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Significant Scots
William McCombie


William McCombie (1809 – 1870), farmer, self-educated joint founder and first editor of the Aberdeen Free Press.

From: W. Robertson Nicoll, M.A.

William McComhie, the editor of the Aberdeen Free Press, and perhaps, after Hugh Miller, the most notable among the self-taught men of Scotland.

To say that Mr. McCombie should not be forgotten is to say too little. He was never much known beyond his own district of the country, and no one who was acquainted with him, however slightly, or who came under the range of his influence, will ever forget him. He ought to be known much more widely than he is, and a full record of his career could hardly fail to take a place among permanent biographies. A "son of the soil," born in a frugal Aberdeenshire farmhouse, with only four or five years of parish schooling, he became at a very early age the centre of progress in the region where he lived, and ultimately, it is not too much to say, the chief Liberal force of Aberdeenshire. He commenced to publish when he was little more than twenty years old, and wrote books full of strong thought and eloquent expression to the end of his days. But his real greatness did not come from them, nor even from the work he did as editor of a newspaper and an apostle of political Liberalism.

It lay in his grand character. He was one of those unspeakably pure and exalted souls in which Puritanism sometimes perhaps rarely flowers. On those who came close to him and especially on worthier spirits he acted with a force so uncommon that nothing else came near it. For true individual inborn greatness, he seemed to stand alone and along with this went perfect refinement and a deep if somewhat shamefaced tenderness. As one who knew him well testifies, his writing was only part of the man; the full stores of his mind only came out in converse with congenial spirits.

"Not a few will recollect the keen intellectual enjoyment, the vigorous impulse,
they derived from these conversations. They will recollect the treasures they bore away from an evening's converse with one who laid his hand lightly and easily on widely-severed provinces of literature and philosophy, and whose suggestive talk was steeped in that knowledge which has never got, and never will get, into books. There will also be a returning sense of that intellectual awe which was kindled at the sight of a mind instinctively delighting to coast the shadowy margins of the known, and to take occasional fearful and reverential incursions into the void beyond. And with these recollections, provided they are those of intimacy, there cannot fail to mingle thoughts of the delight with which he who is dead looked upon all enthusiasm, however alien in its object to his pursuits, of the tenderness with which he treated youthful thought, however crude and shapeless, and of the width of his intellectual sympathies. . . .

There is one side, the best side, of his life, which ought not to be uncovered at the street corners. The last person in the world to flaunt and strut in subscription lists, or to seek publicity for his deserts, he would have hated to hear his good deeds spoken of, and the veil which he cast over his countless acts of charity and kindness ought not to be lifted."

Mr. McCombie used to say that one of the first things lie remembered was the risp of the sickle in the harvest field, and he never ceased to be an ardent and successful farmer. His early essays were written, soon after he had ploughed from six to six, others after he had held the scythe through a long summer day. On coming to Aberdeen to start the Aberdeen Free Press in 1853 he still retained his farm of Cairnballoch, near Alford. It is never an easy thing to start a new paper, and the fact that the editor was only to give to it part of his energies looked unhopeful.

But he wrote himself: "We start on a course of unknown interest, checkered with peril no doubt, but radiant with hope. We press on towards no uncertain goal; and, though we know somewhat of the courage and patience demanded of us, we gird up our loins for it anew with 'heart and hope,' venturing ever to appropriate some encouragement from the fact that the path of the true and brave is cheered by many a wayside flower and refreshed by the gushing forth of many an unbidden spring."

Progress at first was slow, but it was sure. From the beginning Mr. McCombie had the literary aid of Mr. now Dr. William Alexander, and the paper soon became not only solid, but interesting. Andrew Halliday was secured as the London correspondent, and wrote bright amusing letters which were always eagerly read. The news of the district was well arranged, and the editor was quite as competent to deal with farming as with more abstruse subjects. He respected his readers' intelligence, and treated in a serious fashion the most serious themes. Great space was given to reviews of books, which were written with courage as well as with ability, and condemned when condemnation was merited. In this Mr. McCombie secured the aid of his friends, including some of the more thoughtful Nonconformist ministers around. The principles of the paper made even more rapid progress than the journal itself, and Aberdeenshire from being Tory became one of the most pronouncedly Liberal counties in Scotland. The Free Press is now one of the best and most influential daily papers in Scotland.


McCombies have been present in and around the Vale of Alford, which lies about 30 miles west of Aberdeen, since at least the early 18th Century.  This tribe was remarkable for the number of high-achieving individuals that it produced.  Its geographical origins and its arrival in this agricultural area of Aberdeenshire has been dealt with elsewhere (see William McCombie (1805 – 1880), “Creator of a peculiarly excellent sort of bullocks” on this blogsite).  Alford McCombie individuals who were successful in life included members of the Established Church, the legal profession, colonial administration, manufacturing and commerce, and agriculture.  The agricultural interest was especially strong in the breeding and feeding of high-value, black cattle, which are now called Aberdeen-Angus.

At the 1851 Census of Scotland five farms in and around the Vale of Alford were being managed by members of the McCombie lineage, Tillychetly - Charles McCombie (1803); Waulkmill – Alexander McCombie; Nether Edindurno – William McCombie (1810); Tillyfour – William McCombie (1806); Cairnballoch – William McCombie (1809).  Another relative, William McCombie (1803), was the Laird of the Easter Skene estate, which lay half way to Aberdeen, but who also owned a farm in the Alford area.  All these establishments were involved in cattle production.  The most prominent and internationally -important farmer was William McCombie of Tillyfour, generally considered, along with Hugh Watson of Keillor Farm, Angus, to have been the most significant developer of the Aberdeen Angus.

Cairnballoch Farm and the early life of William McCombie (1809)

The farm of Cairnballoch was located about 3 miles south of Alford in the direction of Craigievar Castle, then the seat of the Forbes family. Cairnballoch, which was owned by Lord Forbes, consisted mostly of undulating, “brae-set” land.  At the 1851 Census of Scotland it encompassed 115 acres and typically four labourers were employed there, thus making it a medium-sized farm in this decidedly rural part of Aberdeenshire. William McCombie (1809) said that one of his earliest memories was the risp of the sickle in the harvest field but the farm was also engaged in cattle production.

William McCombie (1771) was the father of William McCombie (1809), the subject of this story.  William senior was born at Logie Coldstone, a village lying about 10 miles south-west of Alford and, at some date before 1809, William senior became the tenant of Cairnballoch farm.  According to James Macdonell (see below), William was responsible for the reclamation of much land on the farm from “rugged moorland and stony hillside”.    He married his cousin, Marjory (May) McCombie, at Tough a few miles east of Cairnballoch about 1808.  Marjory also hailed from an agricultural background. The marriage does not appear to have been very fecund, apparently the only child being William McCombie junior, who was born at the family farm in 1809.  It was clearly expected that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer and, from an early age, “… he was charged with the duties of the farm and while he was still a youth the chief share of the work fell to his hand.  At an age when most lads are still at the grammar school, he was holding the plough and among the young men of the district he saw no more noble exemplar of life than that presented by the farm labourers or the farmers’ sons who, when the work of the day was done, thought of nothing but frolic or sleep”. 

There is a frustrating lack of factual precision concerning events in the formative years of William McCombie (1809)’s life.  What is available mostly comes from recollections of associates, presumably drawing on conversations with William and the most important of such sources is the obituary written by James Macdonell, a one-time reporter with the Aberdeen Free Press, which was published in the Spectator in 1870 following William’s death.  William McCombie may only have enjoyed four or five years of village schooling, perhaps between the ages of about eight and thirteen (1817 – 1822).  After all, how much formal education would a farmer have needed in the early 19th century?

William’s mother may have been involved in his home learning and the Bible is said to have been a significant reading primer in this deeply religious household.  What must have become clear at an early age to those around him was that the lad had developed exceptional literacy, which quickly progressed into a prodigious capacity for self-learning.  It was later remarked that one of his defining characteristics was a lack of self-publicity.  How true.  In subsequent years, when William was writing profusely, the one topic he never covered was himself, his home life and his early experiences.  That William’s intellectual potential should blossom in social circumstances which lacked articulate companions is little short of remarkable and must surely have had a significant genetic component in its determination.  The many achievements of his McCombie relatives tend to support such a notion.


William McCombie (1771) died at Cairnballoch in 1849 at the age of 78, though his son, William McCombie (1809) had almost certainly taken charge of the farm at an earlier date.  At the 1841 Census, while William senior was identified as the head of the household, both he and his son were described as “Farmer”.  One data set, that relating to participation in local ploughing matches, indirectly suggests that the year of succession may not have been later than 1845, when William junior was 36.

William McCombie (1809) and ploughing matches

The ploughing match was one of two key events, the other being the annual cattle show, in the local agricultural calendar of rural Aberdeenshire in the mid-19th century.  In his novel “Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk” by William Alexander (see below), which was inspired by Aberdeenshire and Banffshire village life in the 1840s, there is an excellent description of the mythical “Glengillodram Ploughing Match”, which highlights the significance and conduct of such events.  The ploughing match was a winter event and, because of the short daylength in northern latitudes, started at first light.  Typically, 30 to 40 competitors would assemble on the ploughing ground with their pairs of horses, well-groomed, perhaps with tails and manes plaited and with harness spotless.  Competition was intense and the crowds of spectators were highly knowledgeable.  A single ploughman controlled both the horses and the plough, and he cut his first, or “feirin”, furrow with great care, regarding both straightness and constant depth on the patch of field allotted to him.  He then added another 30 or 40 furrows carefully aligned with the first and evenly packed.  (Anyone who ventures his/her skill at ploughing with horses, as the author has done, quickly finds that it is utterly exhausting.)   There were usually three competitions, one for the best ploughing performance, one for the best turned-out pair of horses and one for best-kept harness, but the first-mentioned was the one which carried most prestige.  The farmer providing the ground would throw supper for his friends and the judges, though the ploughmen would not usually be present.  They, instead, received a ploughman’s lunch, with whisky, during the competition.  In the late evening there would be a ploughman’s ball, open to all levels of village life, from the laird down to the day labourers, with vigorous dancing to fiddlers and/or a piper until a late hour.  Usually there would be a break in the proceedings for oatcakes, cheese and whisky toddy.  The next morning the manual labourers would have to rise after a brief sleep to go back to work.

Ploughing matches have been a feature of Scottish rural life since the late 18th century and they were established in the Vale of Alford by the late 1830s.  In the decade 1835 – 1844 the Aberdeen Journal recorded 82 separate mentions of ploughing matches.  This jumped to 288 mentions in the following decade, with a similar frequency, 257, between in 1855 – 1864.  The McCombies of Cairnballoch did not support ploughing matches at all before 1845 but in the period to 1851 are known to have provided help on 14 separate occasions.  Their interest in ploughing matches then ended almost as suddenly, there being only one instance of cooperation recorded after the latter year.  Support for ploughing matches could involve allowing farm servants to compete, providing prize money, making available the ploughing ground and gifting the following dinner, acting as a judge, or taking the chair at dinner, giving a speech or supporting the chairman as croupier.  As will be seen later, William McCombie (1809) showed empathy with the farm labourers and it seems possible that the Cairnballoch support of ploughing matches followed a change of regime at the farm, with the retiral of William senior before 1845.  The cessation of support for ploughing matches after 1851 is less easy to explain.  William McCombie (1809) did spend more time away from the farm after this date but he still retained his lease of Cairnballoch and continued in his role as farmer there.

The intellectual development of William McCombie (1809) 

According to James Macdonell, “at times he (William McCombie (1809)) could get no more nourishing intellectual fare than the “Penny Cyclopedia” or Harvey’s “Meditations among the Tombs”.  Nevertheless, he became an insatiable reader.  In the long evenings of winter, he read by the light of the kitchen fire and when sent to Aberdeen with the carts he seated himself on the top of the stuff which he was bringing to Cairnballoch and read as the horses jogged slowly home.”  William did not simply absorb knowledge, he also analysed the information he acquired.  One subject over all others had a profound impact on the young man and that was religion.  Having been brought up in a strictly religious household where “… the Bible still keeps a position of almost Hebrew supremacy.  It is emphatically the Book of Books, morning and night it is read with such eagerness and such thoroughness as can be matched only in the studies of the commentator …”, his scope for original thought was thus constrained by fundamental religious dogmas indelibly imprinted in his youthful mind and afterwards ever-present to guide and direct his thinking processes.  Within these boundaries he became “an independent, original and vigorous thinker”.

William McCombie (1809), while still a young man oppressed by the hard, physical work of the farm (ploughing “from six to six” or holding the scythe “through a long summer day”), started to set down his thoughts on paper in the form of essays which were eventually collected together in his first book.  “The stone windowsill of a little opening in his father’s cottage he used as a writing desk and for the want of a convenient seat he had to kneel on a large chest.”  The book that emerged he called “Hours of Thought”.  It was published in London in 1835 when he was 26 and consisted of a series of essays which bore the titles, “On intellectual greatness”, “On moral greatness”, “On poetry”, “On luxury”, “Obligations of Christians to devote their energies to the dissemination of Christianity”, “On some defects in evangelical preaching”, “On Christian Union”, “Future prospects of this world”.  The precise dates of creation of the individual components of the book are unknown but must have extended over several years.  The book enjoyed some success and was published in a second edition in 1839 and a third edition in 1856.

