St. Ronan’s Standard

We shall make it our special endeavour to give a full and

accurate report concerning all matters of local interest.

This was the pledge that appeared in the very first edition of The St. Ronan’s Standard and Effective Advertiser published on the 12th May 1893. It was made by proprietors and editors William Redpath and George Simpson and, as far as it’s possible to gauge, they were as good as their word. Priced at a halfpenny per copy throughout its existence this “weekly journal for Innerleithen and Walkerburn” was an exemplar of local press publication for the following 23 years, covering news and events from Innerleithen and beyond.

Comprising four pages the front was invariably filled with the sustenance of any newspaper – advertisements. Sometimes space was allocated to public service information such as the local train timetable and postal deliveries and dispatches. One or two ads, notices, and the hatches, matches and dispatches appeared on page 2. Occasionally there was advertising on the back page (4) but never, so far as I’m aware, on page 3.

Adverts on the first edition included one for T.H.M. Colledge, photographer of Hope Villa, and for J.R. Anderson of the High Street who was a cabinetmaker, upholsterer and cycle agent and who would, at a later date, stock gramophone records. The paper also told of a new song “The Soft Lowland Tongue of the Borders”, words and music by William Sanderson, which is still known and sung by many in the Borders and beyond. This famous son of Innerleithen and composer of “On St. Ronan’s”, under the pen name of “Tweedside Laddie”, went on to contribute a regular column to The Standard and was for many years the editor of The Border Magazine.

Samples of local news from 1893 include the opening of the Coop Boot & Shoe Department on 30th June and St. Ronan’s Border Games finishing their financial year £3 to the good. That year also saw Leithen Mills going into administration and becoming (temporarily) the property of the Bank of Scotland.

For its entire period of existence The St. Ronan’s Standard was printed at Robert Smail’s Printing Works in the High Street. In 1896, the Smails also took over the publishing rights and continued to maintain the high standard set by Messrs Redpath and Simpson. The layout remained the same though the front page advertising tended to be dominated by the double-column spread in the centre proclaiming the many goods and services available from R. Smail & Sons.

In the issue published on 5th August that year was a proposal by Robert Euman for the making of a banner to be carried on the parade on Games Saturday. A fortnight later a rare illustration appeared in page 3 of The Standard which showed how the banner would look. We learn that the race round the town that year started from Bridgend and that the parade to the park was led by the pipes and drums of L Company, 6th Volunteer Battalion Royal Scots.

1896 saw the grand opening of the newly rebuilt St. Ronan’s Wells, a big event covered in minute detail by The Standard. Not only was there a comprehensive list of the great and good who attended the opening there was an equally fastidious record of those invitees who were not present. The opening was carried out by Mrs Thorburn, the wife of Walter Thorburn MP, by using the silver key presented by contractor Adam Watt to unlock the front door. Special scaffolding was erected at the front of the pavilion to enable Mr Colledge to photograph the large assembly of guests from a higher level.

Ten years later in The Standard recorded Thorburn’s defeat in the General Election when the Liberal candidate, the Hon. A.O. Murray of Elibank, was elected in his place. The Town Gas Company installed new gas lighting throughout Waverley Mill, the largest scheme of its type in the Borders. In 1906 the Panama Canal was under construction, a proposal to build a tunnel under the English Channel was being considered in Parliament and Sir Charles Tennant of the Glen died.

Grocer Dugald Pringle, who at one time occupied the premises that used to fill the notorious gap site in the High Street, was advertising bacon at 11d (4½p) per pound, butter at 1s 2d (6p) and eggs at 1s 5d (7p) per dozen. A car attempting to turn into Chapel Street demolished a lamp post and smashed a plate glass window in a nearby shop – with virtually no damage to the vehicle! A committee was formed to raise funds and choose a site for the Cameron memorial and Henry Ballantyne, head of D. Ballantyne Bros & Co of Peebles, was knighted. Vale topped the Border Football League.

The founder of the printing business Robert Smail successfully ran a boot and shoe business in Innerleithen. In 1867 he paid £500 for the now well known High Street premises and the house at the back (3 Leithen Crescent). Emulating his brother Thomas in Jedburgh, for whom he had been selling books and stationery, he established his own printing works, installing water-powered equipment such as the Wharfedale Reliance press which would from 1893 be used to print the local paper. Remarkably this same machine was used earlier this year by the National Trust for Scotland staff at Smail’s Printing Works to produce a commemorative edition of The St. Ronan’s Standard and Effective Advertiser, laid out exactly as it had been a hundred years before.

After Robert’s death in 1890 his second son Robert Cowan Smail took over the running of the business, becoming proprietor of The Standard in 1896. His younger brother Adam took on the job of itinerant sales manager for the printing business until his untimely end occasioned by being struck by lightning during a fishing trip. Older brother James Smail fulfilled a similar role, but from his obituary in The Standard published on 9th September 1914 we learn that he was also a gifted journalist and probably produced much of the news copy for the paper over the years.

James was born and educated in Innerleithen and had spent time abroad in Australia and New Zealand as a young man. Obviously keen to be involved with local organisations at various times he fulfilled the posts of Secretary to the Corps of Volunteers and Treasurer and Collector for the Police Commissioners. He was Clerk to the School Board and one of the first members of the Masonic Lodge St. Ronan’s No. 856. He ran a library service and was a keen golfer. Well practised in shorthand he was also a prominent member of the Innerleithen Phonographic Society. He died on 3rd September 1914 in the family residence at Home Villa, now the Council Chambers in Leithen Road.

Eighteen months after James Smail’s death The Standard was gone. (Robert Cowan Smail survived both brothers until his death in 1950 at the grand old age of 86.) In happier times details of rooms to let and their quota of visitors appeared regularly in the columns. In war time, however, the weekly lists comprised the names of dead and wounded servicemen. On a lighter note one problem exercising the town council of the day was whether to pay for the erection of 10 mph signs at the burgh boundaries. Apparently this had been achieved at Peebles for a cost of less than £10.

Lithographer James Tait appeared before a tribunal seeking exemption from military service. He argued his job was essential to produce printed labels needed by tweed manufacturers. Unlike that of wool spinner, however, Tait’s was not a certified trade and he would be required to swap his white apron for a khaki uniform. The country’s needs for men during a national emergency was greater than Robert Cowan Smail’s and with the departing tradesmen went the skills to print the local newspaper. The final issue of The Standard (No. 1179) appeared on Wednesday 8th March 1916 and contained the following announcement:


Owing to the depletion of our staff

we are compelled meantime



This was another type of loss to the folk of Innerleithen, Walkerburn and the surrounding area. Words like “depletion” and “compelled” evoke the anguish and sorrow that must have been felt and even “meantime”, in the light of subsequent history, was probably entered more in hope than expectation.

Since then Innerleithen’s local news has been carried in “The Peeblesshire News” and until some years ago the two titles shared the county paper’s masthead. It’s a shame that “Incorporating The St. Ronan’s Standard and Effective Advertiser” was dropped. This served as a weekly reminder of the skill and industry of the journalists, compositors and typesetters who produced one of the finest organs of local news ever to grace a community, and where typos and spelling errors were as scarce as hens’ teeth.

Ted McKie, November 2011