Obituary: Robert Gemmill, rugby internationalist

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SCOTTISH rugby player who gave a lifetime of service to his former university and school in Glasgow

Robert Gemmill, rugby internationalist and businessman.

Born: 20 February, 1930, in Glasgow.

Died: 25 December, 2014, in Glasgow, aged 84.

BOB Gemmill, who has died in his 85th year, gave a lifetime of service to two institutions in his native Glasgow, his old school – Glasgow High School, and his old university – the University of Glasgow at Gilmorehill. He was also one of the Scottish rugby internationals who suffered at the hands of selectorial panic during the national team’s long run of 17 straight defeats.

He went from Eastwood Academy to the High School, then situated in Elmbank Street, as a war-time 14-year-old Mowat Scholarship pupil, quickly demonstrating the intelligence and hard work which would win him the Dux medal in 1947. He also took up rugby, slowly climbing through the XVs to play for the Firsts in 1947.

Bob placed fifth in the 1947 University of Glasgow Bursary competition and that autumn he went up to Gilmorehill to read Economics. He also continued his rugby with Glasgow High School FP.

He had an appreciation of the need for fitness, which was not always prevalent at that time, and went straight from the school XV to the FP Club’s, and from there to the Glasgow XV and a Scotland trial.

His club-mate Bill Black was capped in 1948, but Gemmill had to wait until 1950, when a rousing first-half for the Blues earned him and his boilerhouse partner, Heriot’s Doug Muir, who pre-deceased him by a matter of weeks, promotion to the Whites for the 
second half and a first cap, against the French at Murrayfield.

The Scots were victorious then, but lost their away matches against Wales and Ireland, before ending 1950 with a Calcutta Cup win over England back at Murrayfield. That year, Bob was also invited to tour South Wales with the Barbarians; he was also invited to play for Scotland’s own invitation side, the Co-optimists.

Gemmill retained his place for the visit to Paris which opened the 1951 Five Nations and was in the Scotland team which, in what is now known as “Peter Kinninmonth’s Match”, beat a Lions-studded Welsh side 19-0 at Murrayfield.

The Scots then lost to Ireland and Gemmill, whose speed about the park and line-out athleticism had mitigated against a perceived lack of bulk, was replaced by club-mate Black for the trip to Twickenham.

That loss to the Irish was the first in the calamitous run of 17 straight defeats Scotland would suffer, and, as loss followed loss, seemingly everyone and his uncle was being capped, but there was no recall for Gemmill.

This can be attributed to an SRU decision to positively discriminate in favour of home-based players and Gemmill – having graduated with a first-class Honours MA in Economics, after doing his national service with the Royal Signals, during which he played for the Army and Combined Services – relocated to England to begin his working life with Proctor & Gamble.

This led to a nomadic few years, working in Manchester, playing rugby for Sale and Cheshire, in Middlesbrough, where he played for the local club and Yorkshire, in Newcastle, where he played for Northern and Northumberland, and Dublin, where he played for Dublin Wanderers.

He left Proctor & Gamble to join PA Management Consultants, with whom he returned to his native Glasgow, rejoined Glasgow HSFP and added the 1962 unofficial “Championship” to the same title he had won with High School a decade and more earlier.

The first win was with an all-international second-row pairing of Gemmill and Black; the second saw a different all-international boilerhouse pairing, Gemmill and Hamish Kemp.

That was a good way to finish his playing career, although he continued to support from the Old Anniesland sidelines.

Bob took early retirement in his mid-fifties, placing his not inconsiderable talents at the service of his old university. He served on the business committee of the General Council, before a decade of service to the University Court. In 2000, his service to Gilmorehill was recognised when he was awarded the honorary degree of DUniv, Doctor of the University.

He also gave great service to his local church, Sherbrooke St Gilbert’s in the South Side. He was treasurer for eight years, which included a time when funds had to be found to pay for repairs after a disastrous fire, a task Bob tackled by organising a well-supported giving campaign.

Bob Gemmill passionately loved music and travel; he also golfed as a member of the Pollok club. As a boy he had been a keen scout, attending the 1947 International Jamboree, named the “Peace Jamboree”, in Moisson in France. He kept a diary of the trip and, many years later, he shared his experiences with some members of the St Gilbert’s scout troop, who had also attended an international jamboree.

His final years were blighted by the aftermath of heart trouble, while the loss of his son John, to motor neuron disease in 2012 was another blow.

Bob Gemmill married twice. His first wife, Anne, was lost to cancer at a young age in 1955. He is survived by son Andrew and daughter Alison from that marriage and by his second wife Elisabeth, whom he married in 1980. He also had five grand-children.

Before his death, Bob Gemmill wrote a memoir for his family, recalling a long life, well-lived.

MATTHEW VALLANCE