If William McCombie (1809) had ceased his intellectual endeavours at that point, it would still have been truly remarkable that a 26-year-old farmer from a peripheral area of Aberdeenshire, with only a few years of basic education, limited access to books for self-education and no opportunity to debate and refine his thoughts with educated colleagues, should have produced and got published a book of such breadth.  The title of this first book indicates both William’s great strengths and his limitations. His confined upbringing and education left him with a greater reverence for ideas than for facts, a limited appreciation of the fruits of science but little sympathy for quantitation and the scientific method for testing ideas.  His technique of inquiry was to absorb the writings of others and then to think deeply about what he had learned, subjecting all constructions to his own mental tests, before producing his synthesis of ideas on a given topic.  The areas where he experienced greatest comfort were Theology (the study of the nature of God and religious belief), Philosophy (the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language) and Metaphysics (abstract theory with no basis in reality).  The result was that his readers were often left in awe at his erudition and use of language but baffled by the complexity and length of his writing, especially when dealing with religious and philosophical topics.  The obituary on William McCombie in the Buchan Observer described his large library at Cairnballoch as being “filled with treatises of revolting dryness on the controversies of the Christian sects”.  Some of his own works were impenetrable to the general reader.  Often reviews of his books indicated that the reviewer fell into the “baffled” category, since comments were reduced to the employment of superficial but complimentary generalisations, for example, “By all those who are interested in the harmony and consistency of religious truth, it will be highly appreciated.”

It would probably be fair to say that William developed a high local reputation as a theologian, philosopher and social commentator but failed to make an impact on the national or the international stage in these fields.  Still, those who met and conversed with him invariably came away with a powerful impression of an honest and highly intelligent man, always capable of original thinking.  As the Buchan Observer put it, “But it was in conversation that his powers were most vividly seen”.

After his first book, “Hours of Thought” (1835), William McCombie (1809) was involved with several other major publications as author, or author/editor, or editor.  They are listed here, with date of publication.  In addition, he was also the creator of many newspaper articles.

1838. “The Christian Church considered in relation to Unity and Schism” (author).  In this theological book he dealt with the importance of maintaining Christian unity and the sinfulness of actions that promote division.

1842. “Moral Agency, and Man as a Moral Agent” (author).  The Baptist Magazine reviewed this book with the following statement.  ““There are two great inquiries,” Mr McCombie states, “embraced in the following treatise viz 1st What is moral agency, considered in itself? And 2ndly.  What are the powers and conditions of man in relation to it?  Under the first the author has endeavoured to ascertain what the nature of moral agency is  and what are the indispensable conditions of its being exercised; in doing so he has been led to inquire what the kind of knowledge is which forms properly the basis of moral agency and how is it obtained; and has endeavoured to meet the difficulties which arise from the divine foreknowledge and to subvert the position that mind in its actings is subject to the law of causation, or that in choosing and willing, it is not free.  In the second part of the treatise the writer has entered on the inquiry what the powers and capabilities and resources of man are , considered as a moral agent; in what respects and to what extent he has considered in this light been affected by the sin of Adam or the fall and in what respects and to what extent by the work of Christ.”  Erudite theologians may have found such theorising intriguing but for most adherents the content of the book must have been perplexing.

1845. “Memoirs of Alexander Bethune embracing selections from his correspondence and literary remains” (author/editor).  Alexander Bethune was one of three brothers born into a peasant family in Fife in 1804.  Family poverty precluded him from being apprenticed in any trade, resulting in Alexander becoming an agricultural labourer.  Despite his strained circumstances, he proved to have great skill in expressing himself in writing.  The following example of his poetry shows the extent of his talent in illustrating the circumstances of his life.

“And for my fare I ate a crust as dry,
And drank from the ice-girded stream, and rested
Upon a stone from which I swept the snow
My dining-room had clouds for tapestry,
Mountains for walls, the boundless sky for ceiling,
And frosty winds for music whistling through it.”

He composed a variety of works including “Tales and Sketches of the Scottish Peasantry” and a series of lectures on economics (with his brother John), designed to help the working man better his financial circumstances.  The Bethune brothers also wrote stories and poetry, and, after John’s early death, Alexander published a collection of his sibling’s poetic works.  Alexander Bethune wanted to reform the relationship between working men on the one hand, and the tenant farmers and land owners on the other, which he saw as exploitative.  He believed a change in such conditions would remove the feelings of bitterness, negativity and addiction to charity engendered in the working class, thus acting as a stimulus to them taking a positive attitude to the improvement of their conditions of life.  The Bethune brothers practised what they preached.  Alexander and his brother built their own house with £30 and then invested a £5 fee from Alexander’s first book in adding an extra storey, which they hoped eventually to let.  Alexander saw economics as a more important subject than geography and thought it should be taught in schools to all pupils.  William McCombie (1809) struck up a correspondence with Alexander Bethune.  It is clear the two of them had a mutual attraction arising from their similar circumstances, both being self-taught, talented thinkers and writers, and being proponents of rural social reform.  The two met in 1842, a year before Bethune’s death, when Alexander walked from Arbroath to Aberdeenshire.  Before his demise at the age of 39, when illness precluded further intellectual work, Bethune entrusted his archive to the care of William McCombie (1809) and this biographical work about his friend was the product.

1850. “The foundations of individual character. A lecture”

1852. “Modern Sacred Poetry” (editor). Curiously, this volume was published by the Presbyterian Church of Canada.  It is a substantial collection of works extending to 370 pages and it is presumed that the selection of works to be included was made by William McCombie.  The preface to the first edition, written by William, was dated “Cairnballoch 22 June 1852”.  William McCombie saw sacred poetry as having “a high value both as ministering to spiritual enjoyment and as influentially entering into that great educational process – that training of the spiritual and moral nature – essential alike to right doing, right being and to ultimate happiness.”  It is interesting to note that in early 1853 the printer and friend of William McCombie (1809), George King, exported two boxes of books from Aberdeen to Quebec, which may have been connected with this poetic compilation by William (see below).

1852. “Use and abuse or right and wrong in the relations to labour of capital, machinery and land” (author).  This essay on the economics of capital and labour, especially as it applied to the relationship between landowners, land occupiers and labourers in (then) current, rural Scotland appears to have been influenced by the views of his friend Alexander Bethune, but also by John Stuart Mill, the philosopher, social reformer and economist. The book consists of two lectures produced independently (for delivery to local Mutual Instruction classes – see below) which were then linked by an introduction, written later.  Interestingly, one comment to a lecture audience remains, where William admits that he tended to write and talk at too great a length.  “(A) great part of a lecture I delivered last July to a neighbouring class was occupied with these enquiries; to resume them here, though it might be important to my general object, would be unendurable by your patience.”   William McCombie (1809) saw the fundamental defect with the then current arrangements as being an unfair distribution of capital between the different social strata.  “The distribution of the elements of wealth presented by nature to man and of the constituents of wealth secured from Nature by man forms the great social problem of the times.  Not only does this problem underlie all the various schemes of communism and organisation of labour; but, discerned or not, is at the bottom of all jealousies between employers and employed – of all strikes and combinations and though more indirectly not the less truly of all questions of rent, protection and the incidence of taxation.”  He was heavily critical of individuals who accumulated capital but did not invest it to generate greater value.  In this context he was particularly critical of owners of large tracts of land which were turned over to sporting estates and the rental income squandered, rather than being invested in soil improvement for more productive agriculture.  “Take the case of a proprietor of land in the predicament already referred to.  He keeps a stud, or a pack of hounds; he passes the gay “season” in the metropolis, gives expensive entertainments, patronizes opera artistes …”.  However, he did not absolve the working class from a measure of blame for its condition.  The monotony of manual labour combined with moral deficiency of individuals were seen by him as major influences.  “These causes, combined with defective training in childhood and early association with the contaminated and deprived, induce a hand-to-mouth and too often dissipated life.”  He also saw alcohol consumption as a major problem. “How many in all classes are poor – become bankrupts indeed – because of the habits of expense they allow to grow on them.  How many a one has the indulgence in strong drink made to go hatless and shoeless and coatless and even shirtless, yea brought to a premature grave - leaving probably a widow and half a dozen orphans on the poor roll or in the workhouse.”  Tobacco consumption received a lashing too.  This was ironic for someone whose family wealth had been significantly based on tobacco importation and snuff manufacture!  “…millions’ worth of the products of the earth and of human labour combined annually vanish in mere smoke …”.  William McCombie (1809) also perceived another problem and that was the use of borrowed money for speculative investment, for example on railway shares.  The modern financial system would hardly have agreed with that notion!

William saw four general schemes for the distribution and redistribution of wealth in society.  1.  To promote and fence large distributions in the hands of individuals by means of social usage and public law.  2.  By law to restrain accumulation and to compel distribution.  3.  To leave the distribution of wealth free, like its production, to the spontaneous operation of social forces.  4.  To make the distribution of wealth entirely a matter of social arrangement according to one or other of the schemes of communism.  He rejected scheme 4 on the grounds that communism “abolishes self-action and places individuals entirely under the direction of others”.  Scheme 1 represented the then current position, where law (for example the Law of Hypothec and the Law of Entail) protected the accumulation of wealth derived from land ownership, in a few hands.  He theoretically supported Scheme 3 but admitted that no society was known which operated in this way “in a state of enlightenment and moral elevation”.  He therefore concluded that there would have to be compulsion in the redistribution of wealth, through the reform of the laws of the country.  One has to admit – that is what has happened!

The history of land ownership and management in Scotland was a particular target of William McCombie’s ire.  He regretted the transformation of the Highland chief from guardian of his people to landlord.  “He no longer shares fish, fowl and fauna with his retainers but keeps them for himself and persecutes tenants who take them.  The chief may no longer live amongst his people but hundreds of miles away, often in London.  He has no obligation to make a contribution to his local community except when they fall into pauperism.  He now may also claim the right to clear the land of its people, land where their ancestors had an expectation to live.  The tenant not only has to pay rent to the landlord, but he also has to compete for a new tenancy at the end of a lease.”  William McCombie’s radical solution to such ills was essentially land nationalisation, where the Government would own the land and let it to individuals on more favourable terms than the current owners. 

1857. “On education in its constituents, objects and issues” (author).  This volume contained a series of essays and lectures by William McCombie.  In 1850 he had been one of a large number of Scotsmen who had subscribed their names to a document calling for the reform of the national educational curriculum, based on perceived deficiencies in then current arrangements, ie education at the hands of the Established Church.  Interestingly, James Adam, the editor of the Free Press’ rival, the Aberdeen Herald (see below), was a co-signatory.

1860. “The Literary Remains of George Murray with a sketch of his life” (author/editor).  George Murray was a Peterhead loon born into straightened circumstances in 1819.  At the early age of seven he showed great persistence in improving his family’s income by wandering off into the country and asking a farmer he met by chance for work, to which the farmer eventually agreed.  George was set to herding “the kye” and was retained in this role by the farmer for six months.  George Murray was then sent home with a shilling in his hand and a fustian suite on his back.  (“Fustian” was a thick, hard-wearing cloth composed of cotton with linen or wool).  Like William McCombie’s other hero, Alexander Bethune, George Murray showed an early aptitude for reading.  There were few books at home and George would pick up scraps of newspaper in the street with which to practise his literary skills.  He became apprenticed to a cobbler about the age of 14 and eventually set up business on his own account, which he continued until his death at the age of 40.  While working as a cobbler George spent long hours in self-education, becoming thoroughly acquainted with poetry, theology and science, especially geography and astronomy.  Eventually he turned his hand to writing and produced stories, essays and poetry, usually with a local context.  “A tale of Ugie in olden time”, which was described as having “considerable dramatic merit”, shining out in a rather barren Buchan creative landscape.  An example of his poetry follows, which attempts to buck up the working class by turning them to religion.

“Wearied and worn one, stricken in spirit,
Fret not at feeling the gall in thy lot;
Seemingly favoured ones do not inherit
All thy imaginings – envy them not

Who shall give way to forebodings of sadness? 
Clouds and thick darkness may compass our way;
But there’s an Eye ever beaming forth gladness,
Over and near us; look up! He will stay.”

George Murray was instrumental in setting up the Union Industrial School for poor children in Peterhead and taught there for many years, while still pursuing his occupation as a cobbler.  In 1855 he was recruited to work for the Aberdeen Free Press as Peterhead reporter, a role he fulfilled with great tact and skill. For the last two years of his life he was District Editor in charge of both the journalistic and commercial aspects of the newspaper office.  In an obituary, the Peterhead Sentinel described him as “A man of sterling integrity, unflinching independence and genuine Christian character, he was respected while amongst us and will be deeply regretted and long remembered.”  When George Murray died at the age of 40 from chronic enteritis of many years’ standing (inflammatory bowel disease?) he left a widow and eight children.  William McCombie (1809) then devised a plan to publish and sell this volume of George Murray’s work, the proceeds to be donated to his family.  It was divided into three sections, headed “Tales”, “Essays” and “Poetry” and the price was 2/6. 

1864. “Modern Civilisation and its relation to Christianity” (author).  This was yet another volume of collected essays by William McCombie (1809)

1869. “The Irish Land Question” (author).  William McCombie was a supporter of the Liberation Society which campaigned for the abolition of state support to religion.  At a meeting held in Aberdeen in 1867 he moved a resolution, “That the Irish Protestant Establishment is a gross political injustice and a fruitful source of national disaffection, that the subsidising of other religious bodies is equally to be condemned and instead of lessening the evil only renders it more intolerable and that the only practical remedy is the withdrawal of all legislative endowments for the maintenance of religion, due regard being had to the existing interests of individuals.”  He was highly critical of the Protestant Ascendancy, the insecure tenancy of the (mostly Catholic) Irish peasantry and the lack of investment in land improvement.  He toured Ireland to get a personal acquaintance with conditions there.  While he put much of the blame for the inability of Ireland to support its population on the big and often absent landlords, he found other problems too, such as the lack of coal to form the basis of manufacturing, the size of the population in relation to the productive capacity of the land (and advocated emigration to solve this problem) and the reluctance of the peasantry to changing their agricultural methods.  As with Scotland, he suggested that land nationalisation would be appropriate if the landlords refused to carry out land improvement works.  His pamphlet, “The Irish Land Question” took the form of a letter to William Gladstone, then in his first premiership. 

