Although the Edinburgh Gazetteer was not on sale for long – it was printed in the Scottish capital from only November 1792 until January 1794 – it is immersed in the major, pressing political debates of its time. Produced in the wake of the French Revolution, it is a radical newspaper which offers a valuable lens through which to read the tempestuous Scottish 1790s. As well as reporting on high-profile cases, including the trial and execution of French King Louis XVI, the paper features poetic contributions by Robert Burns; comprehensive accounts of the Scottish sedition trials, especially those of Thomas Muir, William Skirving, Thomas Fyshe Palmer and Maurice Margarot; details of the many contemporary societies for parliamentary reform, including the Friends of the People; and responses to the slavery and abolition debate.

Bob Harris has described the Gazetteer as ‘the main Scottish radical newspaper’, which depicts ‘the recent upsurge in radical activity in Edinburgh’.[1] While Harris’s analysis of the Gazetteer‘s reporting of events in France demonstrates the explosive contemporary political climate, Steven W. Brown and Warren McDougall argue that the paper holds the ‘most dramatic’ statement of national identity in a period in which ‘declarations of a work’s “Scottishness” had resonated through… [the book] trade’.[2] The online edition of the Gazetteer allows us to explore the newspaper’s people – its editors, printers and contributors and, through them, the protagonists of sedition trials and Reform Society members – and to uncover the radical networks of 1790s Scotland. Importantly, it reveals the beginnings of political and courtroom reporting in Scotland.

The Gazetteer is somewhat unusual in its openly radical and pro-French Revolution stance. While the majority of late eighteenth-century periodicals gave, according to Harris, ‘unwavering support to the anti-radical cause’,[3] the Gazetteer propounds an equally unwavering opposite view. The paper’s position is clear from the first issue, in which its founding editor, Captain William Johnston, asserts that the paper will ‘arrest bad men in their career’, and ‘acquire the power of searching out and expressing to the world, the detestable and crooked schemes by which corruption undermines the bulwarks of freedom’.[4] The Gazetteer was short-lived because it was deemed politically dangerous. Its first editor, Johnston, was imprisoned in 1793, and his trial – in which he was examined alongside the Gazetteer‘s printer, Simon Drummond – is covered in his own newspaper.[5] Although Johnston’s name continued to appear on the newspaper’s credits for some months following his trial, he was replaced as editor by Alexander Scott, who was also prosecuted. Its short publishing life is also due to the fact that, as Brown states, ‘prosecution for seditious libel brought notoriety, but it did nothing to enhance profits’.[6]

The Gazetteer offers one of the most exhaustive accounts of the work and trial of Thomas Muir, one of the ‘Scottish political martyrs’ who was convicted of sedition in an infamous trial in Edinburgh. It also features two known contributions by Robert Burns, which appeared early in the paper’s life. Burns was a subscriber to the Edinburgh Gazetteer, having written to Johnston just before the paper’s first appearance, urging the editor to press on with his stated plan: ‘Go on, Sir! Lay bare, with undaunted heart & steady hand, that horrid mass of corruption called Politics & State-Craft!’[7] His ‘Extempore on Some Late Commemorations of the Poet Thomson’, signed ‘Thomas a Rhymer’, appeared in the Gazetteer on 23 November 1792, while ‘The Rights of Woman’ was printed in the paper dated 30 November 1792. Following reports of the Gazetteer‘s growing notoriety, Burns wrote to Robert Graham of Fintry on 5 January 1792, on the topic of his subscription to the paper and literary contributions to it, and asking for advice: ‘If you think that I act improperly in allowing this paper to come addressed to me, I shall immediately countermand it.’[8]

The Edinburgh Gazetteer opens a window on one of the most tempestuous political periods in Scottish history. It allows readers to see how crucial debates – on the extension of the voting franchise, the rights of ‘the people’, parliamentary reform, slavery and its abolition, freedom of the press and freedom of speech – played out in day-to-day discussions and at significant points in their developing narratives. It allows us to track people, discussions, trials and political progress. Not only does it shed light on the development of the now-familiar concept of journalistic and political ‘spin’, it also facilitates an understanding of the ways in which radicalism and free speech advanced in eighteenth-century Scotland and, most importantly, of the history and evolution of Scotland’s democracy.


[1] Bob Harris, ‘Scottish-English Connections in British Radicalism in the 1790s’ in T.C. Smout (ed.), Anglo-Scottish Relations from 1603 to 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.199.

[2] Stephen W. Brown and Warren McDougall, ‘The Encyclopaedia Britannica’ in Stephen W. Brown and Warren McDougall, The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland, Volume 2: Enlightenment and Expansion, 1707-1800 (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p.540.

[3] Bob Harris, ‘Scotland’s Newspapers, the French Revolution and Domestic Radicalism (c.1789-1794)’, in Scottish Historical Review 84:217 (April 2005), p. 51.

[4] Edinburgh Gazetteer, 16 November 1792, p.1:

[5] See Edinburgh Gazetteer, 26 February 1793, p.1:

[6] Steven W. Brown, ‘Newspapers and Magazines’ in Brown and McDougall (eds), The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland, Volume 2, p.364.

[7] Robert Burns to Captain William Johnston, 13 November 1792, in J. De Lancey Ferguson and G. Ross Roy (eds), The Letters of Robert Burns, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p.159.

[8] Robert Burns to Robert Graham of Fintry, 5 January 1793, in De Lancey Ferguson and Roy (eds), Letters, Vol. 2, p.173.