackenzie was to continue the tradition of long-standing ownership of The Buteman - in fact, his tenure lasted until the mid-1970s, by which time he was well into his eighties. Mr Mackenzie’s experiences in journalism both in Bute and in Canada - where he spent several years as a young man - inspired him to write a book, entitled Country Editor, copies of which can still be read at Rothesay Library.

Another local figure who was to develop a long-lasting relationship with The Buteman and its readers had been taken on as a sort of general dogsbody in the Castle Street office on December 20, 1940. So keen was Donald Currie to enter the printing trade that two members of the Education Committee of Bute County Council had to be persuaded to vote in favour of his being allowed to leave school early to take up the vacancy!

Donald started at the bottom, but soon worked his way up the career ladder in the printing side of the business. After a three year spell in the army, serving in Egypt, North Africa and Italy with the Sixth Armoured Division, Donald returned to civilian life to take up his trade as a compositor, his expertise eventually ensuring that he succeeded Dick Bainbridge as foreman of the printing shop, before becoming its manager.

The sudden death of The Buteman’s editor John Noddings on June 15, 1983 saw Donald forced into a swift change of roles - where he had previously been in charge of printing the paper, he now became its editor. It was a role for which he may not have been trained, but for which he turned out to be well suited, for there were few on Bute who could match Donald’s knowledge of the island and its people.

His was also a steady hand, guiding the newspaper through some difficult days. As time and technology marched on, the economics of printing the newspaper in Rothesay had become less and less sustainable, with new machinery tightening its grip on the printing industry. The print works at the Castle Street office had rarely been quiet - they did everything from books to business cards - but local government reorganisation in 1975 took away a rich source of contract printing.

The paper’s printing equipment had been rather antiquated for many years before a major breakdown in 1980 forced the directors of Bute Newspapers Ltd to move printing away to a location on the mainland. But far from putting the paper on an even financial keel, this move only made the company’s position more precarious - and in April 1981 shocked readers discovered, in front page banner headlines, that the directors planned to put the company into voluntary liquidation.

The directors insisted that this need not mean the end of The Buteman itself but, reading between the lines of the paper’s own coverage at the time, it seems clear that this was its darkest hour. Some months later, after a good deal of hand-wringing and offers for the business from all over Scotland and beyond - there were even reports of an offer from Canada! - the decision was taken to transfer the entire shareholding of the company to Goldenbolt International, a company based in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, who had interests in a number of areas, including the provision of scheduled helicopter flights between Glasgow and various Argyll locations through another subsidiary, Burnthills Aviation.

Very soon after the Goldenbolt takeover, printing was moved to the offices of Orr, Pollock & Company in Greenock - then owners of the Greenock Telegraph - and the method of web offset printing was adopted, then cutting edge technology in the newspaper world.

By the early 1990s, though, the process of putting the paper together seem absurdly complicated by today’s standards. Contributed articles were sent by fax to the Glasgow offices of The Jewish Echo, where they were set into columns before being sent off to the Greenock Telegraph. There, on a Thursday morning, Donald Currie - having travelled across from Rothesay that morning - would lay out the columns of type across the paper, and there would be time for only the most cursory proof reading before The Buteman’s ‘slot’ on the Telegraph’s presses.

The computer revolution hit The Buteman in 1992, when the purchase of two Apple Macs meant the entire process of compiling the paper - everything apart from printing - could be brought back ‘in-house’ to Castle Street, a process which continues to this day at our current premises in Victoria Street. And it was no bad thing either, because The Jewish Echo was soon to go to the wall, and the Greenock Telegraph compositor whose job it was to lay out The Buteman’s pages was made redundant in a further round of staff cuts driven by the march across the newspaper industry of new ways of working.

The next change in the paper’s ownership came in November 1997, when Score Press, the newspaper division of Scottish Radio Holdings, paid Goldenbolt £300,000 to acquire the entire share capital of Bute Newspapers Ltd. Printing was moved to the home of another SRH subsidiary, the Montrose Review, ending a long-standing link between Greenock and newspapers on Bute which went back far further than the birth of The Buteman.

Donald Currie had fallen ill in March 1996, and saw the change of ownership as the ideal opportunity to step down from the company with which he had been associated for more than half a century. He stayed on for a few months to ensure the transition was as smooth as possible, eventually leaving in March 1998. Sadly, his retirement was to be short; he died almost exactly five months after vacating the editor’s chair, but he is still remembered fondly by many members of the Bute community.

Soon the whole operation came under the aegis of Angus County Press, another local publisher in the north-east of Scotland which had also been acquired by SRH, and The Buteman became one of around a dozen papers printed regularly at the Forfar-based company’s print works.

Scottish Radio Holdings sold all its newspapers to the Johnston Press group in the summer of 2005, as part of a deal which saw all its famous radio stations, including the likes of Radio Clyde and West Sound, sold to the Emap publishing group. Printing was moved in April 2006 to Johnston’s Scottish regional print works in Falkirk, and later to Edinburgh and then Sunderland, and the paper now rolls off the presses at the Newsquest company’s plant at Cambuslang on the outskirts of Glasgow.

Today, of course, news is about much more than newspapers, and we now publish all the latest news from Bute seven days a week on this website, as well as keeping readers up to date via Facebook and Twitter - both fantastic tools for interaction with our readers, with numbers of Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers steadily increasing as more and more people recognise that The Buteman is much more than a weekly newspaper alone.

Bute Newspapers Ltd had finally ceased to exist in late 2002, shortly after the link with the Castle Street premises was severed. The redundant printing machinery was disposed of for scrap, having gathered dust in the back shop since its closure in the early 1980s, and with no need for all that surplus space it was decided to move to one of the office units forming part of a brand new development in Victoria Street, the paper’s sizeable archives being split between Rothesay Library and the Bute Museum since there wasn’t enough room at the new office.

Our present home may not resound to the clank of machinery or have the evocative smell of printer’s ink in the air, but it is equipped with all the modern facilities necessary to keep producing The Buteman every week - and this it will continue to do, for as long as you show your continuing enthusiasm for “our little news-sheet”, as Robert McFie called it in 1854. What might he have said if he’d been told how the venture started by him and his friends would be doing 158 years and more than 7,700 issues later?