Fife Free Press: 150 years at the heart of its community

“The shades of night were falling fast, ‘Ere through the Lang Toun streets there passed, The welcome shout: Free Press at last! Free Press at last!”

By Allan Crow
Thursday, 28th January 2021, 3:11 pm
Front page of the first edition of the Fife Free Press from 1871
Front page of the first edition of the Fife Free Press from 1871

The words of James Strachan, one of our founders, as he recalled the first ever edition rolling off the presses 150 years ago today.

Together with William Livingston, he launched a title which has stood the test of time and chronicled the ever changing face of this town and district every week.

So much has changed since that pioneering first edition of January 28, 1871, - Kirkcaldy’s first penny paper - proved so popular it had to be re-printed.

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But, a century and a half later, the Press remains true to the commitment it published in its very first edition to “chronicle and criticise faithfully and independently all events which affect the interests of the public, whether as individuals or as a community.”

Copies of that first edition are still in our archives; a fading and fragmented link back to when it rolled off a second hand second-hand printing machine in a third-storey flat in the Corn Exchange in Cowan Street.

Many long nights went into that first edition, but the Liberal-leaning newspaper chimed with its readers.

The success saw printing equipment upgraded and moves made to bigger, better, premises - Hill Street beckoned in 1876 as Messrs Strachan and Livingston launched the Kirkcaldy Times, which was then relaunched as a midweek paper devoted solely to sport, and then Redburn Wynd where high tide floods proved to be an on-going problem. Faced with rising waters, workers took to makeshift rafts to get around the building.

Fife Free Press - Bob Provan and Davie Duncan with the papers coming off the press at Mitchelston in 1999

By the end of the century, the company was in Kirk Wynd where papers were printed until a major move to Mitchelston in October 1969 - a flit which took 13 hours to transfer tons of heavy printing equipment via a smashed hole in the wall to the top of the town.

The front half of the building - home to journalists, sales staff, photographers, and our admin team - remained until 2018 when the doors closed and we relocated to Carlyle House.

But the Press was always about much more than its location or even its position as the flagship title in Fife.

Karen McCallum (nee Livingston), PA to the MD, and her sister Jill with the last edition of the Fife Free Press to be printed at Mitchelston in Kirkcaldy

It was about the people who served it - and the tens of thousands who read it every single week.

People grew up with the Press in their home.

Back then it was a huge broadsheet title and the biggest complaint was the mess left by the ink on furniture and hands.

Some solved that by reading it on the floor or a kitchen bunker, while a few even spread it over the cooker and stood to browse its columns!

Fife Free Press - the top floor at Kirk Wynd which was home to the compositors. It was later to become our newsroom before moving to Carlyle House

The paper’s dimensions actually changed regularly with developments in printing technology but it was only a decade ago that the Press made the big switch to tabloid.

A year-long project saw dummy editions printed and refined before the first compact edition rolled off the presses straight to a special launch party where they were delivered along with fish and chips from Valentes - wrapped, of course, in copies of the FFP!

Over the past 150 years, the Press has constantly adapted, and that is one of the reasons behind its longevity.

The clatter of typewriters in a smoked-filled newsroom gave way to clean air and computers.

The chemicals used to process pictures gave way to digital images.

The piece of string used to measure the space needed for classifieds was eventually retired - many say it was still more accurate than any computer programme!

Fife Free Press - the top floor at Kirk Wynd which was home to the compositors. It was later to become our newsroom before moving to Carlyle House

And the content has evolved too.

The very first editions of the Press carried columns of fiction next to district news from across Fife, and council meetings were reported verbatim. It was a paper of record, after all.

In times of war, column after column recorded those who had died, were wounded or simply missing every single week.

Front pages were the domain of advertising for many decades, and the very first full colour picture only appeared in 1974. It was as formal as you could imagine - the last ever gathering of Kirkcaldy District Council with councillors, baillies and the provost all in their finest outfits.

To delve into our bound volumes is to retrace the history of this town every single week since 1871.

Even today, no other newspaper, broadcaster, website or social media platform does that.

The Press continues to have a voice, and a role to play in this town, because it remains true to the values of its founders, and the guidance, commitment and steady hand of so many members of staff who gave a lifetime of service.

The roll call of FFP greats is lengthy- good people who forged lifelong friendships as they raced up and down the stairs at Kirk Wynd, and up to Mitchelston to make sure they didn’t miss the next impending deadline.

Every one of them played a part in getting the title to press every single week - from the reporters filing copy to the van drivers who loaded up and got the papers into the shops, it was, and remains, a finely honed machine which never fails to deliver.

Newspaper offices are wonderful places to work; noisy, chaotic, pressurised, but also rewarding when the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place, and Thursday morning begins with a coffee and a fresh copy of the Press laid across your desk..

This landmark anniversary is a tribute to all who have served the Press, and to the town which has continued to support it.

Here’s to the next 150 years.