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Bill McLaren: Legendary 'Voice of Rugby' was a family man above all

HE WAS still looking for a sharp, quick-witted line when I stood by his hospital bed on Friday, the very full life of Bill McLaren clearly coming to the end.

The Hawick man passed away yesterday, his mind and body having grown weak and tired of battling the many debilitating factors of dementia over the past few years. It took more effort than many realise for McLaren to decide to retire as the BBC's leading commentator when he did in 2002, and there was some regret within him at what he had lost, though nothing like that felt by the world of rugby when he left broadcasting

The loss felt now will know no bounds. He was a proud, genial Borderer who made an art of commentating by studying radio commentators of the early 20th century and diligently turning his hand to devouring facts and figures about every player and official that would or could feature in the upcoming match, knowing he might only use a fraction of it in his commentary.

After retiring as a PE teacher – or before, when afforded days off – he would spend hours watching teams training in the lead-up to internationals and getting to know players and coaches, and their ideas, very well. And then, on top of the incredible reams of information used to inform viewers, he went on to bring a unique gift of word-play to his role, his rolling Border tongue enriching terrific metaphors and similes that became the stuff of legend.

He described Scotland scrum-half Roy Laidlaw on the attack as being like "a baggy up a Border burn", a baggy being a small fish that McLaren had learned first-hand as a Hawick child was a difficult character to catch, and lock forward Doddie Weir as the lamppost of the lineout.

He compared the ball on wobbly goal-kicks to moving like "three pounds of haggis", a sidestep to a "shaft of lightning" and termed props "as cunning as a bag of weasels".

A down-to-earth, gentle man, he had the ability to describe the game in layman's terms, and without bias, which won him worldwide admiration and attracted interest from beyond natural rugby borders.

But there was also an inner steel to McLaren, developed through the battles of an incredible life story. He could have died at the age of 24 and there is little doubt that what he termed his "miracle" of survival from tuberculosis, picked up at the end of active service in the Second World War, while tending a Milan jail for prisoners of war, further shaped his bright, positive outlook on life.

McLaren was born in Hawick on 16 October 1923 to Murdoch McLaren, a travelling knitwear salesman, who hailed from Bonhill in Dunbartonshire, and Margaret Guy, who would die from a long illness soon after her son recovered from TB. He had two sisters, Jessie, three years older, and Kit, two years younger. Jessie died many years ago but Kit, a talented athlete in her day, still lives in Hawick.

William Pollock McLaren was inducted into Hawick life by his father, watching his first 'Greens' game aged six, travelling by train from Hawick to Edinburgh for his first international two years later and south to Twickenham for his first Calcutta Cup match at the age of 12, all the while being schooled to appreciate fair play and fair treatment of opponents by his dad. Bill's interest in the game and commentating showed itself in his early years as he would re-enact great rugby matches as a child outside his home in Hawick, playing for both sides – once Scotland beat England 73-3 with WP McLaren filling all 30 positions - or getting his friends to play so that he could sit on a wall and 'commentate' on the game, or an imaginary Olympic Games.

His life changed dramatically in the space of four years after his 18th birthday. He was called up to the war in 1942 and witnessed horrors that, still 60 years on, he hated to recall. And although he struggled through dementia in recent times to remember what he had done ten minutes before, he could speak lucidly about his time at Monte Cassino, scene of the largest land battle in Europe, and his 'vision of hell on earth' – the fear of hiding in the dark, isolated at an advance post, metres from German soldiers, of fighting constantly all year round, often in horrendous weather, and of turning a corner to see 1,500 dead soldiers piled upon each other.

His battles for his life did not end with the war, however, and it was a horrible irony that his life was threatened just when he was on the verge of realising a life's dream of pushing for a Scotland cap.

When Temporary Captain McLaren demobbed, at the last minute he turned down a full-time army contract for 21 years because he missed Hawick. Back in his hometown he met Bette, the local beauty he went on to marry, and enrolled to study PE teaching at Woolmanhill College in Aberdeen.

