Interview: Iwan Tukalo on the Ukraianian dad who raised a Scotland hero

“I’m sorry,” says Iwan Tukalo, his voice halting as tears form in his eyes, “but this always gets me.” I don’t want to see a grown man cry, far less a Grand Slam immortal, but equally I don’t want his story to end because we’ve just reached what I reckon will be the best bit.
Former Scotland winger Iwan Tukalo is determined to explore his family history on his father's side. Picture: Ian GeorgesonFormer Scotland winger Iwan Tukalo is determined to explore his family history on his father's side. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Former Scotland winger Iwan Tukalo is determined to explore his family history on his father's side. Picture: Ian Georgeson

“This” is the home changing-room at Murrayfield in the minutes before kick-off on that day of days back in 1990. We all know about the walk – the slow march on to the pitch – but what of the talk? Recounting the last words the Scotland team said to each other never fails to move Tukalo but maybe, after all that’s happened to him recently and the emotional journey he’s about to undertake, they mean just a little 
bit more.

We’ll cover all of this shortly but let’s return to the middle of the circle of chairs for the winner-takes-all encounter with England – Calcutta Cup, Triple Crown, Five Nations, Slam, the entitlement to misty watercolour memories concerning it for evermore – because, for such bountiful prizes, the 
players were required to make a solemn vow.

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“There we were sat in this 
circle,” recalls Tukalo. “Every other Scotland game we’d been in rows like a school classroom, 
listening to teacher. This threw us a bit.” There were two teachers – Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan. Geech went over the gameplan one last time, Creamy supplied the fire and brimstone. “No change there, but in front of each chair was a shirt, folded with the thistle on the breast showing. We were told: ‘Pick up the jersey, look at the number, give it to the guy wearing it today and make a commitment to him.’ I had JJ’s [John 
Jeffrey’s] shirt. ‘I won’t let you down,’ I said. I can’t remember who gave 
me my shirt because by then the emotions were so overwhelming. Everyone was welling up but nothing more needed said. No one was going to let anyone down.”

I’ve met Tukalo thinking we might discuss rugby hat-tricks, our man having been the last player in dark blue to score three tries in a championship match before Blair Kinghorn’s treble last Saturday. Of course I was going to attempt to winkle a 1990 reminisce out of him; there’s only ten and a half months until the 30th anniversary year after all so no time to lose. And I was pretty confident the family stuff, the exotic back-story, would be interesting without knowing quite how gripping it would turn out to be. We’re in a cake shop in Corstorphine on Edinburgh’s western fringes, which is as close as Tukalo can get these days to the site of his Ukrainian father and Italian mother’s first meeting. This was a cafe called the Duchess where Rosina worked, both she and Dmytro having begun new lives in Scotland’s capital after the horrors of the Second World War.

Tukalo, 57, explains: “Mum was from Cervaro, which is near to Monte 
Cassino and its monastery, which was blown up during the war. I’ve visited a few times. There are bullet holes in the wall of the house where she lived. She was one of three sisters and their mother decided Cervaro was no place for the girls to live and arranged for all of them to stay with relatives in Edinburgh.”

Dmytro’s flight was even more dramatic, and that’s only the chunk of it which Tukalo knows: “My father was conscripted into the German army which, for Ukrainians, meant all the rotten, dangerous jobs, mine-clearing and suchlike.

These guys were expendable and Dad, because he was captured and taken to a POW camp in Italy, was among the lucky ones. There were stories from when the war was over of Ukrainians being shot as they came off their troop ships for having fought against the Soviets.”

Tukalo’s father was transferred to a POW camp in Dalkeith, Midlothian, and from there started working in a paper mill in Balerno. “He was such a willing worker – very good with his hands, as maybe you’d have to be when dealing with mines – that the boss wanted to keep him. Then he came to Corstorphine and set up his own business making shop signs. One day he went into the Duchess for his fags 
and that’s when he and Mum started courting.

“He died 25 years ago this year. The business had been getting too much so I helped him sell it. I wanted Dad to start taking it easy, hang out with his new grandson, but one day he 
complained of chest pains. He needed a triple-heart bypass but that went pear-shaped and he never woke up.”

Dmytro took many of his secrets with him. “He never talked about his life before Scotland, Ukraine and the war. Well, sometimes he and I would go for a pint and he’d tell me about getting the German soldiers drunk because they couldn’t handle his lethal vodka but he never let on about the dark stuff. He probably saw things no human being should see.

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“I remember Dad’s younger brother visiting us from the Ukraine. This was immediate post-Glasnost just as I was about to make my Scotland debut. These two guys hadn’t seen each other for 40 years and it was very emotional. Dad was keen to find out what had happened to old friends from school but his brother, who was worried about reprisals, wouldn’t say much, although Dad feared some had been shot or poisoned for being dissidents. We gave his brother one of my rugby kitbags full of women’s blouses from Marks & Spencer to sell on the black market when he got back to the Ukraine. We gave him a video recorder we had reconfigured and a hundred dollars to bribe guards at a railway station to avoid it being confiscated. The recorder would have sold for the equivalent of two years’ wages allowing him to finish building his house.”

Dad-of-two Tukalo is entranced by his family history and yet is subsisting on fragments. He’s determined to learn more and a few events have precipitated his craving for genealogy, truth and maybe some inner peace. His mother died recently so what little Dmytro told her is gone for good. Then Tukalo suffered his own health scare. At the same time, he was witnessing Doddie Weir battle motor neurone disease and other great rugby pals receiving intimations of mortality. So he decided to quit his job.