1871. “Sermons and Lectures by William McCombie” (author – the collection was edited, after the death of William McCombie, by his daughter, May, who died in 1874).  When he acquired a house in Aberdeen, William McCombie (1809) became a member of the John Street Baptist Church.  On occasions when the minister was absent, William often took charge of the service, including giving the sermon.  The 29 sermons contained in this volume were written between 1856, or thereby and 1870.  The volume also included two lectures.  There are no dates on the actual manuscripts and some of the individual works appear to have been prepared in a hurry. The titles of the sermons are as follows.  “Faith”, “Christ as the sacrifice”, Christ as the sin-destroyer”, Christ as the source of the higher life”, “Christ the light of men”, “The teaching of Christ”, “The origin of the spiritual life”, “Spiritual freedom”, “Spiritual sonship”, “The two schemes of life”, “The life of faith”, “True worship”, “The homage of the soul”, “The reconciliation of the world to God”, “The law in the heart”, “Service”, “Striving”, “Faith and works”, “He that believeth shall not make haste”, “Self-denial”, “The thorn in the flesh”, “The Christian armour”, “The reproach of Christ”, “Ashamed of Christ”, “The prodigal”, “Sin the great agent of destruction”, “The permanency of moral habits”, “Overcoming” and “What is religion?”

It is clear from the above list of publications that William McCombie (1809) never set out to write a book as such.  Rather he wrote many shorter items, such as essays, lectures, newspaper articles and sermons and then subsequently cobbled them together to publish as books or pamphlets.  He clearly subscribed to the idea that God was beyond human understanding.  “Religion is not, either as to its object, or as to its action on the mind, to be brought fully within the comprehension of the human understanding, but that is no reason why we should cease to regard it rationally.”  He was aware of the long history of the past stored in layers of the earth’s crust and the many revolutions in nature revealed by this record, but he did not see such information as impinging on his religious theorising.  In “Christ the light of men” he dismissed the idea propounded by some philosophers that life is just the result of the operation of natural laws.  “What is life?  We cannot tell.  Even in the plant there is something that eludes both our senses and our physical science.  There is a class of philosophers in these days who think they can dispense with a principal of life.  It will not ordinate in their scheme of positive science and they ignore it or cast it out.  I should as soon think of ignoring the principle of gravitation.”  William clearly subscribed to the idea of a “life force” which animated living things.

Mutual Instruction Classes

“Mutual instruction” is a term which was originally used to describe the monitorial system of education, developed by Bell and Lancaster and introduced widely in the UK and in Continental Europe early in the 19th century, as a means of providing cheap schooling for poor pupils.  In this system the more able children (class monitors) were used to teach the less able.

Another early 19th century development to bring education to the masses was the introduction of Mechanics’ Institutes, establishments which provided education, mostly to working men, usually in technical subjects.  The motive for this innovation was partly to improve the technical skills of the workforce but also to give working men an alternative in the evenings to intoxication and gambling.  The first Mechanics’ Institute was established in 1821 by Leonard Horner, an Edinburgh businessman.  This was followed by the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute, which was founded by Dr George Birkbeck, a Yorkshireman who studied Medicine at Edinburgh University before being appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Andersonian Institute in Glasgow (later to become the University of Strathclyde).  In 1800, he provided free lectures on science and technology for young working men and later, in 1823, he created a Mechanics’ Institute in the city.

Mechanics’ Institutes were usually only sustainable in big cities with at least some philanthropic employers, manufacturing industry and large populations.  However, the principle of mutual instruction was later adopted in, and adapted to, other social settings by a variety of organisations.  For example, in 1836 the Caledonian Mercury, commenting on a course of chemistry lectures mounted by the Dalkeith Scientific Association, noted that such associations were spreading across the country offering instruction to the greater mass of the population and “affords a pleasing earnest of the dawn of that bright era in the world’s history when all shall combine for mutual instruction and when the lights of science shall dispel those clouds of ignorance which still hover around man’s destiny, and cheer and brighten the happy home of the humblest labourer and artisan in our free and happy land.”  Provision of mutual instruction classes was often sponsored by teetotal groupings, such as the Liverpool Total Abstinence Society.  In Windygates, Fife in 1837 the Windygates Agricultural Association meeting “gave an opportunity for landlord and tenant, producers and consumers to meet for mutual instruction in diffusing knowledge of the best means of production.”

However, the most significant development in mutual instruction was its introduction to the working class in small towns and villages, not only as a means of gathering knowledge in any subject, but also in gaining self-esteem, writing and presentation skills, and empowerment to take their own initiatives.  In 1842 it was noted that the Wick and Pultneytown Young Mens’ Mutual Instruction Society had increased to about 30 members which met every Monday evening. Any member was at liberty to propose the discussion of an “edifying and instructing” subject.  The Society’s President then nominated four members to give opinions of the subject on the succeeding evening, either by written essay or by oral address.  Unfortunately, not all young men were immediately won over by this new movement.  The John O’Groats Journal lamented in 1845, “It is a pity indeed to see so many young persons parading the streets at a time when they have an opportunity of having their minds improved and having additions made to their stock of knowledge for nothing.”

Rhynie Mutual Instruction Class

The first Mutual Instruction Class identified in the North East of Scotland was the Craibstone Class, Parish of Newhills, near Aberdeen.  In 1842 it celebrated its first anniversary with a soiree and ball on the evening of New Year’s Day.  “Some neat and appropriate speeches” were presented on the benefits of mutual improvement societies.  Similar societies were in existence in Macduff (Banffshire) and Tarves (Aberdeenshire) by 1844.  But it was in 1846 that the most significant development in mutual instruction occurred in Aberdeenshire, not close to the city of Aberdeen but in the remote parish of Rhynie, which in 1841 had a population of 1033.  In the New Statistical Account of Scotland of 1842, written by the minister of the Church of Scotland, the parish was described as having “only” about 12 dissenting (ie Non-Conformist) families.  But that was quite a high proportion, given the small overall population of the parish.

Robert Harvey Smith was an intelligent lad, who was born into a farming family in Rhynie and was only 20 when in 1846 he collected together eleven other young men for a meeting and submitted a set of draft rules to them for the formation of a Mutual Instruction Class.  Robert would later attend university in Aberdeen and graduate with a degree in Divinity.  The rules of the class were debated by the attendees and adopted, with some modifications.  The principal aim of the movement was mutual instruction of its members “by the reading of essays and criticisms thereupon”.  Members were fined one penny if they were ten minutes late for a meeting “unless an excuse satisfactory to the majority were given”.  In addition to member essays and talks, lectures by established speakers were also presented.

The Rhynie Mutual Instruction Class became very successful.  Robert Harvey Smith recruited a dedicated group of helpers who, over the next few years repeatedly supported the Class by making presentations.  The cohort included Rev Alex Mackay, FRGS, Free Church schoolmaster, Rev George Stewart, Established Church schoolmaster, Rev A Nicholl of the Congregational Church and John Stuart, Free School, all Rhynie.  Schoolmasters and ministers were recruited from nearby parishes too, such as Auchindoir, Kinnethmont, Huntly and Lumsden.  In addition, local doctors and veterinarians gave talks.  It is remarkable that the Congregationalists and the Free Church were so heavily involved and, just a few years after the disruption of 1843, the Established Church also played its part in this movement which was heavily dominated by the Non-Conformist churches.  Rhynie was one of the few parishes in Scotland where the Established Church incumbent was displaced.

The programme of lectures arranged for the Rhynie Mutual Instruction class in the spring and early summer of 1847, mostly on science subjects, was as follows.  1st lecture Rev A Mackay, Free Church, Rhynie “Heat”.  2nd Lecture Dr Macdonald, Surgeon, Huntly “Anatomy part 1”.  3rd lecture Rev George Stewart, Established Church, Rhynie “Origin of Language”.  4th lecture Rev H Nicoll, Free Church, Auchindoir “Geology”.  5th lecture Rev A Nicoll, Congregational Church, Rhynie “Astronomy”.  6th lecture Rev D Rose, Free Church, Kinnethmont “Magnetism and Electricity”.  7th lecture R Troup jun, Schoolmaster, Rhynie “Light”.  8th lecture Rev A Mackay, Free Church, Rhynie “Laws of Motion”.  9th lecture Dr Macdonald, Surgeon, Huntly “Anatomy part 2”.

At the end of 1847 the Rhynie Class held an evening festival (such an event was often called a “soiree”) to celebrate the achievements of the first year.  During the evening nine members of the class delivered their maiden speeches while the audience “expressed their approbation of each speaker by successive bursts of applause”.  Rev Mr M’Kay and Rev Mr Nicoll also gave enthusiastic addresses to the meeting.  Such annual celebrations became a standard feature, both at Rhynie and at other Mutual Instruction Classes.  These events were usually preceded by tea and the presentations were often followed by music or even by a ball. 

While Mutual Instruction Classes were almost exclusively a preserve of young males, who were mostly employed in manual work, and the ones who were causing social problems through drinking and other disruptive activities, in 1848 a class member, William McConnochy made a presentation on “Female Education”.  In 1851, the Aberdeen and Banffshire Mutual Instruction Union (see below) mounted an essay competition on “Female education and training etc”.  The winner was farmer William Anderson of Alford.  The Forgue Mutual Instruction Class in 1851 heard an address on “Female influence and education, and the indifference of society about these” and in 1854 a similar class in Kinmuck received a presentation on “Female influence and its value in the temperance cause”.  The Leith-Lumsden class encouraged ladies to join Female Mutual Instruction Classes at their 1849 festival.  This occasion was addressed by William McCombie (1809).  He was greeted “with much applause”.  Such egalitarian ideas, which William espoused, were rare at this time.

Robert Harvey Smith was also instrumental in taking the message of the Mutual Instruction Class to other parishes outwith Rhynie, initially through a Corresponding Committee, established in 1847.  Two years later this work was taken over by the creation of the Aberdeen and Banffshire Mutual Instruction Union (ABMIU), an umbrella body, at a meeting held in Rhynie, with Robert Harvey Smith as its Chairman.  Eighteen delegates from existing classes attended, though other classes were unable to be represented.  William McCombie (1809) of Cairnballoch was elected as the first President of the ABMIU, though it was probably a non-executive position.  The entry on William McCombie (1809) in the Dictionary of National Biography says, “He soon showed a taste for literature, and local debating societies (presumably Mutual Instruction Classes) gave him an opportunity of cultivating his talents”, but this can hardly be true.  Rhynie was the nearest Mutual Instruction Class to Cairnballoch, lying about 11 miles distant by road.   By the time the Rhynie Class was established in 1846, William was already 37 and had established his reputation with a string of publications, the most prominent of which, “Hours of Thought” had originally appeared in 1835.  His first known contribution as a speaker to the Rhynie class was in June 1849.  It must have been the case that William was elected President of the ABMIU because of his already established literary reputation and his sympathy for rural self-help.  He was a figurehead for this movement, an illustration of what could be achieved in a farming community through determination, allied with innate ability.

William McCombie (1809) of Cairnballoch was President or Honorary President of the ABMIU between 1849 and at least 1856.  The ABMIU had as its objective, “The cultivation of friendly feeling and sincere cooperation in everything related to the interests of the Associated Mutual Instruction Classes and the establishment of others in favourable localities”.  To help promote its message, the ABMIU published for six months in 1850 “The Rural Echo; and Magazine of the North of Scotland Mutual Instruction Associations”.  It had a monthly circulation of more than 1,000 but appears not to have reached a level of sustainability.  However, the ABMIU was still successful in spreading the message about mutual instruction across the region.  At the 4th annual assembly of the Union, held at Forgue in 1853, the following information was reported.  The constituent societies (Alford, Auchleven, Drumdollo, Essie, Gardenston, Grange, Insch, Lumsden, Leochel-Cushnie and Rhynie) all pursued the self- and mutual-instruction of their members and the intellectual improvement of the people in their respective neighbourhoods.  They were all non-sectarian in their constitutions and collectively had 660 members, who had read 1177 essays or papers.  They had raised twelve libraries containing 1206 volumes, presented 132 public lectures, with an average attendance of 120 and 40 social meetings with a mean audience of 210.  Some papers, written entirely by members, had been published and 10,260 copies of these distributed.  This was a remarkable achievement and a major contribution to the education of the rural working class in Aberdeenshire.  William McCombie (1809) must have been proud to be associated with such a worthy initiative.

William McCombie (1809) appears to have spoken three times at meetings of the Rhynie class in 1849, 1850 and 1851.  His 1849 contribution was particularly noteworthy in presenting his opinions on mutual instruction.  The Aberdeen Journal reported that, “After noticing the condition of farm servants and the conduct of their masters to them, making some remarks on the bothy and large farm systems and giving a gentle hint to smokers and snuffers he adverted to a remark which fell from one of the speakers regarding the acquisition of knowledge.  He said that the mind should not receive knowledge mechanically as the sponge takes up water and give it forth again without being influenced by it, but as the lime shell which imbibes it and becoming assimilated with it is fitted for fertilising the soil on which it is spread.  One of the lectures had been on ghost-seeing – he trusted there would be but one other ghost seen in Rhynie – the ghost of ignorance – departing as a certain traditional ghost once did (Here Mr McCombie gave an account of this ghost and its last words amid shouts of laughter).  One speaker had said that twelve Mutual Instruction Classes could now be seen from the Top o’ Noth (a local hill); they all knew the old rhyme – “The Buck, Belrinnes, Noth and Bennachie, Are the four landmarks on this side the sea.”  He had hoped these would speedily become landmarks of an intellectual sea which would submerge ignorance and vice beneath its waves.  Top o’ Noth was likely to become so, the others had yet not that honour.”  (Top o’Noth lies close to Rhynie, the other hills are respectively close to Keith, Dufftown and Inverurie).  It was reported that William McCombie had given “decidedly the speech of the evening was frequently interrupted by bursts of applause and sat down amid loud cheers”.  He was clearly admired by the working class in this locality. 

