Frans ten Bos fled Nazis to star for Scotland

Frans ten Bos at his Angus home with dog Izzy. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Frans ten Bos at his Angus home with dog Izzy. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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I was searching for an old rugby warrior from the mists of time but, after some fruitless rooting around, thought I was going to have to give up on Frans ten Bos. Eventually someone in the Angus Glens had heard of the lock forward with the unusual name, only to suggest I might already be too late.

Well, “Tin baws” as he was known, is still with us. Still living among the hills after his incredible wartime escape from the flatlands of Holland. Still not likely to utter the words “I’m a Dutchman” because he’s always considered himself Scottish. And still, having served at Suez and in the scrum during less than glistening years for the team in the dark blue, a formidable fellow.

Frans ten Bos with his team'mates in February 1961 (third from right, back row)

Frans ten Bos with his team'mates in February 1961 (third from right, back row)

“Can’t your newspaper bloody well afford business cards?” he’ll ask me. Then, equally incredulous: “Is this what they give you for a company car?” And right at the start, on production of my voice-recorder: “You’re shorthand obviously isn’t up to scratch.”

News of his demise would seem to be exaggerated. “I’ve not been too well lately but here I am,” he says. “I’d like to be in better fettle but, you know, life goes on.” This is the no-nonsense, no-tears attitude which has seen ten Bos, now 77, through the challenges of rugby and the rest of it, although living in one of the most beautiful corners of Scotland, or indeed anywhere, surely can’t have done him any harm.

He shares his home in Glen Prosen with Spanish second wife Teresa and a scampering dog. The metropolis is Kirriemuir – “6.3 miles away,” he’d told me before I slipped out of mobile phone range for the last leg of my journey. The inference was clear: I wasn’t to be late and certainly I wasn’t to get lost, so the idling pheasants on the single-track road were well and truly scattered over the glorious, red-hued countryside.

But, even though ten Bos doesn’t suffer fools, he turns out to be perfectly friendly and happy to chat about the 17 caps he won between 1959 and 1963. And the old memory-box proves to be in good nick, especially after Teresa provides a large plate of biscuits for the sitting room – “I’m not often left alone with them.” He’s surprised by my interest in his story. “It was a bloody long time ago, you know.”

But, really, what’s not to like about jittery monochrome of floppy-haired gents running round each other, as opposed to smashing straight through, in the determinedly amateur era?

Before last Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match we were treated to such a clip of England’s Richard Sharp scoring one of Twickenham’s greatest tries, with our man one of the many Scots required to admire his merry dance. “I played with Richard at Oxford, a thoroughly good sort,” says ten Bos. The novelist Bernard Cornwell named his popular Sharpe character after the English hero but, before we go any further, we should set down FTB’s credentials for having a book written about him because they’re like the player in his 6ft 3ins, 16-stone pomp – immense.

Picture this: you’re on a desperate quayside and your mother has just handed you over to a man on a boat, together with your nappies and your bottles because you’re only two, and said: “Please take him, far away from this hell.” This was how his life nearly ended, and how it properly began. In the Netherlands ten Bos’s father, also Frans, worked in aviation, a keen pilot with his own plane. “He knew war was coming. He lived only 20 miles from the border and would go shooting in Germany with his brother where their friends, who they thought were intelligent people, were all raving about this chap called Hitler. Then my father flew his plane over Germany and was arrested for taking photographs from the air.”

At the first sound of gunfire – “My mother thought she’d been woken by a terrible thunderstorm” – ten Bos and his sisters were spirited down to Brussels. “My father had been dreading this moment and also planning for it, but the first shell to target the airport landed on his plane. So then he got his DKW – he always had enviable cars – and filled it with extra jerrycans, the basic essentials, three children and a wife and drove down the Belgian coast. The roads were crammed with refugees and we stopped at every port but couldn’t get out.

