Pinning down a Grand Slam legend in 30th anniversary year isn’t easy when that man is Jim Aitken.
“It can’t be today,” he says, “I’m shooting.” From Dundas Castle, near South Queensferry, where the 1984 Scotland captain was bringing down partridge and pheasant with, you imagine, the same gruff, unfussy certainty with which he used to reduce reputations on the rugby field. We next talk on the phone while he’s en route to Perth, which unfortunately blasts our scheduled Edinburgh rendezvous off the agenda – and another over bacon rolls at the pub near the Hillend ski-slope falls soon after that. Still, at least he’s not stuck in Iran.
“I love Iran – fantastic country,” he says when we finally meet in his office in Ormiston, East Lothian. The grain merchants of which Aitken is chairman has multiple interests and one eye on the Middle East with licences for quarrying marble and mining copper. Hang on, though: he’s 66. What’s he doing dashing hither and yon, chugging along the Edinburgh Bypass and a fair bit beyond, when he should by rights be retired, enjoying the nostalgia, telling a funny scrum-based story or three and accepting the grateful thanks of the nation?
But Jim Aitken – Big Daddy – is a reluctant sporting hero, maybe the most reluctant I’ve met. I’m used to sportsmen from less demonstrative eras – pre-professional or before TV really took charge – being humble about their deeds, but the old Gala loosehead prop is something else. For instance, there was a documentary on the box the night before, commemorating what was our first Slam for 59 years. Not only did Aitken decline to participate, he didn’t even watch.
“Ach, I was asked but these programmes are not my kind of thing.” Why not at least tune in? “My wife called me through when it was starting but I had some work to do.” Aitken not only has to explain this to me, but to two business colleagues who ring up during our early-morning hour together, keen to get his critique and doubtless – go on, Jim – one more yarn from the steaming front-row. He says TV comes with a risk, or at least it does for him. “You can easily say something you’ll end up regretting.” Then he returns to his original point: “The Grand Slam was 30 years ago; it’s old hat for Christ’s sake. It’s done. Get on with the next thing.”
A Murrayfield reunion is planned around this season’s game with France, who Aitken’s Scotland vanquished to become immortals, but the skipper won’t be there. “I originally said yes but on condition it was done properly and I don’t think it will be. Nothing against [Scottish Rugby president] Donald MacLeod who asked – a nice chap and there have been one or two down the years – but it sounds to me like a half-hearted affair.”
There’s at least consistency to Aitken’s Calvinistic cussedness and lack of sentimentality when – the middle of nine kids in an Army family – he describes his teenage years. Having flunked Penicuik High School, you could say he refused to rest on his laurels even when there were no laurels. “I didn’t do well at school but I knew I wanted to get on with life, make money, be successful, the best at what I did.” He caught up at night classes and eventually gained entry to Edinburgh College of Commerce. “It’s funny,” he adds,” but when I got invited back to the school for prizegiving as Scotland captain, I felt a bit sheepish given how unremarkable I’d been there. That was probably more unnerving for me than anything I ever encountered as a player because the headmaster told me they’d only had one other old boy back at the school – James Hamilton who designed Corcorde’s wings. Follow that! In my schooldays I just enjoyed myself too much outside of lessons. Needless to say I told the kids I met to study hard. A case of poacher-turned-gamekeeper!”
Since the ’84 Slam was won, Aitken reckons he’s been to Murrayfield just five times. His issues with the current state of rugby, professionalism, the SRU, kilted Kiwis, any non-Scottish influence – from all those occasions when he’s been asked for a comment and completely let rip – are well-enough known. Nevertheless, I find this an astonishing statistic. One of those games was definitely six years later when another Slam was achieved but he has trouble remembering the others.
“I have too many other things keeping me busy,” he says. Such as? “Grandchildren – I have four.” What else? “I go shopping with the wife.” Really? “No, that was a joke!” So, in the house where rugby is rarely watched, where would I locate the bawbees of a fine career? “You’d be hard-pushed to find them anywhere. And it’s a very big house.” Still, at least there’s a memento in this office, a copperplate of The Scotsman’s back-page celebrating the Slam. “Your old rugby reporter, Harry Pincott, gave me that,” he says, and still I wait for the first twinkling reminisce.
Aitken’s grumpiness is nonetheless entertaining. He has me in stitches mimicking player-speak of today, all those “learning curves” and “journeys”. There’s a hint of sympathy – “These guys haven’t lived beyond rugby so I’ve no idea what they can find to talk about when they’re gym bunnies together, pumping iron” – but it quickly evaporates. “I heard a classic the other day. Some guy was talking about his ‘physicality’. That’s not even a proper word. What the hell does it mean?”
Then the mood lightens. He’s discussing the Slam game-by-game in a way he wouldn’t do for TV and he’s grinning. Just because he doesn’t do reunions doesn’t mean he isn’t proud of ’84, of his team and of being able to call them good friends, though don’t use the term “band of brothers” or anything military-esque because, as a student of the First World War, he hates all that stuff. And just because he doesn’t do reunions, the official kind, that doesn’t mean they don’t happen unofficially, with only the players. Indeed, Aitken, though he won’t tell you this, will dip into his own pocket to make sure they’re as jolly as possible and through the years he’s helped out team-mates down on their luck – some of them even work for him.
A year ago, the Scottish team which was the last to win at Twickenham gathered in London to mark their 30th anniversary. I’d previously heard three separate accounts of a memorably mirthful night at the Charing Cross Hotel, the old team base, and now Aitken chips in: “Quite recently I was approached by this fella who said: ‘You won’t remember me but…’ He was right; I didn’t. ‘I was playing the piano in the hotel back in ’83. You lot thought I was the house musician. When the bar closed the team shoved the piano into the hall and you told me that if I didn’t keep playing you’d break my fingers.’ That’s what happened. He played right through to morning. Brilliant, he was.”