In September 1849 William McCombie addressed the annual soiree of the Leith-Lumsden Class.  “During the evening a glass of ginger wine was handed round” – a highly atypical occurrence, as such meetings were usually alcohol-free.  William McCombie (1809) addressed the meeting and he made his own position clear on the effect of alcohol on intellectual activity.  He disagreed with Burns’ theory of wit “Leese me on drink”.  He held to an older saying “When the drink’s in the wit’s out”.  William attributed the demise of some associations to their being too narrow and associated with drink, such as cattle shows.  Also, a distinguished literary man had told him that no one spoke sense after dinner. William thought they should deal with the whole nature of man.  He urged the young men on mutual instruction courses that mere intellectual training was insufficient, but that the moral and spiritual nature of man must also be cultivated.

William McCombie was also known to have addressed several other organisations involved in adult education, including the Clatt Mutual Instruction Class and the Huntly Mutual Instruction Society, both in 1850, the Aberdeen Young Men’s Literary Union and the Aberdeen Mechanics’ Institute, both in 1854, the Alford Mutual Instruction Society in 1855, the Oldmeldum Mechanics’ Institute in 1856, the Bon-Accord Literary Society, the Free Gilcomston Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association and at Huntly in 1857, at Aberchirder and separately at Portsoy on “Money credit and banking” in 1858, and to the Banff Mutual Instruction Society in 1859. 

A brief history of Aberdeen newspapers


It is perhaps not surprising that William McCombie (1809) should have begun to harbour thoughts of owning or editing a newspaper as a means of propagating his personal philosophy on religion, politics and social affairs, poetry and literature. But before delving into William’s involvement in the local press in Aberdeen and more widely in North East Scotland, it will first it be important to set the scene by briefly recounting the history of Aberdeen’s newspaper titles.

The first Aberdeen newspaper was the Aberdeen Journal which was initially published on 5th January 1748, by Aberdeen printer James Chalmers.  It appeared as a weekly edition.  During the next 84 years several attempts were made to found rival organs, but none lasted for long.  It was not until 1832 that a serious competitor came along in the form of the Aberdeen Herald and General Advertiser (but generally known by the truncated title of the “Herald”).  It was created by the fusion of the Aberdeen Gleaner and the Chronicle.  Fierce competition for readers commenced between the Aberdeen Journal and its new rival.  They were briefly joined by other would-be competitors, the most notable of which was the North of Scotland Gazette (NSG) in 1845 but none of the newcomers proved to be enduring titles.  In 1841 Aberdeen, with a population of 67,000, had four weekly newspapers, the Journal (2300 circulation), Herald 2050, Banner 1200 and Constitutional 500.  The Banner (terminated 1851) and the Constitutional soon met their demise in this clearly overcrowded newsprint market.

The Aberdeen Herald and General Advertiser

This newspaper was created in 1832 by the merger of the Aberdeen Gleaner and the Chronicle.  Politically, the Herald supported the Whigs.  Its first editor was John Powers, but he was replaced by James Adam, who was characterised by being politically radical and unafraid to criticise religious views, especially those of ministers of the Established Church, which he did at the time of the Disruption in 1843.  He supported the Chartists, a movement dedicated to gaining political rights for the working classes, which was active between 1838 and 1848.  The demands in their charter were universal male suffrage, secret ballots, equal-sized electoral districts, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, payment of MPs and annual parliaments.  At this time there was a strong Total Abstinence movement in Aberdeen, which was entrenched in the evangelical Presbyterian churches.  James Adam was unsympathetic to abstinence and used to meet with his cronies in the Lemon Tree tavern.

Ministers of Religion were often outraged by the content of the Aberdeen Herald and, famously in 1841, James Adam retaliated by seeking damages from Rev John Allan.  It was claimed that Rev Allan had used the words, “There is an infidel weekly publication or paper in Aberdeen edited by an infidel, an infidel villain, a blasphemous villain, a low villain, a hired agent for attacking the clergy, an agent of the devil, a Satanic agent.”  William McCombie (1809) had been a supporter of the Aberdeen Herald during the 1840s because of its Liberalism, but his views on the newspaper must have been somewhat ambivalent.  He was in tune with its political stance but must have been uncomfortable with its irreligious tone.  James Macdonell (a sometime reporter on the Free Press – see below), said of Adam “If he wants that free and easy air respecting religion and that desperately witty manner, which are characteristics of Mr A’s effusions, it has a depth of meaning and a moral suggestiveness which to them is utterly foreign.”   He further described James Adam as follows, quoting from Hazlitt, “he is an honest man with a total want of principle”.  Adam remained as editor of the Herald until 1862 when he was succeeded by Archibald Gillies.

The North of Scotland Gazette 

The prospectus for a new title, the North of Scotland Gazette (NSG), was published in early 1845, which proposed a four-page, large-size, weekly newspaper with content split equally between advertisements and commercial intelligence on the one hand, and local and general news on the other.  It was divided into two sections, the advertisements to be distributed free and the news and commercial section available by subscription.  The annual fee was £5 for which customers would receive both sections.  It described its own policy in the following terms.  “In so far as general politics are concerned, the Gazette preserves strict neutrality; but its columns exhibit a concise yet comprehensive view of the varied and complicated movements of the whole political system.  Unbiassed by party , it gives weekly a faithful and impartial record of Domestic and Foreign Affairs, - the sole aim being to afford every necessary information to the Politician to secure the countenance and patronage of the Man of Business, to interest the Farmer as well as the Proprietor of the Soil, to instruct and amuse the more General Reader, and in every way to make the Gazette a Complete Family Newspaper.”  It was proposed that publication would start as soon as 700 subscriptions had been secured and this point seems to have been reached about the end of March 1845 as the first edition appeared on 1 April of that year.  The publisher / proprietor was William Bennett, a printer based at 42 Castle Street, Aberdeen. 

Almost immediately the NSG got into a stooshie (disagreement) with two of its rivals, the John O’Groats Journal and the Aberdeen Herald, over the appropriation of paragraphs from those newspapers without acknowledgement, and the NSG then seemed to labour to become economically viable.  Another rival, the Banner, the newspaper of the Free Church, was also struggling for survival at about this time.  By 1847 the NSG had acquired Rev JH Wilson as its editor.  He was a vice-president of the Total Abstinence Society.  Rev Wilson continued in this role until at least 1851, though after that date he was no longer listed as having a connection with the NSG in the Post Office Directory.  He was succeeded by David Macallan (see below), one of the newspaper’s proprietors, until 1853.  The great significance of the NSG was that it was taken over by a partnership of George King, William McCombie (1809) and David Macallan in 1849.  In political character it became a “decided advocate of liberalism and voluntaryism”.  As part of the change in editorial policy, the editor of the NSG, JH Wilson left the paper to become the Minister of the Albion Street Chapel, Aberdeen.  He departed with a £50 “golden goodbye” from the proprietors.  The new owners clearly had their own political and social agenda and installed William McCombie (1809) as the editor of the new paper in 1853.  He supported disestablishment of the Church of Scotland.  Two subjects on which the Free Press campaigned consistently were universal suffrage and the expansion of secular education. 

So, what was the background of the new owners (other than William McCombie (1809)) and what did they have in common?

David Macallan

David Macallan, a Baptist, was the son of an Aberdeen ship’s captain, born about 1793, who himself took up the trade of upholsterer, initially at 1 Martins Lane, but from 1835 at Strawberry Bank, in the firm of Allan and Macallan.  He resigned from his business partnership in 1848 after the firm received a Royal Warrant and he felt that, on principle, he could not sign an oath of allegiance.  David Macallan seems to have been reasonably well-off.  When he died in 1858, his personal estate was stated at between £1,500 and £2,000 (£162,000 - £216,000 in 2018 money).  The value of his share in the newspaper co-partnery with George King and William McCombie was estimated at the time at £53 (£5,725 in 2018 money).  David Macallan devoted much of his time to public life.  He was a town councillor for many years and took a strong interest in the welfare of the poor, for example, contributing to the West Aberdeen Coal Fund, the Public Soup Kitchen, the Albion Street Mission, the House of Refuge (for destitute persons), the Aberdeen Lodging House Association, the Benevolent Fund for Female Domestic Servants while labouring under sickness, the Industrial School Association and the Aberdeen Property Investment Company.  This last body was a private sector vehicle set up to build adequate houses for the poor, which was also supported by George King.  David Macallan was a deeply religious man and a member of the Auxiliary Religious Tract Society.

George King

George King was born at Slains on the north east coast of Aberdeenshire in 1797.  He was the son of a shoemaker, leather merchant and currier and this line of business seemed to be his destiny too but, by 1827, he and his brother Charles, who was born in 1800, had moved to Aberdeen.  Charles set up as a furnishing tailor and followed this business until he retired about 1856.  George was initially described as a book agent but from 1828 this changed to bookseller, often with additions to that enduring title.  Between 1831 and 1842 his business was also as a stationer and between 1829 and 1842 the shop was also the Depository of the Tract and Aberdeen Auxiliary Bible Societies.  In 1843, on his brother Robert joining him, the trading name changed to George and Robert King (G&R) and the Depository function lapsed.  In 1853 another brother Arthur establishing his printing business (see below) and printing was dropped by G&R.  Although Robert had died in 1845, his name was retained in the title of the business until about 1864. By 1864 George King too had retired and the business was passed on to another bookseller, James Murray.

George King’s bookshop, stationery and publishing business in St Nicholas Street was well known to Aberdonians with religious and social interests.  In addition to new books with a religious theme, pamphlets and sermons, he frequently advertised books of poetry and lists of second-hand books which had been passed to him for disposal.  George King was the publisher, in 1845, of “Memoirs of Alexander Bethune” by William McCombie (see above).  G&R were also the publishers of Christian Sociology by the Rev John Peden Bell in 1853.  Bell was a close friend of William McCombie (1809).  In the social sphere, George King was a thorough-going liberal and abstainer.  In 1847 he was the signatory of a letter to Lord Provost Blaikie objecting to the provision of intoxicating liquor at funerals.     He subscribed to good causes such as the West Aberdeen Coal Fund, the Aberdeen School of Industry for Girls, the relief of the unemployed in the Aberdeen suburb of Woodside, the unemployed weavers in Lancashire in 1862, the Boys’ School of Industry and the Model Lodging House.  He was involved in the setting up of the Improved House Accommodation Company Ltd in 1859, whose objective was the provision of decent accommodation for the working classes.  Another housing initiative to receive his support was the Aberdeen Property Investment Company which appeared to function like a building society in taking deposits for interest and providing loans to members to build their own heritable properties.  He was a member of Captain Dingwall-Fordyce’s (Liberal) election committee in 1847.  At the General Election of 1852 he was a member of the committee supporting Mr Thomson who stood for election to the constituency of the City of Aberdeen on a platform of “progressive reform” and in 1855 he supported the candidacy of Colonel Sykes.  George King was for many years a member, then the chairman, of the Old Machar Parochial Board where he took a particular interest in the relief of the poor.  He wrote a tract “Modern Pauperism and the Scottish Poor Laws” in 1871 and at one time he was chairman of the Old Machar Poorhouse. In religion George King was a Congregationalist and was a trustee of the Congregational Chapel in George Street.  He was heavily involved in the building of a new Congregational Chapel in Belmont Street in 1864 and he was also a member of the London Missionary Society.

Unsurprisingly, George King was opposed to slavery in America and was instrumental, along with William McCombie (1809) and his cousin James Bain McCombie, in establishing the Freedman’s Aid Society in 1865.  The purpose of this body was to promote the work of an anti-slavery delegation from America to the religious community in Aberdeen.  In addition to his main business of bookselling, he had other business interests from time to time, such as partner in a flesher business and he was a shareholder in the Aberdeen Music Hall Ltd and various other companies.  His non-business interests included the Volunteer Artillery and Rifle Association and antiquarian studies (he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries in 1870).  George King was also a member of the Spalding Club, which was devoted to antiquarian studies in Aberdeenshire.  When he died in 1872, George King left a personal estate of £3,821 (about £428,000 in 2018 money).  He also owned number 19, Carden Place, an upmarket residential street in Aberdeen.

Robert King 

Robert King was born in 1811 in Banff.  He started a bookshop and printing business in Peterhead but, in 1843, Robert went into partnership with brother George, as George and Robert King, based in St Nicholas Street, Aberdeen, with a separate printing works in Golden Square and, from 1849, in Flourmill Lane.  Robert was also an accomplished writer but, sadly, died in 1845.  Shortly before his demise, G&R published “The Covenanters in the North”, Robert’s best-known work.  (Robert’s son, also George, became a distinguished botanist and doctor in the Indian Army, who worked on the extraction of quinine (for treating malaria) from the Chinchona tree, and the distribution of the drug throughout India via the postal service, for which he received several honours).

Arthur King

Arthur King was another brother of George, Charles and Robert, though the youngest of the four, having been born at Peterhead in 1815.  About 1835 he too joined the printing trade and served a seven-year apprenticeship as a compositor, presumably with Robert King in Peterhead.  After completing his training, Arthur worked for a short while for the Aberdeen Banner and on his own account before setting up as a printer by 1843.  At the 1851 Census of Scotland, Arthur’s trade was described as printer and compositor. 

