Bill McLaren: 'On a day renowned for Burns, another great Scot is laid to rest'

FOR Bill McLaren, a resounding victory was always to be celebrated by the dedicated fan with a nocturnal bout of outdoor jigging. "They'll be dancing in the streets of Selkirk tonight" was his classic refrain.

• Members of Hawick Rugby Football Club carry the coffin from Teviot Church as a piper plays Flower of Scotland. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The dedicated fans, thousands of them, who yesterday gathered under a grey sky and in a biting wind to line the streets of Hawick, had no desire to dance, but to applaud the passing of a local hero.

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The clapping began at the bottom of the High Street, just as two police motorcycle outriders rounded the corner, followed slowly by a hearse bearing the coffin wreathed in white roses and carnations.

The sound then rolled up the street, magnified by the applauding primary school pupils in their neat blue sweatshirts and the staff of Royal Bank of Scotland, past Lindsay Garvie, "the world famous champion haggis maker" and Hoops-A-Daisy, the local florist. McLaren's grandson had, one hour earlier, quoted Robert Burns's Holy Willie's Prayer to express the surprise his Papa would have experienced at such a scene: "What was I, or my generation/That I should get sic exaltation?"

The answer was a good man whose kindness was not forgotten and whose dedication to rugby will long be remembered. Yet those who stood up straight as the funeral procession passed, did so out of a deeper personal connection. "He taught my children rugby," said Albert Thompson, 66, a retired engineer. "And, regardless of ability, he made every child feel like a champion."

The funeral of Bill McLaren, the BBC commentator who, in a career spanning almost 50 years, became known as the "voice of rugby", began with a Hawick Ball. As each of the 650 mourners arrived at the Teviot Parish Church, they passed an honour guard of ten Hawick RFC players in resplendent green blazers, then were greeted by his granddaughter with a silver bowl of her Papa's favourite mints.

Collecting a sweetie to suck back the grief were a host of rugby greats, including Gavin Hastings, Sandy Carmichael, Ian McLauchlan and Doddie Weir, whom McLaren once described as running like a "mad giraffe".

Among the mourners were the living legacy of his years teaching PE in the local school in the form of Jim Renwick, Colin Deans and Tony Stanger, all veterans of Scotland's national team, as well as the British Lions.

Once Bette McLaren, his widow, arrived on the arm of their daughter, Linda Lawson, the coffin was carried by six of the honour guard into the church to the pipe skirl of Highland Cathedral, played by Cameron Renwick, the nephew of Jim, the former Scotland centre.

After the congregation sang The Lord's My Shepherd, Gregor Lawson, one of McLaren's grandsons, gave a tribute on behalf of the whole family, saying: "We cannot believe how many people are here. It is so important for us to be united with so many other people who love Bill McLaren as much as we do. We're here to lay to rest a great man. A great Hawick man, a great rugby man and a great family man."

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It was fitting, he said to say goodbye to a great Scot on a day renowned for another great Scot: Rabbie Burns.

He said: "So much has been said by people significantly more important and erudite than me about his unparalleled impartiality, his iconic voice, his professionalism, his gentlemanly nature and his ambassadorship for both rugby and Scotland. Whilst we have shed many tears through sadness, a great many have also been shed simply through bursting with pride."

Mr Lawson shared memories of the man he and the other grandchildren knew as Papa. "A lot has been said about Papa's voice and what came out of his mouth. However, as a family we always felt that what went into it was even more remarkable. Some of his more notable quirks were soup with marshmallows and red wine with lemonade, often good red wine, to the horror of my Uncle Mike."

He spoke of his grandfather's "incredible turn of phrase" and how his descriptive flair would turn mundane occasions into a "delight". In the McLaren household, hot soup was "molten lava" and one grandchild's girlfriend was described as possessing the voice of an "air-raid siren".

Mr Lawson said his grandfather was "a great many things to a great many people", but added: "For the past 86 years, to his family he was even more.

"To my Nana, he was a hot water bottle, a Hooverer, a dance partner, her golden boy, the love of her life and soulmate for 62 years." He was also "a modern dad when dads weren't really very modern". Referring to Bette, he added: "Seeing them together last week, it was clear that their love was still as strong and as tender as when they first met 62 years ago."

Ian Landles then read a poetic tribute, entitled The Man That Oo Ca' Bill, written in the Hawick dialect. The service was concluded by the Rev Neil Combe, a neighbour for 25 years, who remembered the commentator as a "private man" and recalled the kindness he had shown to others.

McLaren never took his gifts and skills for granted, he said. "TB nearly killed Bill when he was a young man. It certainly put constraints on him that he would never willingly have put on himself. He used the experience, the adversity, to prepare for something different. Had it not been for that, we would never have had the voice of rugby."

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A collection was made for Alzheimer Scotland and Hawick Community Hospital where McLaren had been looked after by staff, whom he would jokingly rugby tackle.

The coffin was carried from the church by Hawick RFC members to the sound of Flower Of Scotland on the pipes. As the funeral procession wound round the town's one-way system, a middle-aged man clapped and then said: "I can still remember him as my PE teacher telling a wee boy who had an earring: 'If you want to be a lassie, away and play netball'."

Death could have found Bill McLaren decades ago. In the sanatorium where, as a young man, he spent 18 months and watched as TB carried off his friends, in an earthen trench at Monte Cassino where he found himself just 6ft from a German soldier, that it should come in a Hawick Hospital at the age of 86, and after almost 50 years as the "voice of rugby" was indeed a victory worth celebrating in the streets.

After the applause had faded and the hearse wound its way on to Wellogate Cemetery, Bill McLaren was laid in the earth of the town he loved so well.

A day away from Hawick was, he had always insisted, a day wasted.

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The man that oo ca' Bill: A tribute to Bill McLaren

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