News of the Day

On this day in 1803, issue no. 5 of the Ayr Advertiser[1] went on sale. A copy of this issue, held by the South Ayrshire County libraries, is the earliest known surviving issue of Scotland’s first weekly newspaper. It was discovered in January 2015 in an attic in Edinburgh.[2]

Issue no. 5 provides an interesting snapshot of life in Ayr in the Napoleonic period. One article noted that the Ayr races for the season had been cancelled, as “almost every Nobleman and Gentleman is doing duty with one corps or another in defence of the country”.[3]

Charles Somerville McAlester, 12th of Loup, was at this time one of the ‘noblemen and gentlemen’ of Ayrshire. In the 1790s, his father Angus had (with Charles’s consent) resigned the family’s properties in Kintyre into the hands of trustees, to be sold in order to pay off heavy debts – an unfortunate position in which many Highland landowners of this period found themselves. (Most of these properties, after several owners, ended up in the possession of the Glenbarr family.) However, Charles’s marriage in 1792 to the heiress of the Somervilles of Kennox, in Ayr, had restored the Loup family’s fortunes and brought them to live in Ayrshire, where Charles seems to have quickly involved himself in the county’s social set. It is likely that this included maintaining an interest in horse racing, which was very much a part of Ayrshire landed society.

Although horse races had taken place since the 16th century all over Scotland, it was only in 1777, when the racecourse at Ayr was built, that racing really took off.[4] Many races were part of – though not the purpose of – annual local fairs, but racing as an organised sport was controlled by the area’s landowners: the nobles and gentry mentioned in the Advertiser article. These landholders were the only ones whose horses could be spared regularly from the demands of farming, and they also had the influence needed to protect a form of entertainment that did not always meet with approval from some quarters. John Burnett, in an interesting article on this topic, points out that it is no coincidence to find horse racing developing and surviving as a sport in places like Ayrshire and Renfrewshire, which had a large number of landed proprietors, rather than in places like Aberdeen, where this class of people were fewer.[5]

As it happened, however, in 1803 there was little point in holding the races. The Peace of Amiens – a treaty signed the previous year with France – had broken down several months before this, and Napoleon was now gathering his forces and preparing to cross the Channel and invade. The men who were needed to keep the races going – and no doubt many of those who just enjoyed watching them – were all away preparing to protect the country.

On the first of September 1803, Charles of Loup was serving as a captain with one of the corps mentioned in the article, the Ayrshire Militia. This force had been formed from the core of the 7th North British (Ayr and Renfrew) Militia, which had disbanded the previous year with the Peace of Amiens. It was reactivated (and renamed) in January 1803. The militias did not serve overseas, and as we now know, Napoleon never made it to Britain. However, local militias were considered an important part of homeland defence, and the Ayrshire Militia raised in response to the Napoleonic threat was not stood down until 1816.[6] On this day in 1803, they were stationed in Perth, with more important things to worry about than missing the races.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] At this point it was actually the Air Advertiser; the spelling was changed in 1839 (British Newspapers On-line: Ayr Advertiser, accessed 31 August 2015).

[2] South Ayrshire Libraries, “Oldest known Ayrshire newspaper discovered“, South Ayrshire History blog, 10 January 2015.

[3] ibid

[4] John Burnett, “The Sites and Landscapes of Horse Racing in Scotland before 1860” in The Sports Historian, No. 18, 1 (May 1998): 64, accessed 31 August 2015.

[5] ibid, p. 57

[6] Records of the Ayrshire Militia, from 1802 to 1883 (privately printed in 1884; published 2011 by South Ayrshire Libraries).

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