The Aberdeen Free Press

According to the obituary written by James Macdonell, “For many years he (William McCombie (1809)) had strongly felt the need of a local newspaper which should be at once decidedly Liberal and earnestly Christian.  The need was the more impressive because the Aberdeen Herald was then edited by a very clever and reckless man (James Adam – see above) who constantly poured ridicule on all religious earnestness and whose writing was made formidable by its broad humour and its force of style.

The first stage in the process of creating an alternative journalistic organ had been the purchase of the struggling NSG and the change of editorial direction in 1849.  The second stage had been the replacement of the NSG with a new publication, the Aberdeen Free Press and North of Scotland Review (generally abbreviated to “Free Press”) in 1853.  This title was modified in 1855 to “Aberdeen Free Press, Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Buchan News and North of Scotland Advertiser”, though this title change was reversed in 1869.  The owners of the Free Press were David Macallan, William McCombie, George King and Arthur King.  The following abstract from the Aberdeen Herald in March 1853 is the announcement by Arthur King of the impending change.  “Arthur King and Co, Printers Broad Street respectfully intimate to the public that in place of the North of Scotland Gazette which in consequence of a partial change in the proprietary (presumably the admission of Arthur King to the partnership) is to be discontinued, they will commence publishing on 6th May ensuing in a considerably enlarged size and under the same editorial superintendence “The Aberdeen Free Press and North of Scotland Review”.  The Free Press will be conducted on the same general principles as the “North of Scotland Gazette” has been for the last four years.”

Arthur King & Co

In June 1852 Arthur King placed the following notice in the Aberdeen Journal.  “Arthur King, Printer, begs respectfully to intimate to the inhabitants of Aberdeen and its vicinity that he has commenced commercial business in the above line in those central premises 2 ½ Broad Street (second floor) where he will devote his attention to general printing including Book, Pamphlet and Jobbing work.” He was the sole partner in the company.  Arthur King’s business was much more extensive that the publication of the Free Press.  He developed a high reputation as a book printer and became the printer for the Aberdeen University Press.  But in 1869 he both moved premises and ceased to be the printer and publisher of the newspaper.  “Arthur King & Co Printers beg to intimate that with a view to secure extended accommodation for their largely increased general printing business they have taken a lease of those premises Clark’s Court, Upperkirkgate, to which they will remove at the end of the month of July ensuing. Ceasing by mutual agreement its connection with the Aberdeen Free Press.”  What caused the split with his other partners is presently unclear.  The Free Press then undertook its own printing of the newspaper.  However, successful though he was as a printer Arthur ran into trouble three years later when he overtraded and ran out of capital.  He had to grant a trust deed over his assets in favour of his creditors.  The business was put up for sale and then acquired by the company’s foreman, William McKenzie and continued in a successful way.  In marked contrast to his brother George, Arthur King seems to have been almost exclusively focussed on his business and not much interested in civic or social matters.  Arthur died in 1882.

William McCombie (1809)’s editorship of the Free Press

It is not known how William McCombie came to meet George King and David Macallan but, from the above review of the background of his two partners, they clearly possessed common interests in religion and religious books, social policy and literature and it is likely that these shared themes brought them together, perhaps initially on William McCombie’s occasional forays to Aberdeen on farm business, when he would likely have stocked up on books, at religious meetings, or on occasions when he was addressing mutual instruction classes, or similar associations, or when he sought a publisher for his first work, “Hours of Thought”, which reached the bookshops in 1835.

William McCombie (1809) was editor of the Aberdeen Free Press from its introduction in 1853 until his death in 1870.  James Macdonell said of this development, “Untrained in the ways of journalism and despising some of its traditions, he tended for a time to write over the heads of his readers.  The leading articles which he penned in the seclusion of Cairnballoch, or in the quiet study of his town house (latterly 9 Broadfold Place) too often bore traces of the metaphysical atmosphere in which they had been conceived.  Readers who pined for the personality and the hard hitting which distinguished the provincial press (eg from the Aberdeen Herald) were often dragged against their will through a thicket of ethical and philosophical principles.  Like most men with a decided turn and aptitude for metaphysical thought, Mr McCombie found it difficult to discuss any subject without a reference to first principles.  He constantly sought an ethical or a philosophical basis on which to rear the slightest superstructure of Imperial or Ecclesiastical policy.”  And, “If Mr McCombie thus limited the number of his readers, he gave a new moral dignity and a new tone of intellect to the journalism of Northern Scotland by the subjects which he chose for discussion, by his philosophical habit of treatment and by the noble morality of his creed.”  It clearly took William McCombie some time to come to terms with his new role and to recognise that his readers would likely cease to subscribe if the content of the paper was above or beyond their intellectual grasp.

The circulation of the Free Press encompassed the counties of Aberdeen, Kincardine, Forfar, Banff, Moray, Nairn, and Inverness.  In 1855 the Free Press had a circulation of only 731 against 3885 for the Journal and 3067 for the Herald.  The Free Press had to struggle for its place in the market for newspapers in Aberdeen and the surrounding country, especially with the Herald, but by 1865 its circulation had risen to about 2500.  The Aberdeen Journal had a clearly separate editorial stance being a supporter of the Conservatives and the Established Church.  However, the Free Press gradually gained ground on its two larger rivals.  Stamp Duty on newspapers had kept their cost high but in 1855 this tax was abolished.  Also, taxation of advertising was eliminated.  Then, in addition to the regular edition of the Free Press, published on Friday, price 4 ½ pence, a second edition, really a cut down version of the Friday edition was published the following Tuesday.  This new edition was priced at 3 ½ pence and was known as the “Penny Free Press”.  It continued for eight months.  In 1865 the Free Press again moved to producing two separate editions per week and in 1872 this increased to daily publication, but still with a weekly version.  It was not until1876 that the Aberdeen Journal moved to daily publication, on its ownership moving to a limited company structure.  The Aberdeen Herald went into decline and in 1876 it was absorbed into the weekly edition of the Aberdeen Free Press.  Competition then continued between the Aberdeen Journal and the Aberdeen Free Press until 1922 when the two merged under the title of the Aberdeen Press and Journal (see below).

William Alexander (1826 – 1894)

William McCombie (1809) was aided in the growth of the Free Press by the recruitment of some outstanding journalistic talent, the most important of which was William Alexander (1826 – 1894).  William was born on the farm of Westerhouses, Rescivet, Chapel of Garioch, Aberdeenshire.  He was the eldest of ten children and his father James was a farmer and blacksmith.  William Alexander had only a basic school education at Daviot and at an early age went to work on his father’s farm, another “ferm loon” destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.  At the age of 20, William suffered a severe injury on the farm and had to have a leg amputated, which necessitated a revision of his career intentions.  During a long recuperation he taught himself shorthand and extended his basic education.  It quickly became apparent that William Alexander had substantial literary talent.  At the time of the 1851 Census of Scotland, William Alexander, despite his disability, was still working on his father’s 50-acre farm.   However, through mutual instruction classes, he came into contact with William McCombie (1809), when he won an essay competition on farm servants.   McCombie gave him a thorough grounding in “the leading philosophical tendencies of the age”.  William McCombie then offered William Alexander a job as a journalist, which must initially have been on the NSG, in the autumn of 1852.  He wrote under the pseudonym “Rusticus”.  This paper was replaced by the Aberdeen Free Press in May 1853. 

William Alexander was first listed in the Post Office Directory of Aberdeen in 1858, when he was described as “Reporter (Free Press Office)”.  This status was maintained until 1863.  Between 1864 and 1870, William’s status was raised to “Sub-Editor (Free Press Office)”.  William McCombie (1809), the first editor of the Free Press died in post in 1870 and William Alexander was appointed in his place.  From listings in the Post Office Directory, he retired in turn about 1876 and from 1877, while his connection to the newspaper was maintained, he had no special title.

Like William McCombie (1809), William Alexander espoused radical views on the social organisation of land and promoted the rights of tenant farmers through the newspaper.  He was an elder of the Free Church.  William Alexander was also a member of Aberdeen Philosophical Society and the New Spalding Club.  When the Institute of Journalists was formed in 1884, he became president of the Aberdeen branch.


William Alexander (1826 - 1894)

William Alexander as author

His position on the staff of a weekly newspaper gave William Alexander the opportunity to write creatively and to have his novels published, initially by serialisation, in the pages of the Free Press.  In the mid-19th century the working language of most of the rural Aberdeenshire population was the Doric and William’s work was written in a mixture of raw, uncompromising Doric and English.  He progressively developed his reputation, which was always greatest in his native county, partly because of the use of the native dialect, partly due to his descriptions of rural life, but also due in some measure because of the artistic quality of his creations.  Sketches of Rural Life in Aberdeenshire first appeared in the Aberdeen Free Press during 1853 and The Authentic History of Peter Grundie was published in the Penny Free Press in 1855.  His other publications included - “The Laird of Dammochdyle” (1865), “Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk in the Parish of Pyketillim” (1869 – 1870), “Sketches of life among my ain folk” (1875), “Notes and Sketches illustrative of northern rural life in the eighteenth century” (1877), “Twenty-five years: a personal retrospect” (1878), “Memoir of the late Andrew Jervie” (with JG Mackie) (1879), A study of the Rinderpest outbreak of 1865 – 1855 (1882), “Mrs Garden: a memorial sketch” (1887), “The making of Aberdeenshire” (1888).  “Johnny Gibb” was his most famous oevre.  After being serialised, it was published in book form in 1871 and then went through many editions, such was its appeal.  Even today, it is one of the most popular works of fiction employing the Doric.

James Macdonell

James Macdonell was born in 1842 at Dyce, near Aberdeen.  His father, a Highlander and a Roman Catholic worked for the Excise, in consequence of which the Macdonell family moved from place to place during James’ formative years.  James’ mother, Rachel, in contrast to his father, was a Protestant.  While the family was based in Inverness, Rachel Macdonell taught young James to read and he showed an early affinity with the written word.  However, he did not take to school lessons and his education was advanced by the Rhynie Mutual Instruction Class when the family was based in this remote parish.  James joined the class on 3 December 1857 when he was 15 and is known to have read at least three papers, on “Light Periodical Literature”, “Dress” and “Public Opinion”.  James also started to learn French, which would serve him well in his future career as a journalist. 

Sadly, James Macdonell’s father developed rheumatic fever, which led to heart disease.  He moved the family to Aberdeen, but he died there in 1858.  James then took a job as a clerk in Alexander Pirie’s paper mills at Stoneywood near Dyce.  (The last functioning paper mill in Aberdeen still occupies this site).  He blossomed in the more open and cultured life of the city, but this environment also caused him to question the tenets of his Roman Catholic faith, which issue had already been stirred in Rhynie, due to the mix of religions in his home, where he had argued with his father.  James was introduced to William McCombie (1809) by Dr Peter Smith of Rhynie and Macdonell and McCombie immediately took to each other.  McCombie had a great intellectual influence on the young James Macdonell and, realising his potential, recruited him to make contributions to the Aberdeen Free Press.  James Macdonell never had a fixed position on the staff of the newspaper but worked for the Revenue, writing in his spare time.  In both the 1861 and 1862 editions of the Post Office Directory for Aberdeen, James was listed as “Officer of the Inland Revenue”, while continuing his side-line as a journalist.  He gave up his Roman Catholicism and joined the John Street Chapel which was the meeting place for a very active group of Aberdonians with intellectual inclinations. James Macdonell wrote a series of articles on his new perception of the Roman Catholic faith, which were published in the Free Press.  The first was entitled “Romanism and some of the sources of its strength”.  In December 1860 James Macdonell reviewed the autobiography of Carlyle of Inveresk for the newspaper. 

But all was not well with the editor.  William McCombie had suffered from ill-health for some time, due to a lung condition and in June 1861, James Macdonell wrote. “Mr McCombie’s health which for years has been delicate has at last fairly given way.  Continued brain work with hardly any intermission for years has reduced his strength to the lowest ebb.  The result has been a command from his medical adviser to proceed to the Continent without delay.  He starts for Geneva on Wednesday next with two of his family.  In his absence I have consented to write the leaders for the Free Press … I am glad to have the opportunity of making some return for his oft-repeated kindness to me. … This week two articles of mine will appear one on “The Indian Budget” and the other on “American Slavery”.  The one on “Vagrancy” is by the sub-Editor (William Alexander)”.  Clearly, every crisis is somebody’s opportunity!

After his father’s death, James Macdonell felt his responsibility as head of his family, consisting of his mother and her nine children.  James now wanted and needed a full-time career as a journalist and, as a consequence of his journalistic work and a lady acquaintance, Mrs Baker, that he met through the John Street Chapel, he gained an introduction to the Edinburgh Daily Review.  Unsurprisingly, since he had made his mark so rapidly at the Aberdeen Free Press, he was taken on and thus became a full-time newspaper employee.  He left Aberdeen and his close association with William McCombie (1809) but he made clear in the obituary of his former mentor, published in The Spectator in 1870, that McCombie’s influence upon him had been profound.  James Macdonell enjoyed an illustrious journalistic career.  After the Edinburgh Daily Review, he became editor of the Northern Daily Express (at the age of 22), then had a staff position on the Daily Telegraph and finally became a leader writer on The Times.  He died in London in 1879.


James Macdonell (1842 - 1879)

Andrew Halliday (Duff)

Other notable journalists recruited to the Aberdeen Free Press by William McCombie included George Murray (see above), based in Peterhead and Andrew Halliday, who was engaged as the paper’s London correspondent.  Andrew Halliday (Duff) was the son of Rev William Duff and was born at Marnoch, Banffshire in 1830.  Andrew was educated at Marischal College, Aberdeen.  From 1830 he lived in London, where he discarded the “Duff” surname.  He wrote for Cornhill Magazine but was also well-known for his dramatic work, for example, he adapted “David Copperfield” successfully for the stage.  He died in 1877.

