Obituary: Nairn MacEwan, Scotland rugby international who went on to coach national side

Rugby player and coach Nairn MacEwan has died at the age of 76
Rugby player and coach Nairn MacEwan has died at the age of 76
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Nairn Alexander MacEwan, Scotland rugby international player and coach. Born: 12 Decmber, 1941 in Dar-Es-Salaam. Died: 31 May, 2018 in Inverness, aged 76

AS befits a Scot born in far-off Africa, former Scotland rugby internationalist and coach Nairn MacEwan packed a lot of living into his 76 years. His life’s journey taking him from being born the son of a serving Army officer, Alexander, and enjoying an ex-pat’s Arican childhood with his father, mother Margaret Mary, and siblings Christine, Euan and Angus, to his final years as a passionate supporter of the Highlands and Scotland.

He came to Scotland, aged 11, to school at Morrison’s Academy, leaving at 18 to go straight to work in the Edinburgh insurance industry, with Royal Insurance. While there he met and married Wilma, in 1962. Son Fraser was born the following year and in 1964 the family moved to Inverness, where Nairn joined Highland RFC, and branched out on his own in the insurance business.

His rugby career took off when he got into the North and Midlands XV. He realised, if he wanted Scotland caps, which he definitely did, he would have to be playing club rugby at a higher level than with Highland, so he joined Gala, embarking on a gruelling travelling schedule of twice-weekly journeys from Inverness to Galasheils for training, then Saturday journeys to wherever Gala were playing.

“I admired Nairn’s dedication,” said team mate and Scotland captain at the time, Peter Brown.

“He is the perfect example of a player deciding he wanted to better himself and going for it. I can tell you, his expenses from Gala I do not think covered the costs, far less the effort involved in that 400-mile round-trip. Even today, with much better roads, it is a tough journey, but Nairn made it because he knew he wanted to become a better player.”

First capped, against France in 1971, he won 20 caps between then and 1975 and was a key member of the feared “Mean Machine” Scotland pack of the time.

He played in some memorable matches – four times being in winning sides against England. These victories included the 1971 “Peter Brown’s Match”, Scotland’s first post-war win in London and “Andy Irvine’s Match”, at Murrayfield in 1974.

Brown said of the 1971 game: “Nairn got very nervous before matches. He was due to share a room in London with Rodger Arneil, who was a notoriously restless sleeper and a loud snorer, so I gave up my captain’s privilege of a single room to Arneil and shared with Nairn. I got undressed and into bed, turning over to go to sleep and I heard Nairn from across the room: ‘PC, PC, how can you just go to sleep – we’re playing England tomorrow, and you’re captain,’ but, eventually, he did get to sleep.”

MacEwan’s solitary Scotland try came in the 1972 match, the only touch-down in a game dominated by kickers, it was his third straight win over the Auld Enemy – the 1971 Centenary match being the second. Fittingly, his Scotland career ended against England, when he was taken off injured after only two minutes of the 1975 game.

By then, he was well-enough established in the Scotland team to revert to playing for Highland, where he brought a level of “professionalism” to the club, it had not known before. His example saw other Highland players such as George Mackie, who followed him into the national side, gain representative honours. Highland’s promotion at the end of this season was a rare shaft of sunlight in his final days.

Nairn turned to coaching and in 1978 he succeeded Bill Dickinson as “Adviser to the Captain” as the Scotland coach was then known. Sadly, his tenure did not go well. He was perhaps too close to those players who had known him as a teammate, while the retirement over a short period of time of most of the Mean Machine did not help.

He was a brilliant coach, in many ways ahead of his time. He espoused the vibrant, expansive game which Gregor Townsend – whose father had played with Nairn at Gala – now encourages Scotland to play. He certainly left a good impression during a spell coaching in Glasgow, on both sides of the Anniesland hedge, with Accies and High School.

Former Glasgow Hawks president Chas Afuakwah said: “He was a source of immense knowledge about the game of rugby and it was only in hindsight that I realised how much he passed on whilst coaching us on those dark wet nights on the New Anniesland Curling pond.”

Between coaching, running his insurance agency and sportswear businesses in Inverness and other pressures, his health failed and, aged 38, he required open heart surgery. His marriage failed and, when he recovered his health, he took himself off to Italy to coach, along the way remarrying, to Sheila.

He also coached in Ireland, where son Cahal was born, before returning to Scotland and Strathconon, where he found peace in the remote glen. He also threw himself into local life, learning Gaelic, joining the local Gaelic choir and competing with them at the Mod. He played his part in the local Highland Games and opened his famous restaurant An Shebeen, while also working on his beloved croft.

Nairn MacEwan was a passionate Scot and, perhaps uniquely among his teammates, he was a confirmed believer in Independence back in the 1970s. His health, however, let him down – he required further heart surgery in the mid-1990s and he began the long, slow downhill slide to his untimely death.

He, reluctantly, closed the restaurant and returned part-time to the insurance business, working in Inverness and Dingwall, but, in 2006, he contracted Lyme’s Disease and his final years were painful ones, eventually – with his second marriage also failing – requiring him to enter an Inverness care home.

Old rugby friends still sought him out, but, as Colin Baillie, Highland’s president, sadly reports: “We would go up, hoping to see him and try to cheer him up, but, all too often he would refuse to see visitors. I feel he was perhaps embarrassed at us seeing how he was failing – he was always such an outgoing, gregarious chap, terrific company.”

Nairn was also notoriously slow to buy his round; his nickname of “Splash” alludes to his failure to “splash the cash.” One former team mate reckons: “Nairn could have peeled an orange in his pocket.”

His two marriages produced five children: Fraser, Karen and Nick from his time with Wilma and Cahal and Caitlin from his marriage to Sheila. He remained on good terms with both wives and all his children.

Nairn MacEwan’s funeral will be held in Inverness on Wednesday,12 June. His final resting place will be on his beloved croft in Strathconon, where he was perhaps happiest, among his animals and the spectacular Scottish scenery he loved. A simple plaque will be laid, it will say: “Honour Me – Call Me Highlander.”

Fitting – there could be only one Nairn MacEwan.

MATT VALLANCE