Scotsman obituaries: Keith Macdonald, rugby player and businessman

Keith Macdonald, rugby player. Born: 13 May 1933 in Dundee. Died: 20 September 2021 in Elie, Fife, aged 88

Keith Macdonald in his Scotland jersey

Keith Macdonald was one of Scotland’s oldest rugby internationalists. A talented centre three-quarter, he won six caps in the mid-1950s playing for Stewart’s College FPs, a total which undoubtedly would have been greater but for injury problems that caused him to retire aged 26.

An excellent all-round player, he was particularly noted for his defence and thunderous tackling. He also represented the Barbarians, Co Optimists, RAF, Edinburgh District, Steele Bodger’s XV and although chosen for Combined Services was unable to play through illness.

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Sufficiently highly regarded to be selected initially for the Lions for their four-month 1959 tour of Australia and New Zealand, he was unable to go because of injury concerns and employment leave issues.

Keith Roy Macdonald was born in Dundee, the only child of William, a jute mill manager, and Lily Whitton. In 1936, because of William’s work, the family moved to Calcutta where Keith distinguished himself aged five by rescuing a friend from a river. With war imminent he and his mother returned to Dundee but it was decided he would be safer staying with relatives in Detroit. He and his mother sailed to America where she left Keith with her brother, Tom Whitton, a former Scottish cross country internationalist, and his wife. This was a testing period for Keith, who did not see his mother again until war finished, by which time he had an American accent to go with his sports of baseball and American football.

At Dundee High School he was nicknamed “America” and subject to some teasing. By this time his parents had separated and they later divorced.

In late 1946 Keith and his mother moved to Edinburgh where he began attending Daniel Stewart’s College and developing his sporting talent. In 1949 and 1950 he represented Edinburgh Schools against Glasgow, scoring a try on his debut, while in 1951 he became the first College pupil to be selected for Scottish Schoolboys against their English counterparts, but regrettably the match fell victim to the weather.

Apart from rugby, he played cricket for the 1st XI and was junior and joint senior sports champion, successful at both track and field events.

On leaving school he undertook National Service in the RAF based at Waddington, Lincolnshire, during which he played against the Army at Twickenham in 1952. A year later he toured with the RAF, playing Bayonne in France and a Spanish XV in Madrid, while he also managed five games for Leicester during this period.

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Once demobbed he resumed playing for Stewart’s FPs and his good form led to selection for Edinburgh in 1954 and the first of several international trials. His debut international came in a win against France in January 1956 followed by games against Wales and Ireland. A press report of the Welsh game stated: “The only Scottish back who can escape censure is Macdonald” and one on the Irish game said: “Once again Scotland had reason to be grateful for the great fighting spirit of Macdonald.” In 1957 he played against Wales, Ireland and England, the latter in a defeat at Twickenham with the Times report noting: “Scottish tackling was murderous… especially Macdonald’s”. Another report said: “...but for Macdonald’s devastating tackling of the powerful W Davies the score might have become incalculable”. After the match a severely ruffled Davies refused to shake hands but apologised later at the dinner. That year Macdonald also played for Barbarians in the Mobbs Memorial match against East Midlands.

Injury hampered his career considerably, severely restricting his appearances in Stewart’s FPs unofficial championship win in 1958 and causing him to miss further Scotland appearances in 1958 and ’59. His club also enjoyed much seven-a-side success, but again, injury curtailed Keith’s appearances, meaning he missed the 1956 Melrose win, although he appeared in the 1957 final and won medals at Langholm and Murrayfield tournaments. He also set a club record, scoring five tries in a game against Kelvinside Accies.

In 1957 in Edinburgh he married Dorothy Pentland, with whom he enjoyed almost 40 years of happy marriage, during which they had daughter Gill. Keith then worked in insurance sales with Norwich Union as the couple began married life living in the Trinity area.

In 1964 the opportunity arose for him to take over running a family business concern in Milnathort, Cunningham’s bacon factory. Channelling all his energy and drive into the project, often working seven days a week, he built the enterprise into a highly successful company which was eventually sold to Booker cash and carry, allowing Keith to retire in 1985.

The family lived in Milnathort before moving to Glenisla, then Bankfoot, before settling in Elie in the early 1990s. After Dorothy’s death in 1996, Keith met Carolyn McEachran, whom he married in 2002.

After rugby Keith became a keen golfer, playing off a low 4 handicap and enjoying membership of Royal Burgess, Gleneagles and Elie, where his house overlooked the course. He also took part in RIGS [Rugby Internationalists Golf Society] outings and played in America, scoring a highly respectable 85 over Augusta aged 60.

Performance cars were another interest, with Aston Martin and Porsche among the favourite models he owned. He loved life in Elie and the regular breaks he and Carolyn spent in Soto Grande, Spain. A sociable gent who enjoyed a good party, Keith was a loyal friend whose resilience, determination and work ethic enabled him to overcome childhood challenges to play international rugby and prosper in business.

He is survived by his wife, daughter and granddaughter Issy.

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