William Watt

William Watt was an Alford weaver who had literary tastes, having been a founder of the Alford Literary Society and a vigorous promoter of the ABMIU.  William McCombie recruited him as a reporter and reviewer on the staff of the Aberdeen Gazette in early 1853.  He then moved on to the Free Press but sadly died in 1854, aged 31.  William McCombie praised him in the Free Press for “his steady and enthusiastic devotion to self-education and the acquisition of knowledge, and for his discriminative taste and profound love of truth …”.

William Carnie

William Carnie was born in Aberdeen in 1825 but received little formal education.  He was apprenticed to an engraver and advanced his education through classes at the Mechanics’ Institute.  William also proved to have musical talents, and these were developed through his membership of the West Church.  In 1849 he was recruited as a reporter for the NSG and in 1852 took on the role of reporter and sub-editor on the Aberdeen Herald.  Later he became the drama critic of the Free Press, a role he fulfilled for many years.

The style, content and layout of the Free Press

This weekly newspaper consisted of eight pages and the content has been summarised under the following topics.  Advertisements (constituting about 25% of its space), money markets, home news, foreign news (rather sketchily treated), commercial list, poetry, births, marriages and deaths, shipping news, commerce and manufacturers, agriculture (strongly represented), horticulture, serial fiction, biography, memoirs, history, temperance reform, voluntaryism, rural life, sketches, new unions and societies, Olympic Games, political parties, monuments, famous people, Boer War and popular events.  The paper “Circulates amongst the middle and operative classes in the North of Scotland, an agricultural, trading and manufacturing district" 

In its early years, the last page was where the editor indulged his interests in literature, philosophy, science, religion and church news.  This page was also the venue where readers aired their views, often in indignant terms, with the editor frequently adding his own comments at the end of a letter.  For example, in the edition of 5 January 1855 contained a very long and forthright letter on the immorality of ordinary Aberdonians.  The editor then questioned if Aberdeen really was “the worst city in Britain” in this regard, as claimed by the correspondent.  The perils of alcohol consumption were a frequent theme and the 9 February 1855 edition had a long article on the problems of boozing throughout Scotland, written by “Aliquis”.  Thoughtful book reviews were a prominent feature of the paper, often contributed by William McCombie’s Non-conformist minister friends.  The paper supported the Free Church and also contained news of events in the United Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. 

It was clear that the content of the Free Press was aimed at a group which included working men in the towns and countryside, and also the tenant farmers.  In this last respect, William McCombie’s familiarity with agricultural issues and the prominence they received in the newspaper helped it to advance its popularity in the countryside.   In the 16 March 1855 paper, a correspondent suggested the institution of a Mechanics’ Fair annually in Aberdeen to display the inventions of working men.  Emigration was another theme.  In the 30 March edition, there was information on wage rates in Canada and the United States and Thomas McCombie (1819), a brother of William McCombie (1805) of Tillyfour, who became a colonial administrator in Melbourne, authored several articles on Australia, including immigrant remuneration.  During early 1855 the editor also included a substantial series of articles on life assurance and its benefits.  Other themes given an airing, which were close to William McCombie’s heart, were the need to improve the education of young male farm labourers and the lack of spare time for young female servants to do likewise.

Was William McCombie a part-time editor?

William McCombie (1809) retained his farm at Cairnballoch during his editorship on the Aberdeen Free Press and he could “go weeks without entering the office”.  But he had recruited some very able journalists to the paper, particularly William Alexander, who were capable of producing the newspaper in his absence.  It should be born in mind that the Free Press was a weekly paper throughout much of his editorship and there was no pressing need for William to be present in Aberdeen every working day.  It is also known that many of his literary contributions were penned at Cairrnballoch and he received draft leading articles and other communications at home on a regular basis   Travelling the 30 or so miles from Alford to Aberdeen would have been time-consuming, so it would have made sense for the journey to be undertaken only when necessary.  The “Vale of Alford coach ran daily into Aberdeen and was revived under a new partnership in 1852.  It ceased in 1859 on the opening of the Aberdeen to Alford Railway.  However, without his dedicated and able staff William McCombie’s semi-detached editorial status would probably not have delivered success.

William McCombie (1809)’s farming activities

Cairnballoch farm consisted on about 115 acres.  In 1841 it employed four servants or labourers, in 1851, five and in 1861, four.  Most of the farm servants seemed to live in the farmhouse.  The farm was a mix of arable and pasture land and cattle production was a significant endeavour.  About 1867, William McCombie (1809) gave up Cairnballoch farm and moved to the tenancy of another farm, Milton of Kemnay, which possessed better agricultural land.  It consisted of 200 acres, all but 5 acres being arable.  William McCombie (1809) had a herd of polled black cattle, later to be called “Aberdeen Angus”, like his namesakes, the lairds of Tillyfour and Easter Skene.    However, unlike his more famous cattle-breeding cousins, William (1809) shunned the showring.  But he did buy breeding stock from famous breeders, such as two cows from William McCombie (1805)’s Bridgend farm in 1850 and another cow obtained from Mr Kelly of Mains of Bowie in 1858.  He also occasionally bred prize-winning stock.  At the 1858 Highlands and Agricultural Show, the most prestigious in Scotland, which was held that year in Aberdeen, William McCombie of Tillyfour won a first prize with a polled ox produced by his namesake at Cairnballoch.

Between about 1850 and 1870, when he died, William McCombie of Cairnballoch led a split life.  On the one hand he was a cattle farmer near Alford, partaking in all the rural activities associated with this largely uneducated but highly practical group of men, but on the other hand, he was associated with liberal-leaning newspapers and moved in cultured and educated circles in Aberdeen.  He seemed to manage this dual life with ease.  To illustrate the kind of rural life that William McCombie (1809) led it is tempting again to turn to William Alexander and the tale of “Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk”, this time for a description of the annual cattle show.

Typically held in summer, the cattle show was a great occasion for the agricultural community. The show ground was littered with canvas booths, supplying food and drink to attendees.  Show cattle were judged by experts from other parishes, usually farmers or cattle dealers, to avoid partiality, and the cattle were divided into categories.  Show officials, in the main sporting Highland dress, busied themselves, and the local laird was often present, exchanging pleasantries with his tenants.  After the winners of the general classifications had been decided, there were sometimes challenge cups to be awarded for the best male and best female breeding cattle.  Such cups were retained by anyone winning a competition for three years in a row.  The show was followed by dinner in a large canvas marquee, but only men were present. The laird, kilted, was usually the chairman, assisted by a croupier, a senior farmer or other person of status in the community, and the Parish parson sat on the right of the laird.  The following quote is taken directly from William Alexander on the appearance of such cattle breeders.  “A hale-looking man of Herculean build, not under 70 years of age.”  (This is very likely to have been a description of either William McCombie of Tillyfour or William McCombie of Easter Skene, both of whom were prominent, of great height and regularly officiated at cattle show dinners around Alford).  Such gatherings were always followed by speeches and toast-making.  The toast list was “a paper of portentious length”, starting with “The Queen” and progressing by stages to all and sundry.  Each toast, drunk in whisky toddy, required a reply from the recipient of the compliments.  As the evening progressed the hum of conversation grew louder.  The winner of the challenge cup was typically a farmer wearing “hodden grey”.  (Hodden grey was a hard-wearing, undyed, wool fabric favoured by north-east farmers.  William McCombie of Tillyfour even wore his suit of hodden grey in Parliament.)  By now well-lubricated, the meeting would often then proceed to singing.  When the dinner party finally broke up, about half of the attendees would gravitate to the local inn, many smoking pipes.  The winners of the cups would then be expected to pay for more drinks and the cups would be filled and emptied repeatedly.  By this time the party was very noisy, with speech, song, smoke and incoherent talk of beasts and their breeding.  The occasion ended in late evening, the farmers then riding home on their ponies, which not infrequently resulted in accidents along the way.

William McCombie and charitable causes

While many in William McCombie (1809)’s circle in Aberdeen were deeply involved in charitable acts and William gave to good causes from time to time, he was not prominent in such matters.  He did contribute to the Patriotic Fund for the relief of widows and orphans of soldiers, sailors and marines who were killed in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) and he also contributed to a fund dedicated to relieving distress amongst the unemployed in Lancashire in 1862.  In this year too, he served as a Manager of the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, effectively a fund-raiser.  A more esoteric appeal which also gained William’s support was the funding of a new peal of bells in St Nicholas’ Church, Aberdeen.

William McCombie’s family

William McCombie (1809) married Ann Robertson in 1840.  She was the sister of an eminent Aberdeen antiquary, Dr Joseph Robertson, a co-founder of the Spalding Club in 1842, which was dedicated to antiquarian studies in Aberdeenshire.  Joseph Robertson also had a spell as editor of a series of newspapers, the Aberdeen Courier (publication dates unknown), the Aberdeen Constitutional (existed from 1837 – 1844), the Glasgow Constitutional (editor 1843 – 1849) and the Edinburgh Courant (editor 1849 – 1853).  He died in 1866.  It is to be wondered if Ann Robertson’s brother was influential, directly or indirectly, in awakening in William McCombie’s imagination the idea of starting a newspaper.

William McCombie (1809) and his wife Ann had a family of seven, two girls and five boys.  It should not be surprising, given the intellectual interests of the parents, that all the children would develop along similar lines.  The eldest child, Mary (known as May) was born in 1841.  She never married and died at the early age of 33 from a lung condition, having spent her last winter in Menton in the south of France to try to gain relief from her symptoms. James Macdonell was a close confidant.  He encouraged May to write about her father.  “The story of your father’s life ought to be told without delay.  It should be told in connection with a description of the class from which he sprang; of Scottish religious life; of Scottish education as given in parish schools; of Scottish politics and Scottish farming.”     James Macdonell promised May assistance in this task and he also offered to write a chapter containing his reminiscences of her father.  William McCombie (1809) died in 1870 and, until her death four years later, May McCombie was closely involved in the management of the Aberdeen Free Press.  The Aberdeen Journal said of May after her death, “She had rare abilities and high culture, which she devoted to various public questions of the day, particularly those regarding her own sex.”

The second child of William McCombie (1809) and his wife, Ann, was Annie born in 1842.  She was very close to her father and acted as his amanuensis (literary assistant).  Like her sister May, she was close to James Macdonell and when Macdonell was absent from Aberdeen working for the Excise he communicated with William McCombie via Annie.  In one letter he told Annie that he was determined to become a journalist and this message was no doubt passed back to her father.  James Macdonell also urged Annie, like her sister and at about the same time, to write an account of her father’s life.  “Although your father’s life was not eventful there is no reason why the story should lack the element of personal incident and anecdote and trait.  Much must be said about Scottish religious life, Scottish education, Scottish politics, and Scottish farming; but even these subjects admit of being lighted up by details of Scottish personality and indeed the book need not be darkened by a single page of dry or bare disquisition.”  Sadly, that biography, if it was ever started by either daughter, was never completed.

Annie married Henry Alexander, the brother of William Alexander of “Johnny Gibb” fame, at Milton of Kemnay (the McCombies’ new farm), in 1874.  Henry, the junior of brother William by 16 years, was originally destined to be an engineer and worked in this capacity for some time in both Aberdeen and Glasgow.  However, he suffered a workshop accident, which resulted in the loss of an eye and that caused him to change career direction to more literary pursuits.  This incident has a remarkable parallel with the life of his brother William who lost a leg as a young man, a fateful event which caused him, too, to turn to literature.  Annie died in 1905.

William McCombie (1844) was the eldest son in the family.  He went to work for the Free Press and became a sub-editor.  Later, he emigrated to Canada and took up fruit farming.  He died, aged 98, in Vancouver in 1935.

Joseph McCombie was born in 1846 and at the age of 15 was a student at Aberdeen University. He became a curator at Register House, Edinburgh.  Sadly, he died of a fever (typhoid?) at the early age of 24.

Charles McCombie the third son of William McCombie (1809) and his wife Ann, entered the world in 1847.  He was another young man of promise who died early, at Strathpeffer in 1872.  He was a student at the time and had not recently been receiving medical care, though it seems likely he was at Strathpeffer seeking a cure for his pulmonary tuberculosis.

Henry Durward McCombie, the fourth son, was born at Cairnballoch in 1849.  He took over the tenancy of Milton of Kemnay on the death of his father in 1870.  Henry was politically active and the President of the West Aberdeenshire Radical Association.  In 1881 he organised a public meeting in Kemnay concerning the agricultural crisis, in association with the local Free Church minister.  HD McCombie was in the chair.  Tenant farmers were having a hard time due to agricultural prices dropping, but with no concomitant change in the rents that they were paying, and Henry Durward McCombie led the calls for law reform to ease the situation.  He subsequently became a County Councillor in 1890 on the constitution of Aberdeenshire County Council and for nine years he was its convener.  Henry Durward was also a Scottish Nationalist and argued for Home Rule.

John McCombie was born in 1850 and studied Medicine at Aberdeen University before pursuing a career in England.  At the 1881 Census of England he was Medical Superintendent of the Deptford Smallpox Hospital.  By 1901 he had moved on to take the post of Medical Superintendent of the Brook Hospital, Shooters Hill, Kent.  In 1911 John McCombie was the Medical Superintendent of North Western Hospital, Hampstead which held 350 acute fever patients at the time of the Census.

