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100 years of BBC in Scotland : how broadcasting evolved alongside the nation

BBC HQ, Pacific Quay, River Clyde, Glasgow Credits: Creative Commons

100 years ago, listeners of the BBC’s first radio station in Scotland were welcomed to the sounds of bagpipes and the voice of John Reith, general manager of the BBC. At the 5SC station on Bath Street in Glasgow, BBC Scotland was born. Today we look into this past to better understand what has made BBC Scotland what it is today.


Historic 5SC studios location of Bath Street in Glasgow. Credits : breakthrough press - Valentin Lehodey

At 7pm on 6 March 1923 the first radio studios of what would later become BBC Scotland inaugurated the start of years of broadcasting in Scotland. What was then a minimal production eventually became the main source of information for many homes across Scotland.

Graham Stuart is a journalist and broadcaster at BBC Scotland. For the last decade he has been researching Scottish broadcasting history with a view to writing a book which will be coming out this May.

He is also managing the website Scotland on air on which he collects elements of his research to make them accessible to the general public and other researchers. The feedback provided to his website has been particularly useful to further his research on the history of the BBC in Scotland.

Mr Stuart reminds us first of all that the general BBC itself was created by a Scotsman. “The BBC was created by a Scot in the form of John Reith. He was interested particularly in his Scottish stations originally in Glasgow and Aberdeen.” he said.

“By then broadcasting was very much a kind of a hobbyist thing. When it launched in 1923, it wasn’t a mass market thing at that stage. It was scientific amateurs often building their own radio sets.” Stuart stated.

“It only massively increased in the 1930s and particularly during the war years, that’s when the BBC started becoming dominant in people’s homes.” he said.


Milestones in 100 years of BBC Scotland Credits: Valentin Lehodey

Even though the national element of BBC Scotland was an important issue from the beginning, it has been subject to many changes throughout time.

“The Scottish element [of public broadcasting] is important because it links in with questions of Scottish identity and it just so happens that in over a hundred years of history, a Scottish national identity has grown and developed.” explained Stuart.

“When the BBC was born in the early 1920s there was a Scottish cultural renaissance in Scotland which was started up mainly by poets like Hugh MacDiarmid. And although not many people read their poetry, it marked a change in Scottish culture in that people were writing in the Scots language and the Gaelic language in a sort of mainstream way for the first time,” he said.

During the period of centralization by the BBC in London which happened after the 1930s, it was believed by the BBC in London that some productions might be more easily produced in London. Scotland was thus reduced to cover “Scottish things” for a time, Stuart claimed.


Festival of Broadcasting in Glasgow. Credits : Breakthrough Press - Urvashi More

Between the 28th of March and the 1st of April of this year, during the festival of broadcasting at the Library of Scotland at Kelvinhall, the public was invited to participate in several discussions around the theme of the centenary of the Scottish BBC.

Events ranged from pirate radios, school radios, the role of women in Scottish broadcasting, Gaelic radio or again the evolution of Scottish news.

During the festival, BBC Scotland archivists Andy Gailey and Pauline McHugh introduced a series of clips from the BBC’s Rewind Project which made accessible thousands of clips from the 1940s to present day. “Eventually we managed to get about 2500 [clips] in about a year” tells Ms McHugh.

"Festival of Broadcasting in Glasgow. Credits : Breakthrough Press - Valentin Lehodey"

For the festival, the role of Gailey and Hugh was to select the very best of the elements they had found for the Rewind Project. “We wanted to showcase the best clips that we had for the centenary and to showcase what we had been doing” Hugh said.

“We were trying to think of it from an audience point of view, what would a normal everyday person going to this website be looking for?”

“It is lovely to present what you have been working on, and to get some feedback from it” she continued.

The two archivists encountered some technical and copyrights along the way, which were part of a learning process and did not diminish their interest for the project.

“We had to fix the sound on quite a lot of clips, especially some news items from Reporting Scotland from the 1980s 90s that had four tracks of audio.” says Gailey.

“I certainly learned a lot more about the restrictions than I knew about. I did a lot of the society and culture stuff and not being able to show artworks or certain book covers, things like that I had no idea about.”

To find out more about BBC Scotland's centenary and its history, see Scotland On Air


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