Obituary: Neil Stevenson, accomplished rugby player who ran dyeworks and Edinburgh Woollen Mill

Neil Stevenson, businessman and sportsman. Born: 11 November, 1945 in Carlisle. Died: 12 November, 2018 in , aged 73.

Neil Stevenson prepares to receive the ball as he faces an opponent wearing No. 14 on his jersey
Neil Stevenson prepares to receive the ball as he faces an opponent wearing No. 14 on his jersey

Neil Stevenson who has died aged 73 was a popular figure in Langholm, the Borders and throughout Scotland and beyond, well known for his sporting and business achievements as well as his community and charitable activities.

A talented rugby player, he was a member of the successful Langholm team from the mid 1960s onwards and represented the South of Scotland several times, including their memorable draw against the touring South African team in 1970. Once rugby finished, he became an enthusiastic golfer playing to a single figure handicap and through his time and generosity helped transform Langholm Golf Club, erecting a new clubhouse and restructuring the course. He was Captain and President of the golf club and Honorary President of the rugby club.

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For some 30 years he was managing director of Langholm Dyeworks and Finishing Company which he built up very successfully and with brother David ran the Edinburgh Woollen Mill business, another highly successful enterprise. Public appointments included being Chairman of Dumfries and Galloway Enterprise Board and membership of the Board of the Scottish Sports Council. Generous with his wealth, he supported numerous community and charitable activities, particularly Macmillan Cancer Support for whom he was a tireless and extremely effective fund raiser. In 2015 he was “Volunteer of the Year”, leading to an invitation to Buckingham Palace, while the following year he was given an award by Annandale and Eskdale Council for services to sport and charity locally.

Diagnosed in 2012 with myeloma, a form of bone marrow blood cancer, he dealt head on with his condition, determined to lead as full a life as possible and never complained of his plight. In collaboration with a friend’s daughter, Katherine Latimer, he wrote a book about his experience – My Trip of a Lifetime, Myeloma and Me – raising further funds for Macmillan. No misery memoir, the book offers candid insight into dealing with cancer, emphasising the importance of positivity and retaining a sense of humour. This was a valuable exercise for him which he also wanted to be of help to others. In a speech in 2015, he summarised his attitude, ”I’m perfectly at peace with where I am, let’s get on with living. I have no respect for the illness or its prognosis.”

Born James Neil Stevenson in Carlisle, he was the middle son of Drew and Madge née Bell. Brought up in Langholm where his father had set up the dyeworks in 1947, he initially attended Langholm Academy with elder and younger brothers David and Alan. His sporting aptitude was soon evident as he became sports champion winning four of the five events – both sprints, shot putt and long jump. Thereafter at Dumfries Academy he set various records and won medals at Scottish Schools and Scottish Junior Championships, including at pole vault thanks to coaching from David, an Olympic Games vaulter in 1964 in Tokyo. He excelled on the rugby field as a strong and mobile prop forward playing for his schools, then Langholm Colts before graduating to the senior team. He went on to study colour chemistry at Bradford University and spent summers visiting dyestuff companies in Germany and Switzerland. He continued playing rugby and represented the University, Yorkshire Colts and Bradford where team captain was Geoff Cooke, later manager of England and the British Lions.

After graduating he returned to Langholm where he took charge of the dyeworks, substantially increasing its turnover to make it the biggest and best package dyer of woollen yarns in the UK. With David he helped run Edinburgh Woollen Mill, expanding it from a small operation to a multi-million pound business before retiring in 1995.

On the rugby pitch he developed as a strong scrummaging prop who, unusually for the time, could also run fast and handle well, making him a key member of a strong Langholm team, then one of the best in the country. Selection for South of Scotland followed and he was once reserve for the national trial. In January 1970 he was in the South team that held the mighty Springboks to a draw at Netherdale, part of a front row with two Scotttish internationals, Suddon and Laidlaw, in a team fielding ten internationals. He also helped South clinch the inter district title that month while Langholm finished second in the Border League. Thanks to his speed and handling ability he was also a noted exponent of sevens rugby. In about 1973 he retired from the game, turning to golf instead which became his passion. Langholm Golf Club survived and prospered in large part thanks to him while he also enjoyed memberships at Carlisle, Gleneagles, Loch Lomond and Archerfield. He was an enthusiastic pro-am and charity golfer, playing alongside Sandy Lyle and Bob Charles among others. As a lifelong Manchester United fan, one of his golfing highlights was playing Royal Birkdale with Bobby Charlton.

In 1984 he married Margaret Bell whom he knew in Langholm. They enjoyed a happy and fulfilling marriage and had a daughter Sarah. His family came first in his life and he greatly appreciated their support during his illness.

In 2001 he undertook a sponsored slim for Macmillan, raising £75,000 in the process and thereafter, asked to chair the committee to raise £1 million to complete the Oncology Unit at Dumfries Infirmary, he duly succeeded. He relished the challenge of projects and in retirement undertook many successfully thanks to his commitment and ability to “get things done”. A gregarious individual with a talent for straight talking and an occasionally outrageous sense of humour, he was the life and soul of a party. His generosity of spirit was boundless and he was a tried and trusted friend to many. He is survived by his wife, daughter and brothers.