William McCombie (1809) and politics

After the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the following General Election of 1832 – 1833, Aberdeen was a single Burgh constituency, until 1885 when it was split into two, Aberdeen North and Aberdeen South.  Likewise, Aberdeenshire returned a single MP between 1832 and 1874.  For the first time in the General Election of the latter year, Aberdeenshire was split into two constituencies, West and East, and returned two MPs.  Between 1832 and 1874 Aberdeen always voted in a Whig or Liberal candidate but Aberdeenshire was a Tory/Conservative stronghold in the two decades following the reforms to the electorate in 1832.  In 1854, Aberdeen returned a Liberal MP, though a Conservative was elected at a by-election in 1861.  At the general elections of 1865, 1868 and 1874, the city of Aberdeen returned Liberal members.  Thus, Aberdeenshire was staunchly Liberal after 1832, while Aberdeen was initially Tory/Conservative but progressively, from 1854, also became a Liberal-supporting constituency.  It has been argued that this switch in political preference in Aberdeenshire was influenced by the Aberdeen Free Press and its (ultimately) Liberal-supporting editor.  This suggestion is plausible, though the name of William Alexander should be joined with that of William McCombie (1809), bearing in mind the role he played in substituting for McCombie and in driving up the circulation figures for the Free Press.

However, William McCombie (1809)’s political allegiance appears to have wavered over the years.  A general election meeting was held in Aberdeen in 1857 which was addressed by Colonel William Henry Sykes, the Liberal candidate.  Sykes had pursued a very successful career in India with the Indian Army.  He was also distinguished as an indologist, ornithologist and statistician, being a founder of the Royal Statistical Society.  William McCombie (1909) attended the election meeting and, after Sykes’ address, William was the first to his feet to ask a question.  “Does Col Sykes approve of the action taken by the East India Company in promoting the growth of the poppy and opium smuggling into China?”  The audience greeted this hostile question with “great laughter, cheers and hisses”.  Sykes started his answer by admitting, “Your question is a very difficult one no doubt …”.  Unlike modern politicians, Sykes did not dissemble.  He was in favour of opium poppy cultivation “because we could not prevent it”.  This blunt answer caused pandemonium in the hall.  Up jumped McCombie to continue skewering Sykes.  “I think Col Sykes has misunderstood me.  The question was, whether Col Sykes approves of the action taken by the East India Company in promoting the growth of the poppy?”  Sykes ploughed on, justifying not only the cultivation of the poppy but also the export of opium to China, on the grounds that it was no concern of the Government where it went after export or what use was made of it.  In any case, “We are all Free Traders, you know …” and opium did not really harm people, “Opium does not destroy the health, does not excite the passions, as gin does.  It does just the reverse – sends people to sleep.”  McCombie knew full well that opium was devastating the health of Chinese labourers and he was unimpressed by the blasé approach of this august colonial administrator.  It appears that on this occasion his humanitarian principles trumped any warmth towards Sykes as a fellow Liberal.

There was a byelection in 1861 in Aberdeenshire, where the two candidates were Mr William Lesley of Warthill, for the Liberals, and the Hon. Arthur Gordon, for the Conservatives.  Both candidates gathered together and published membership of their election committees, consisting of high-profile supporters.  William McCombie of Cairnballoch, remarkably, supported the Conservative candidate, while his cousin, William McCombie of Tillyfour, the black cattle breeder, supported the Liberal contender.  At the ensuing election Mr Lesley, the Liberal prevailed.  He was popular in the countryside, whereas Arthur Gordon’s support came mostly from the towns.

By 1866 the political favours of the two William McCombies had both switched.  There was a by-election in Aberdeenshire after the resignation of William Leslie, MP.  A meeting of the electors in the Alford district was held in front of the Station Hotel, Alford in May of that year and Mr Farquharson of Haughton was called to the chair. The two candidates were Sir James Elphinstone (Conservative) and Mr Dingwall-Fordyce (Liberal).  Mr Anderson, Wellhouse proposed Dingwall Fordyce as a fit and proper candidate for the county and this was seconded by William McCombie, Editor of the Free Press.  William McCombie of Tillyfour proposed Sir James Elphinstone, seconded by Mr Grant of Druminor.  The meeting, on a show of hands, voted for Dingwall Fordyce, who was returned at the actual election.

The general election of 1868 was a momentous time for Aberdeenshire, for two reasons.  Firstly, this was the initial occasion that the county had been divided into two constituencies, West Aberdeenshire and East Aberdeenshire.  Secondly, William McCombie (1805), Aberdeen Angus breeder from Tillyfour farm, decided to stand for election as MP for West Aberdeenshire.  A full account of his remarkable campaign is given in William McCombie (1805 – 1880), “Creator of a peculiarly excellent sort of bullocks” on this blogsite, but it is important to give a truncated version here to understand the role of his cousin, William McCombie (1809), by this date of the farm of Milton of Kemnay.

William McCombie (1805) was a tenant farmer and understood the problems faced by tenant farmers.  Yet their representatives in Parliament were almost exclusively large landowners.  Legislation introduced into Parliament in 1866 proposed the creation of a second constituency for Aberdeenshire.  William McCombie (1805), who was frustrated with the difficulties of reforming the laws which he perceived as having a negative impact on tenant farmers, saw an opportunity to become an MP and to exert his influence on vital issues by that route.  He conceived an utterly audacious plan.  Without seeking the nomination of either Liberals or the Conservatives and without announcing his candidature (at that stage no second Aberdeenshire seat existed) he went about lobbying his potential supporters, the tenant farmers, at cattle markets and other agricultural events.  When he got a positive response, he entered the name of the respondent in a small brown book, which he carried for the purpose.  He attracted over 1500 supporters in this way.  His scheme and the persistent way in which he implemented it caught the two main political parties flat-footed and, in the event, he was adopted as MP without a contest and without ever addressing a public meeting as an announced candidate.

The Aberdeenshire Liberals, realising that they could not field a candidate against William McCombie (1805) who had any hope of success then resorted to a crafty strategy of their own.  A previously unheard-of organisation the “Liberal Association of Tenant Farmers”, led by William McCombie (1809), editor of the Free Press, and James Barclay, an astute tenant farmer and leading Liberal, then took a leading part in the campaign.  This Association claimed that William McCombie (1805) was an Independent Liberal who held “enlightened views” and appealed to voters to cast their lot with him.  The Conservative-supporting Aberdeen Journal, under editor William Forsyth, represented this move by the Liberals as an unprincipled conversion to Liberalism by William McCombie (1805) to ensure that he got elected.  William Forsyth had conducted an unpleasant campaign against William McCombie (1805)’s candidacy in the pages of his paper and this denigration of the Laird of Tillyfour subsequently continued for several years.  But the fact remains that William McCombie (1805) stood as an Independent, though many of his beliefs were close to those of the Liberal party and he sat with the Liberals in the Commons and, at a subsequent general election, he was the official Liberal candidate.  William McCombie (1809), after the return of his cousin as MP for West Aberdeenshire, was able to strike back at the rival Aberdeen newspaper with the remark in the pages of the Free Press that the Laird of Tillyfour had been elected “despite the sneers of witlings (persons who think themselves witty) and the smiles of the incredulous”.

William McCombie (1809) continued to support his namesake cousin, during his period in the House of Commons, against the barbs fired from the offices of the Aberdeen Journal.  That paper accused McCombie, MP of reading his speeches in the House in 1869 (supposedly impermissible).  The Free Press countered with the following comments.  “Mr McCombie (ie of Tillyfour) is perfectly able to speak for himself and we need only say that we are assured by eye-witnesses that he never was called to order for reading his speeches, simply because he never did read a speech and as to handing copies to newspaper reporters, our contemporary merely shows that he is as far from being en rapport with the usages and necessities as with the ideas of the time when he makes a novelty and a marvel of what is done every day.  We can understand this ill-natured spurt of the Journal.  Mr McCombie has been gaining a position of respect and influence for himself in the House of Commons.  “Envy will merit as its shade pursue”; and the Tory organ must move itself accordingly.  Mr McCombie has, almost alone amongst Scottish members exerted any influence in moulding the Cattle Diseases Bill and for his services in this matter all important to Aberdeenshire, the landlords’ organ rewards him by this splenetic ebullition (a sudden outburst of emotion or violence).”  This phraseology must have sent many readers of the Free Press hunting for their dictionaries!

The Rinderpest outbreak 1865 - 1866


In 1865 the Rinderpest (Cattle Plague), a viral disease, was imported into Britain.  The response of Government was totally inadequate, and the disease quickly spread to most parts of the British Isles, killing many of the infected animals.  It was left largely to local action at a county level to combat the epidemic.  Aberdeenshire, one of the most important cattle-producing counties in Britain was particularly effective in first controlling the spread of the disease, and then eliminating it.  This collective effort was fronted by two men, William McCombie (1805) of Tillyfour, then one of the most famous cattle breeders in the country and James Barclay of Auchlossan, another tenant farmer and a leading Liberal.  But William McCombie (1809) of the Free Press, himself a cattle farmer, also played a significant role. 

The methods employed to control and eliminate the outbreak were fundamentally to slaughter infected cattle and to restrict cattle movements.  This thrust of policy was not easy for farmers or fleshers to accept, as it disrupted their lives and reduced their assets and incomes.  But William McCombie (1805) and James Barclay were sufficiently authoritative to carry the day.  The success of Aberdeenshire in controlling the Rinderpest was eventually noticed by Government and its policies copied in the Cattle Diseases Act of 1866. The effect was immediate and by late 1866 the outbreak had been eliminated.   A full account of the Rinderpest in Aberdeenshire can be found in William McCombie (1805 – 1880), “Creator of a peculiarly excellent sort of bullocks” on this blogsite.

Early in the Rinderpest outbreak, in August 1865, a meeting of landowners and farmers was held in Alford to agree resolutions to confront the problem.  McCombie of Tillyfour and McCombie of Cairnballoch were both present and played prominent parts in the proceedings, with McCombie of Cairnballoch seconding the main motion.  “That the landowners, farmers and others present, looking with alarm at the spread of the cattle plague in Aberdeenshire, resolved to adopt and urged others to adopt every means in their power to prevent the introduction of this contagious malady into the Vale of Alford and in order the more effectually to do so they agreed not to purchase or bring into the Vale cattle from any other district so long as the cattle plague continues to spread in the county, to use every legitimate means in their power to prevent cattle being brought from a distance and exposed for sale in the Alford or other markets in the Vale and in the meantime to recommend  to farmers, cattle dealers and others  as much as possible to restrict their purchases of stock and not to expose cattle for sale in the Alford or other markets in the district.”  This supporting role played by William McCombie (1809) continued throughout the crisis period in 1865 – 1866.  His facility with the English language was put to particular use in drafting documents and resolutions.  For example, at a public meeting in Aberdeen in December 1865 he drafted all six resolutions that were debated and approved.  But it was not just as a drafter that he contributed to the collective effort.  He also made an input of ideas to the ongoing debate, no doubt informed by his own long-standing career in agriculture.

The Game Laws

Legislation concerning the killing of game, which was favourable to the interests of the big landowners, accumulated over many years.  This was not surprising since most rural MPs were drawn from this social group.  The impact of these laws often generated a poisonous intrusion on the relationship between tenant farmers and their landlords.  In Aberdeenshire, this was frequently related to the predation of the turnip crop which, from the 1830s, became crucially important in the overwinter feeding of beef cattle.  The source of the conflict usually arose when the landowner let the land for growing crops separately from the let of shooting rights over the same land.  It was then in the landlord’s interests to encourage game preservation, even though this was detrimental to the tenant farmers’ interests.

From about 1865 there was considerable agitation by the farmers for reform of the Game Laws.  William McCombie (1809), himself a farmer, sympathised with his brother agriculturalists and played an active part in the movement seeking Game Law reform.  In May 1865 a discussion on the Game Laws took place at the Chamber of Agriculture and Scottish Farmers’ Club in Edinburgh.  William McCombie (1805) of Tillyfour, whose views coincided with his cousin, the editor of the Free Press, played a prominent part in the meeting.  William McCombie (1809) was also present at the meeting.  He was much pleased with the tone of the discussion and said that he entirely disapproved of the Game Laws and sincerely wished to see them abolished.  He felt it was time for the farmers to take action but, in pressing for reform, he cautioned them against taking “too advanced a position” initially.  He felt this would be counter-productive and that they should seek only that which was practically achievable.  At a public meeting in Aberdeen Corn Exchange in June 1865, William McCombie of Cairnballoch denounced game preserving as, “not only contrary to good farming but contrary to the public good”.  Sadly, he did not live to see the Game Laws reformed.  The power of the landowners in Parliament was still strong and their views sufficiently entrenched to ward off several attempts at reform.

Social reform in the countryside

Social reform, especially concerning the conditions of life for farm labourers and small tenant farmers, was another topic close to the heart of William McCombie (1809).  A public meeting was held at Kinmuick, Keith Hall in October 1859, attended by farmers (including William McCombie (1809)) and farm labourers, for the purpose of forming an Association for Social Reform.  According to the Aberdeen Herald, “The speakers dwelt on the restless habits induced by feeing markets, the want of cottage accommodation, the necessity of individual improvement, the extension of moderate-sized farms and small-holdings on a secure tenure, the evil results of bothies, the necessity of promoting aspiration and industrial habits among farm-labourers and the necessity of social intercourse being guided, not by customs founded on selfishness, but on a hearty recognition of the good old rule of doing as we would be done by.”  The Association was governed by a committee consisting of 12 farmers and 12 farm servants.  In 1860 William McCombie (1809) addressed the Skene Social Reform Association annual soiree in the Free Church school.  A ploughing match was due to be held on the same day, but it had to be called off.  William McCombie’s address was on, “The analogy between good ploughing and culture of the mind.”