Those rugby boys, such merry pranksters. And back then, that was more or less the assessment of Aitken’s Scotland as players. “The English press before that game thought we were a joke, real no-hopers.” They followed that win with an autumn draw against the All Blacks. “We could have stolen that game; I was annoyed we didn’t.” Then came the old Five Nations, first stop Cardiff.
“We had some great players, guys like John Rutherford and Roy Laidlaw at half-back, what class they had, and David Leslie who, to my mind, is the best back-row forward to come out of Britain. You couldn’t win back then without someone like Iain Milne; the guy just wouldn’t budge. Bill Cuthbertson must have been a nightmare to play against, Sally [Alastair] Campbell did a similar job, Alan Tomes just kept plugging away. We were still being written off, though. The hierarchy at the SRU didn’t reckon we were going to do anything. The players? That was the difference. We genuinely believed.”
Aitken himself wasn’t capped until he was 29, and was then in and out of the team, dropped and recalled. Did he start to approach games like they might be his last? Typical of the man, he doesn’t over-egg. There’s no melodrama. “It was another job that had to be done,” he says of playing for Scotland. “As captain I didn’t have time to think about the jersey, the crowd or anything. But I will say this: I never went on to the field and not thinking: ‘We’re going to take this lot today.’ I was absolutely convinced that whoever we were playing they were in for a gubbing.”
He scored the first try of Scotland’s campaign from right on the line. “Just my distance,” he laughs. “We’d thumped Wales in Cardiff two years before so I never lost down there. The Welsh myth had gone; it was a load of bollocks. So in ’84 I made sure the guys had a good look at their opponents: ‘Are you better than them or not?’” He says there’s mythology surrounding captains’ pre-match speeches – “another load of bollocks”. Ten minutes before kick-off, he would be given the floor but, despite being a war aficionado, declined the opportunity to borrow rousing words from history. “You made sure the team knew what it was doing, told everyone what was expected of them, hoped they took it out on to the pitch. Each to his own in these moments, but I never saw the point of scudding your head off the changing-room wall to psyche yourself up. Once, Duncan Madsen kept kicking a plywood door, put his feet clean through and got it stuck. Everyone burst out laughing, of course, which before a game was the wrong attitude.”
Here’s another myth: that Capt Aitken was a psycho. “Folk think I went around threatening players, kicking them – not true at international level.” At club level? “Well, when I was the new Gala captain, first game of the season against Kilmarnock, Hovis [Arthur Brown] punted the ball right down this guy’s throat and we lost. To me, that was the title lost too. In the dressing-room afterwards, Hovis was first up for the refreshments. I kicked the table up the air, tea and juice everywhere. And I was proved right: we did lose the league.”
In the programme he didn’t see, England’s Clive Woodward remarked with a smirk that Scotland’s style was all about “kicking ahead – yes, anyone’s head”. Aitken: “That’s fair enough!” So was his team in ’84 still being underrated by the English, almost disrespected? “Always, always. They’re a fairly superior breed; they can’t help themselves. I say this as someone who deals with a lot of English people in business and who has a lot of English friends. And, you know, that attitude has done them all right. Maybe we’re lacking it.”
On the morning of the Calcutta Cup match, Aitken and England captain Peter Wheeler were on radio together. Aitken told his opposite number and the world exactly how England would play: ‘Depend on their big roly-poly forwards and Dusty Hare’s kicking.’ “That’s what they did, only Dusty ended up having a shocker.” Considered predictable, you would think they might have been clever enough to have devised a plan B. “Well, you said it. That was the easiest game of the championship. Actually, I don’t want to upset my friends too much: call it the least difficult.”
Dublin next, and by then the belief was surging through the team. “I remember [coach] Jim Telfer, Roy and myself going down to the ground beforehand. It was incredibly windy, all of it blowing right into this corner. Roy said: ‘We’ll have a couple of tries down there today.’ He scored them!” So how would he describe his relationship with Telfer? A pause and a smile, then: “We got on. You have to remember we’d played against each other; there was the Gala-Melrose thing.” Did Telfer ever clatter him in a Borders grudge-match? “I can’t remember that happening but I’m pretty sure I clattered him.”
So the stage was set for a winner-takes-all showdown. “Before the France game [SRU president] Adam Robson, one of the few gentleman, said to me it had been a good season, even if we were about to lose. I said: ‘Adam, it’ll be a f*****g awful season if we don’t win and by the way we will.’ France were a rare team but I knew we were going to do it, all the more so when they hammered us for the first 15 minutes and couldn’t score.” Another of the modern affectations Aitken doesn’t like is “players jumping up and down after a score; the game isn’t won until the final whistle”.
At the conclusion 30 years ago, he permitted himself a clenched fist. Slam won, another job done.
Now the day’s tasks are piling up and he must get on with them. I’m thinking Big Daddy might be turning into a big softie, given he’s been nice about two of rugby’s high-heidyins and it’s not even ten o’clock, until he mentions the selector who the season after the Slam phoned him in the middle of the night, drunk, to inform him he’d lost his place.
“I’ve had my shot, let the current lot get on with it and good luck to them,” he says as I drive away. Nevertheless, the radio is soon hyping rugby from the modern era, the championship about to begin – “A monumental game! This is hard-edged!” – and I’m glad he’s not listening.