A remarkable discovery was made recently in a house in South Queensferry when a box containing old documents was investigated. The contents included early issues of the Ayr Advertiser, and the finder kindly posted them to the Advertiser office. One of them has turned out to be the earliest known surviving issue. The Advertiser was founded by the Wilson brothers, John and Peter. John Wilson began his printing business in Kilmarnock, and he is famous as the printer of the 1786 Kilmarnock Edition of the poems of Robert Burns. In 1790, he moved his business to Ayr, where his brother Peter had a bookshop, and they went into partnership.
In 1803 the brothers launched Ayrshire’s first newspaper, the weekly ‘Air’ Advertiser. The first issue was published on Thursday August 5, but the earliest copies have disappeared. It was reported in a 1903 centenary article that during the newspaper’s early years, a retiring partner took the oldest file copies away with him. The remaining early file copies are now in the care of South Ayrshire Council’s library service, beginning with issue no. 17 of November 24, 1803. This was the earliest known surviving copy until the recent discovery, which includes issue no.5 of September 1. It too is now in the safekeeping of South Ayrshire Libraries. The four pages of issue no. 5 are mainly taken up by national and international news, and in particular the invasion threat from France. A peace treaty signed in 1802 had broken down in May 1803 when war was resumed, and Napoleon had now assembled a large army and an invasion fleet in preparation for a crossing of the English Channel. It must have been this threat, and local public demand for information about the latest developments, that resulted in the launch of the Advertiser at this time.
The Ayrshire Militia had been called up, and volunteer home guard units were assembling. Several of the local news items refer to this activity. The season’s Ayr Races (on the old racecourse at Seafield) were reported to have been entirely postponed as almost every nobleman and gentleman was on duty with some military unit. Colonel Oswald of Auchincruive had already assembled and trained the Ayrshire Yeomanry volunteer cavalry regiment. Legislation providing for the payment of a hardship allowance to families of Scottish militiamen on active service was summarised, with details of how this could be claimed. Four (anonymous) poems were included, all calculated to stir up patriotic fervour and strengthen determination to resist any French invaders.
Naval activity and shipping movements received much attention – Ayr merchants and others with an interest in seaborne trade would have made up an important part of the newspaper’s readership. The threat of a French invasion receded with the arrival of stormy weather in the autumn, and it was finally ended by Admiral Lord Nelson’s decisive victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805.