He featured in one Scotland trial, but lost out to the back row WI Douglas Elliot, and was already beginning to worry about a lack of fitness. It was diagnosed as TB, for which there was no cure at that time. He spent six months in Bangour Hospital and then nearly two years in East Fortune Sanatorium, with patients dying on a weekly basis. Many treatments were tried, from weekly injections to large doses of fresh air and diets of fat and honey, but McLaren later admitted that he had come closer to despair during that time than any other, including when being shelled in the war.

He was sustained by Bette and proposed to her while in hospital, and has said many times that her love gave him a reason to live. And then luck intervened. A new drug called streptomycin was put forward for trial. Some patients were to try it; Bill agreed to be one.

Within weeks he started to recover, the hole in his lung reducing. As Bill recovered and rediscovered hope he began to write for an East Fortune magazine, arranged sports competitions – putting and table-tennis – and even started threading rugs and making leather bags, which are still in his home to this day.

PE teaching was ruled out by the TB and so he took a job as a junior reporter on the Hawick Express. His editor at the time also did work for the BBC and recommended Bill for a trial audition, which he undertook at Mansfield Park, commentating on a South match against South Africa for ten minutes with five other candidates, and by the end of 1952 he was commentating for the Scottish Home Service.

He had married Bette and the couple had two daughters, Linda and Janie, before PE teaching hoved back into view in 1959 and he began working in various schools in Hawick. There are few rugby players of any note to have emerged from Hawick in the past 50 years not to have undergone some McLaren tutelage. He even commentated on the famous moment when one former pupil, Tony Stanger, scored the match-sealing try against England in the 1990 Grand Slam success. The time from then to now is more well-known, McLaren working his way from radio to television and becoming 'The Voice of Rugby'. He always stayed true to his roots, insisting the BBC book him travel home from European destinations on the night of the game, whenever possible, to ensure he would not be parted from Bette for longer than necessary.

His family remained especially close, and McLaren also commentated on his son-in-law Alan Lawson when he scored two tries against England in 1976. More pain was to come, however, when they suffered the loss of Janie, the younger daughter, in 2000 from cancer, Janie insisting that her dad commentate at Murrayfield on the day she passed away. Another of life's blows.

It was harder than any to take, but the couple were again lifted by family, Bill helping develop another brood of rugby talent in the shape of Linda's sons Gregor and Rory, the scrum-half who has since played for Scotland, and maybe even daughter Lindsay, and Janie's boys James, currently with Edinburgh and a Scotland 'A' cap, and Alex.

Bill retired from commentating at the age of 78, in April 2002, to an incredible ovation from the Millennium Stadium before his final game, insisting he was concerned at losing sharpness and wishing to quit while at the top of his game. He continued to write about the sport and remained a great source of friendship and advice to many journalists, commentators, players and coaches.

Like many people, I visited Bill as much as I could in recent years, the time he had spent guiding me and offering advice in my early steps into rugby journalism cherished. Bill and his wonderful wife Bette were always genuinely surprised and delighted to see visitors, but it was 'payback' for the warm friendship they had cultivated and encouraged in so many around them, from the pupils taught in Hawick to players famous and not-so that Bill shared a Hawick Ball (boiled sweet) with before games and encouraged to 'go out and have a go'.

Bill could say little when I last saw him on Friday, but he winked, smiled and searched in vain to elucidate the wicked line we knew was playing around in his brain, betrayed by the gleam in the eye.

Warm Scots humour was at the heart of what made Bill McLaren a great character – even the nurses in his final days, former pupils among them, appreciated that when he quite deliberately rugby-tackled one beside his bed recently.

Inspiration. Legend. A Hawick man who has touched and will be sorely missed by many more people than he would ever realise.

A funeral will be held for family, friends and the Hawick community at Teviot Church in Hawick on Monday at 9.30am, with a memorial service to be organised next month for the wider community.

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