“We waited two weeks at Bordeaux, the last port in France, and finally there were three cocoa boats from west Africa heading to Britain. My mother knew they were only taking British subjects and she also knew that children had precedence. My sisters and I had all been born in Britain because our parents, who were great Anglophiles, had been sure Europe would erupt so our mother was flown across every time she was pregnant and about to pop. When we were handed over in Bordeaux the ship’s captain was horrified and allowed our parents to go, too.”

Ten Bos was told this tale when he was older. He also learned that the other two boats didn’t make it, both being torpedoed. How did he feel, as he counted up all the times he could have perished? “Oh, I thought it was tremendously exciting.”

Hitler’s bombs followed the family to London’s Mayfair Hotel, scaring his big sister Elizabeth so much that a further escape was required, organised by their mother’s best chum from finishing school. Suddenly the family were living in a cottage on the banks of the Awe, near to Taynuilt, producing for ten Bos his first unforgettable image of Scotland: “The place was heaving with wee Glaswegians who’d all been evacuated. I must have got pretty confused, having only just started to speak in Dutch, not knowing any English and certainly not this other strange language.

“Later we moved over to Fife. My father, who’d been flying Swordfish bombers out of Greenock for the North Atlantic convoys, was relocated to Leuchars. We were in the Rusacks Hotel in St Andrews, all these retired generals in their worn-out tweeds on the balcony, and I’m supposed to have pointed up at a plane and said, in my best Sauchiehall Street accent: ‘There’s mah dah-day.’

Ten Bos hated Lathallan, his prep school, and tried to run away. “I was a blubbing homesick twit. Then we were on holiday in France when my father got hold of a newspaper, the Express or something horrible, pointed to a photograph and said: ‘Look, your school’s on fire.’ That was the happiest day of my life.” But he loved Fettes College in Edinburgh because of the sport. “Rugby was a religion there. In all my time I’m pretty sure the first XV never lost a match. My first second-row partner was Malcolm Swan. I followed him to Oxford and then into the Scotland team.”

FTB’s first international was the last of the 1950s for Scotland, a 3-3 draw at Twickenham, and his eyes light up as he reels off the team: “Ken Scotland, extremely nice chap… Arthur Smith, top man… Jim Shackleton, we’re still in touch, having been at Fettes together… Gordon Waddell, another Fettesian… Norman Bruce, army man, long gone unfortunately… Hughie McLeod, the prop whom I had the pleasure of shoving up the arse for so long… David Rollo, farmer from Cupar, won his first cap that day too, lovely chap.”

And then there was Tremayne Rodd, the 3rd Lord Rennell, a crack backgammon player and Scotland’s scrum-half. “A wonderful athlete. We played together at London Scottish and won the Middlesex Sevens five years on the trot. Mind you, he was unconventional and got up the noses of the selectors with his poor time-keeping. He’d turn up for late for our get-togethers, wearing Uncle Percy’s overcoat right down to his ankles, with brilliant excuses: ‘I’m terribly sorry, chaps, but I was detained at the Hirsal [the Alec Douglas-Home estate].

“The camaraderie between us in the Scotland team was terrific. Indeed it existed between all rugby players at that time. If one of your colleagues, or someone from another team, ran into trouble financially, maritally or with the police, everyone rallied round. If a chap were having a terrible time he jolly well knew there would be other chaps to help him out. It was like a big family.

“I’m certainly glad I played the game when I did. We played for fun whereas now they do it for money and, as I understand it, there’s a degree of thuggishness these days. You may think me a terrible snob. I’m not really, even if that’s how I come across, but there was no rugger fellow from my time who I wouldn’t have been pleased to bring home for dinner.”

It was a different game for sure. “The SRU would send you a card: ‘Dear ten Bos, you have been selected to play against Such-and-such. Please assemble at…’

“The rules were you couldn’t meet up any earlier than 24 hours before kick-off. There was no time for any training, and, in any case, there was no manager or coach, so you’d maybe work out a couple of signals beforehand.