Graduating in civil engineering, his career had always been in energy. “I wanted to take time out. Dad worked and worked and worked and then 
suddenly his life was over.”

Tukalo watches his son Todd, a winger like him, play for Heriot’s. Now, to mark those 25 years since his father’s passing, he plans to visit the Ukraine and find out more about him.

“He came from Lviv in the west of the country and one thing Mum did learn was that, on the day before he was conscripted, he visited a fortune-teller. This woman told him: ‘You will leave here soon, never to return’. He never did so I feel like I should go there. I have an old letter from Dad’s brother. When I was younger I went to the Ukrainian Club in Edinburgh and was starting to learn the language but then rugby took over my life. There’s an address on the letter. The brother may be dead now but he had sons. This is going to be an adventure, I think, and if my wife Susan will allow it I’m going to rev up my 
Triumph Tiger and make the journey by motorbike.”

Tukalo had no need of additional horsepower playing for the rugby team at the Royal High School and Edinburgh’s famous juvenile football club, Hutchie Vale. In both disciplines he was used as a speedster. Those hectic Saturdays meant he had to miss 
Cossack dancing at the Ukrainian Club and eventually the oval ball won all of his attention.

Initially at school there had been some teasing over his funny name, although this was soon supplanted by admiration for his sporting prowess. He played his club rugby for 
Selkirk, lured there by the presence of John Rutherford. “If it wasn’t for Rud I would never have been capped. He used to hang around after training to practice with me, developing my game.” Tukalo started to make his own headlines although not everyone was impressed. “A journalist at the Daily Record wrote that I’d never play for Scotland because neither of my parents was Scottish. I was angry about that and got on the phone to the guy. I told him I was born here and it was going to happen – ‘Write it in your 
diary.’” He smiles. “I love [kilted Kiwi and fellow 1990 hero] Sean Lineen but I’ve got more right to wear the blue jersey than him! We’ve always had a laugh about that.”

That debut came against today’s opponents Ireland in 1985. Tukalo was thrilled his father was at Murrayfield to see it. “Dad had had no life, really, as a young man but he’d given me a wonderful one in Scotland.” Nevertheless, there were nerves. “Have you ever 
bungee-jumped? That’s what your first cap is like. The build-up is the same as having your legs tied together and travelling in a cage. You think: ‘F***, why am I doing this?’ You’re bricking it. Then the game starts and you jump. It’s over in a flash. At the final whistle you feel a sense of euphoria and you go: ‘That was brilliant – can I do it again?’”

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Tukalo remembers stirring battles with the Irish and feisty individual contests with the likes of Keith Crossan, Trevor Ringland and David Irving. “In the first minute of my first game, Hugo MacNeill was bombing right for the corner. I crossed from the other wing and hit him for all he was worth to save the try. I felt pretty pleased with myself. ‘International rugby – yes!’ Two 
minutes later Trevor cut inside me and scored. There was no resting on laurels.”

Scotland were edged out that day but Tukalo, in amassing 37 caps, never lost to Ireland again and the fixture continued to be notable for him. The first of his 15 tries came against the men in green in 1987 and in the game two years later he bagged his hat-trick. Bill McLaren rated that encounter, 37-21 to the Scots in the 100th match-up between the sides, as one of the most thrilling he’d ever witnessed and Tukalo’s first score, with the ball 
zipping through a dozen pairs of hands, is generally reckoned to be one of our all-time greatest.

Tukalo plays down his achievements in that match and the rest of his career. Records are there to be broken, he says, and he was delighted when Kinghorn matched his feat. “I regarded myself as one of the journeymen,” he says, conceding that, after winning the Grand Slam, which he likens to climbing Everest, he struggled to reach such heights again. So he was surprised – and delighted – to receive belated commendation from Telfer after the great rugby oracle retired. “He was picking his best XV over successive days in The Scotsman. When he got to the backs and I was included I said to myself: ‘He did like me! I did do something right!’”

Tukalo was part of the rebuild after the 1984 Grand Slam. There was a trial, Probables v Possibles, in which JJ, Finlay Calder and himself made themselves essential picks and it was a portent of something else, too. “Gary Callander was our captain. He said: ‘Are we the Christians about to be fed to the lions?’ Then we’ll walk on to the park… ”

Scotland in 1990 had the walk. They had the talk. And Tukulo recalls another motivating factor: “The 
England wives and girlfriends were on the pitch beforehand, posing for photos. We were angry: ‘They shouldn’t be here. This is our turf.’ That hardened our resolve some more.” Scotland, he says, were blessed with plenty of game-changers: guys who could seize the ball, the initiative and history. He thought he knew about noise, the amount a rugby crowd could generate, but during the match couldn’t hear Scott Hastings shouting at him from just a few feet away.

Back then, victors and vanquished sat together at a post-match banquet, then woke up in the same Carlton Highland Hotel with similarly epic hangovers.

And Tukalo it was who spotted a delivery down at reception labelled for the England team. “It was full sweatshirts celebrating them winning the Slam. I took them upstairs. ‘Boys,’ I said to our defeated opponents, ‘did you order these?…”

Tukalo made friends for life from 1990, from both sides, and wants to get everyone together for a 30th anniversary dinner. “I hope it could benefit all the guys who’ve fallen on hard times health-wise,” he says. But before then there’s the Ukraine. “Dad arrived in Scotland with just a travel card, nothing else. He’d always wanted to visit his homeland but I didn’t want him going without a passport, in case anything untoward happened. So I got him one, only before he could use it he passed away. He didn’t make it back so I must go there for him.”

Just like in the changing-room in 1990, Iwan Tukalo is making a commitment.