James Macdonell, who had been a part-time contributor to the Aberdeen Free Press until 1862 but then became a full-time journalist with the Edinburgh Daily Review, maintained contact with William McCombie (1809) and his family.  In Edinburgh he made the acquaintance of Dr Begg, another social reformer.  James reported his conversation with Begg in a letter to William McCombie in August 1862.  “Tell Mrs McCombie (ie William’s wife, Ann Robertson) that I made known to the doctor her wish that he would come to Alford and stay long enough to see the working of the farm-kitchen system (on some farms, the farm servants ate with the farmer and his family, rather than being accommodated in bothies) in that quarter.  I likewise told him what stores of information on that subject Mrs McCombie had ready to pour into “his lap” … .  I was unable to give him an account of the schemes for the improvement of the agricultural classes which Mrs McCombie has so often dinned into my ears.”  It is interesting that Mrs McCombie was not just a farmer’s wife holding the fort at Cairnballoch while her husband was away, but an active social reformer in her own right.

The death of William McCombie (1809)

William McCombie (1809) did not enjoy good health.  As early as 1856 it was reported that he had a “delicate state of health”. In 1861 James Macdonell wrote, “Mr McCombie’s health which for years has been delicate has at last fairly given way”.  In early 1870 it was reported that “he was laid low with a severe attack of bronchitis and chronic dyspepsia, ailments from which he had suffered for most of his life”.  William died following an attack of bronchitis on 6th May 1870.  He was buried in the churchyard at Tough near Alford, close to many of his illustrious relations, including Rev Dr Charles McCombie, Minister of Lumphanan for many years, William McCombie (1805) of Tillyfour, the famous Aberdeen Angus cattle breeder and Thomas McCombie, who spent much of his life in the Legislature of Melbourne, Australia.  It is a moving experience to stand among the memorials to the McCombies in Tough kirkyard and reflect upon their achievements of 150 years ago.

William Alexander becomes editor of the Free Press

On the death of William McCombie (1809) in 1870, William Alexander of “Johnny Gibb” fame inevitably graduated to the editorial seat at the Aberdeen Free Press, but its editorial direction did not waver from the political and social stance established by William McCombie.  Also, like his predecessor, William Alexander continued to write and publish and to address meetings held in Aberdeenshire.  In 1871 he contributed a lecture on, “Illustrations of home life in the olden time.  Habits and customs of the counties north of the Dee from 1690 to 1820”, to a series mounted in the Parish of Woodside.  In the same year he also addressed Oldmeldrum Mechanics’ Institute with a lecture entitled “Illustrations of Social Life in the last century”.  The following year, 1872, William Alexander received a complimentary letter from William Ewart Gladstone, then serving his first period as Prime Minister, who had read and enjoyed “Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk”, which was published in book form in 1871.  Gladstone was of Scottish ancestry and he often stayed at Fasque House in Kincardineshire.  His liberal politics encompassed equal opportunity and free trade and he was very popular with the working classes.  It is perhaps not surprising that Gladstone should have been attracted to the character of Johnny Gibb and the Doric dialect in which Johnny frequently communicated.  Politically, William Alexander was a strong supporter of William Gladstone and hostile to Benjamin Disraeli.  William Alexander stepped down as editor of the Free Press about 1876.  He received the honorary degree of LL D from the University of Aberdeen and was appointed a JP in his retirement.  He died in 1894.

Henry Alexander (1841 – 1914)

The following editor of the Aberdeen Free Press was Henry Alexander, the brother of William Alexander.  Henry, who acceded to the editorship at the age of 34, had married Annie McCombie, William McCombie (1809)’s second daughter, in 1874.  Henry started to contribute articles to the Free Press in the late 1860s and joined the paper on a full-time basis in 1872, rising to the post of editor in 1876 on the retirement of his brother.  Henry’s life was totally focussed on the Free Press and he took no part in public life.  Like the two previous editors of the newspaper he had a deep interest in rural matters.  Henry Alexander had a penetrating and independent mind and did not adhere to a purely party standpoint.  On his death in 1915 he left a personal estate of £26,817 (equivalent to about £2,950,000 in 2018 money).

Henry Alexander and his wife Annie had a family of four children, two boys and two girls.  Henry junior was born in 1875 and William McCombie followed in 1880.  Henry junior was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and Aberdeen University.  At the 1901 Census of Scotland, Henry junior was described as a journalist and William was a law student.  By 1911 Census, both were employed by the Free Press.  Indeed, by this date, Henry junior must have become a part-owner of the newspaper, since he was described as “journalist and employer” while his brother William was a “journalist (worker)”.  He became the editor of the Weekly Free Press.  William McCombie Alexander continued to work for the Free Press until 1922, when it merged with the Aberdeen Journal.  After this date William McCombie (1880) spent his time in scholastic pursuits, having interests in a wide variety of topics.  He travelled extensively in Soviet Russia and also published “Place-names of Aberdeenshire”.  He was awarded an honorary Doctorate in 1952 and died in 1959.  Henry Alexander junior became the fourth editor of the Aberdeen Free Press in 1915 on the death of his father.  He lived at the prestigious address of 1 Queens Road, Aberdeen and in 1919 at the age of 44 he was appointed a JP for the City and County of Aberdeen.


Sir Henry Alexander (1875 - 1940)

The merger of the Aberdeen Free Press and the Aberdeen Journal

In July 1919 the Free Press premises at 30 Union Street were badly damaged by fire and 14 linotype machines were destroyed.  However, the stereotyping department on the upper floor was saved.  Interestingly, the Free Press’ rival, the Aberdeen Journal stepped in to help print the Free Press and the Evening Gazette.  Perhaps this act of generosity presaged further cooperation?  However, another factor was the beginning of the decline of Liberal Party and support for Liberal views in the aftermath of WW1.  By the early 1920s, Aberdeen, in spite of its relatively small population, still supported two daily newspapers.  Economic reality dictated that the city and its environs would only be able to support one daily paper in the future and the Free Press approached the Journal to suggest a merger.  In 1922, the Aberdeen Journal reported the inevitable change as follows.  “Negotiations have been completed for the amalgamation of the “Aberdeen Daily Journal” and the “Aberdeen Free Press” and the “Evening Express” and the “Evening Gazette” and the weekly issues of the “Journal” and the “Free Press”, subject to the approval of the shareholders of the Aberdeen and North of Scotland Newspaper and Printing Co, Limited.  The amalgamated papers will be formed into a company to be styled “Aberdeen Newspapers Ltd” and the accounts will be merged from 1st November next, the fusion of the newspapers taking place at an early date.”  Both Henry Alexander junior and William Alexander were shareholders in the corporate owner of the merged newspaper.  The amalgamated daily newspaper took the name “Aberdeen Press and Journal”, which it maintains to this day, the new title clearly indicating its origins in the Aberdeen Journal and the Aberdeen Free Press. 

At the merger, William Maxwell, editor of the Journal was retained, putting Henry Alexander junior, erstwhile editor of the Free Press, out of a job.  Now wealthy, he turned his attention to public life and entered the city council in 1925.  He rose rapidly to prominence and was Lord Provost between 1932 and 1935.  His most important contribution to the life of the city was his leading role in the preparation of a district planning scheme for Aberdeen and its environs, which was then the largest such plan of its kind in the country.  He was keen on outdoor pursuits, the author of the Scottish Mountaineering Club guide to the Cairngorms and a prominent early skier in Scotland.  Henry Alexander junior also donated the maze at Hazelhead Park, much beloved of generations of Aberdeen children, to the city.  He received an honorary LLD from his alma mater and was knighted for civic services in 1938.  Henry Alexander junior died of a heart attack in 1940, leaving a personal estate of £69,521 (about £M 4.3 in 2018 money).  His funeral at St Nicholas West Parish church was “largely attended”.

Thus, the Aberdeen Free Press, mainly the creation of William McCombie (1809) of Cairnballoch, a farmer’s son from rural Aberdeenshire who was essentially self-educated, ceased to exist as an independent title.  The new Aberdeen newspaper, the Aberdeen Press and Journal is usually portrayed as having had its origins in the Aberdeen Journal first published in 1748.  But it should not be forgotten that it disappeared in the merger of 1922 between the Journal and the Free Press, both titles being essential historical components of the successor.

The context of William McCombie (1809)’s life

There was nothing in the family circumstances of William McCombie which led to any other expectation than that he would follow in his father’s footsteps as a mixed farmer with a herd of black cattle, hefted to rural Aberdeenshire.  He had no particular stimulus at home, nor at his village school, nor in the social contacts of his parents, which might have predisposed him to follow a life replete with intellectual challenge in the city of Aberdeen.  That he did so as well as fulfilling his destiny as an Aberdeenshire farmer is doubly remarkable.  It is an inevitable conclusion that there was something unusual about the genetic inheritance of this son of the soil, some recombination of the hereditary material of his parents which equipped him to tackle profound issues of religion, philosophy and metaphysics, without an advanced education by teachers immersed for years in such abstruse matters, his only access to intellectual debate being the writings of the leading practitioners and the time to digest such material in the half-light of the farm kitchen during the darkness of the Aberdeenshire winter.

But perhaps the dual life of farmer and intellectual did impose a restriction upon William McCombie of Cairnballoch, by shackling him with a degree of parochialism.  The need to be present on the farm on a regular basis and especially at the busy times in the farming calendar must have restricted his ability to travel, to study and to engage in discourse with leading thinkers distant from his rural home.  Some of the topics that he evaluated had a national relevance, yet he never made a great impact upon the intellectual life of the nation.  Would his reputation as a thinker have been advanced by a higher education and by personal contact with the leading thinkers of the day?  Who can say, but his impact would hardly have been diminished by such social intercourse.

It has been suggested by others that William McCombie (1809) stands second only to the geologist Hugh Miller in the annals of self-educated Scotsmen who have made great contributions to scholastic life over the last two hundred years.  There were similarities between the two in their family circumstances.  Both were sons of the northern half of Scotland, both were born into modest homes, both showed an early aptitude for reading, both were essentially self-educated, both became writers, both were involved with the evangelical churches.  Hugh Miller graduated to geology through his apprenticeship to a stonemason and his observation of fossils in the quarries where he worked. In a similar way, William McCombie was directly influenced by his workplace, the agricultural industry of rural Aberdeenshire with its landowners, tenant farmers and peasantry and the asymmetrical distribution of wealth between social classes.  The two men were also constrained by their adherence to Biblical truths.  Miller realised that the earth was of great age, but he believed that the fossils of extinct animals that he observed were evidence of Divine intervention and new species arose by fresh acts of creation over geological time, the similarities between older and newer species arising, not from descent but from the preferences in the mind of God.  Although not a scientist, McCombie believed that there was a life force in living things brought about by the Almighty, which distinguished the living from the non-living.  But an essential difference between the two men was that Miller was an observer of nature, while McCombie was a theoriser.  Miller also broke out of the parochial circumstances of his birth on the Black Isle and travelled to Edinburgh, becoming editor of a church newspaper, the Witness.  But Edinburgh, the home of the Enlightenment, allowed him to promote his geological ideas in much more influential circles than those operating in Aberdeen, which was the essential limit of William McCombie’s intellectual travels.  Also, the obscurity and impenetrable nature of many of McCombie’s works limited their audience and thus also their impact.

A constant theme of William McCombie (1809)’s life was his attraction to others who, like himself, had risen above modest circumstances and made a real contribution to the society in which they lived.  Alexander Bethune, the Fife agricultural labourer, George Murray, the Peterhead cobbler, William Alexander, the farmer’s son from the Garioch, James Macdonell, the Excise man’s son from Dyce, William Watt, the weaver from Alford, Andrew Halliday (Duff) the minister’s son from Marnoch and William Carnie, the engraver from Alford, all hailed from the north east of Scotland and all, except Bethune, were recruited as contributors to the Aberdeen Free Press by its first editor.  Indeed, the quality of the staff stimulated the ultimate success to that hopeful new entrant to the newspaper market of Aberdeen, back in the 1850s.  The Free Press eventually swallowed its most direct competitor, the Aberdeen Herald and then merged with its main rival, the Aberdeen Journal.

The staff of the Free Press in its early years shared with William McCombie similarities in their approaches to religion and to the organisation of society.  As a generalisation they were liberals, with both a lower-case and an upper-case “L”, they were members of non-conformist churches, such as the Free Church, the Congregationalists, the Baptists and the United Presbyterians.  Politically, they wanted to change society and give it a fairer, more just structure.  They were for the working man, without excusing him from his responsibilities to be prudent with his limited resources and to take responsibility for his own educational and economic improvement.  And they despised the lavish and wasteful lifestyles of some big landowners.  These characteristics were also shared by two of the other founding owners of the Free Press, David Macallan, George King.  These men were essentially practical businessmen with literary leanings and a compulsion to do good works in their home city, rather than intellectuals, but their role in risking their money and managing the newspaper business were important, nonetheless.

The intermarriage of the McCombie and Alexander families was brought about by the creation of the Free Press and, in turn, the newspaper prospered under the editorial guidance of family members throughout its 69-year history as an independent title.  William McCombie (1809) was the founding editor of the Aberdeen Free Press and he was succeeded by William Alexander, creator of “Johnny Gibb”.  His brother, Henry Alexander, both married William McCombie’s daughter, Annie, and became the third editor, and their son, Henry junior, became the fourth and last editor.  Although the Aberdeen Free Press disappeared as an independent title in 1922, it formed an essential part of the historical fabric of its successor, the still extant Aberdeen Press and Journal.

William McCombie (1809) deserves a place in the pantheon of self-made Scots.  Perhaps his failure to spread his wings much beyond the boundaries of his native county made his impact at home the greater?


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