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Shock, horror, probe, it's all in the papers

Read All About It National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, until October 31 tel 0131 226 4531 www.nls.ukreadallaboutit

Have a guess. Has the headline "Alien librarian sacked over Scots sex romp in hotel" appeared in a real newspaper or has it been made up?

In fact, that particular headline was created by a visitor to Read All About It, a free exhibition running at the National Library of Scotland which tells the story of Scottish news and newspapers over the past 400 years, focusing on the pre-computer age.

Research shows that six times more Scots read regional dailies compared with people elsewhere in the UK and almost 2.5 million Scottish-produced newspapers are bought every week. The National Library has some 30 kilometres of shelving housing newspapers and each year almost 50,000 new copies are collected.

Read All About It starts with a look at the stories and publications that helped to shape the modern Scottish newspaper industry. This display includes one of only two known copies of an English report of the Battle of Flodden Field on September 9, 1513, which begins: "Hereafter ensue the trewe encountre or Batayle lately don betwene Englande and Scotlande."

Probably the earliest genuine Scottish newspaper was the Mercurius Caledonius (also featured) which first appeared in 1661, became the Caledonian Mercury in 1746 and was published in Edinburgh thrice a week until 1859.

The many dozens of newspapers and stories that make up the rest of the exhibition have been divided into eight subject categories displayed under red banner headlines such as "Tragedy and Disaster!", "When Crime Doesn't Pay!" and "I'm A Celebrity!". Each shows how Scottish newspapers have dealt with that particular category of news over the centuries, then uses the stories featured to make up a 21st century tabloid front page.

The "Hold The Front Page!" display demonstrates how the press has treated current affairs since 1746. The (Glasgow) Daily Record's front page for November 25, 1963 screams: "I saw Oswald shot dead!" and continues: "The Daily Record's reporter, Tony Delano, was on the spot when Kennedy's killer was gunned down by Jack Ruby. Read his full, amazing story on the back page."

In the days when people were hanged for murder, the scaffold speeches of criminals sold in their thousands. Local printers competed with each other to produce the most lurid accounts of trials and executions. "When Crime Doesn't Pay!" features a selection of these crudely illustrated single sheet publications, most affectingly one concerning Elizabeth McNiel (sic), who was hanged in 1835 "amidst a great concourse of spectators". Following a beating from her drunken husband, Mrs McNiel, "who leaves 10 or 12 children", fed him a fatal dose of arsenic. The reports say she "struggled a good deal" on the rope "and was much convulsed" before finally dying.

"Horrorscopes!" points out that 300 years ago astrology was seen as a reliable science. An almanac printed in Edinburgh in 1619 warns readers born in February that they should "eate no pottage of mallows, for they are venomous".

A horoscope supplement with the Daily Record in January this year indicates that, even in the 21st century, many still use "horrorscopes" as a guide for living.

There are more light touches in the show, including a portion of chips wrapped in newspaper and a humorous newspaper publishing timeline that begins in 1456 with the Gutenberg printing press and the headline "I can't believe it's not handwritten!"

As well as a Create Your Own Headlines activity, a series of free events, including workshops and talks by journalists, complements the exhibition.

Deedee Cuddihy

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