“First match I was with Hamish Kemp in the second row. We had a conversation along the lines of: ‘Which side do you pack on?’ ‘The right.’ ‘No, you bloody well don’t, I do.’

“Playing for Scotland was always frightfully informal and laissez-faire and all the better for being so.”

The SRU were rigorous on some matters, though. “If you’d played previously the card would read: ‘Please bring the No 4 jersey which is in your possession.’ It was one strip for the whole season, unlike the other home nations, who could swap theirs at the end of the games. I remember ripping mine. It was in tatters. I wrote explaining this and was asked to forward it before being given a replacement. They obviously didn’t trust me.

“Here’s another example of the SRU’s complete lack of generosity. After my first match at Murrayfield, against France, the black-tie dinner was held at the old North British Hotel in Edinburgh. The opposition were there along with all the alicadoos – bloody good fun. Everyone stayed the night but I made the mistake of making a local telephone call and ordering a morning paper and the SRU sent me a bill for 1s 10d. I still have it.”

So, Dutch parents, born in Tony Hancock’s East Cheam, wins rugby honours for Scotland. Did ten Bos stop to contemplate how he’d arrived at this juncture or even who he was? “I’ve never felt Dutch for Christ sake,” he harrumphs. “I’ve never felt anything other that Scottish.” I ask the question another way, wondering how his parents viewed his successful immersion into another country and its culture. “I think my father only came to Twickenham once and yet I played there many times. He provided for his children very well, paying our school fees, but he wasn’t a traditional father.” Different times, I suggest. “Well, some chaps’ fathers came to every match and were always advising, which seemed a bit obsessive. I’m jolly glad mine wasn’t like that, even though he was from the other extreme.”

Different generations, indeed. Nowadays anyone who’s ever booted off The X Factor willingly takes on the question: “How did it feel?” Ten Bos belonged to a far less self-regarding age where you didn’t “feel”, but got on with the job of doing.

“Here’s another tale you might like,” he says. “Near the end of my time at Fettes my housemaster said: ‘Well, ten Bos, what are you going to do?’ ‘National service, sir, I think I ought.’ ‘Jolly good idea,’ he said and advised me to pick a good regiment. I wrote to the colonel of the Cameron Highlanders and got a letter back: ‘Dear ten Bos, you are obviously a thoroughly good chap but I would like to remind you that this is a Scottish regiment.’ So I joined the Argyll and Sutherlands, going in as a jock. First night in the barracks, the chaps either side of me had both just come from Barlinnie. I produced my pyjamas and one of them said: ‘Hey, what’s those you got, pal?’”

The 1950s had been a “dreary” period for Scottish rugby. But Murrayfield getting its own pyjamas – the revolutionary pitch blanket – at the start of the next decade seemed to promise better times ahead. Ten Bos and his decent coves and good eggs became the first home nation to tour South Africa, a narrow Test defeat feeling like a win after the 0-44 thrashing by the Springboks in 1951. “We opened the Boet Erasmus Stadium in Port Elizabeth and because of my name the South Africans thought that I must be one of them.”

Ten Bos was also nicknamed “Fanny” after Dutch “flying housewife” Fanny Blankers-Koen. With three daughters from his first marriage, he carved out a career in printing. Back on the rugby field, he was twice within touching distance of the Triple Crown, England denying Scotland both times. But Ireland, today’s opponents for Scotland, were regularly vanquished and there were famous wins in Paris and Cardiff to end dismal sequences.

The ’62 triumph in Wales was Scotland’s first for 35 years. Ten Bos scored a try and made another for Ron Glasgow – “the only two decent things I did,” he laughs. He’s being over-modest. The scrapbook of a remarkable career records that FTB, together with brothers-in-arms Mike Campbell-Lamerton and John Douglas in the dark blue pack were “like Ailsa Craig, the Bass Rock and Inchkeith – simply immovable”. That’s still ten Bos, he’s not going anywhere. “Don’t forget to write that rugby in my day was fun,” he says, waving me off. So was meeting him.