SO TELL me, I’ll ask the 29-year-old actress (they’re always, anxiously 29), what do you do when you’re not acting – do you have what we used to call a hobby? Oh yes, they go to the cinema, the theatre too.
That’s not a hobby, I say, that’s work – watching other actresses act, checking on the opposition and doubtless bitching about them over a large glass of Pinot Grigo afterwards. Now Lachie Stewart, he’s got a real hobby.
In a back garden in Bonhill, West Lanarkshire, with the Carman Hills in the sunny distance, his partner Helen is nibbling on a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer and being greatly amused by all goings-on with tripods and lights. “I thought you came to talk to him about running,” she says, and I have – Stewart’s 10,000m gold medal at the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, still one of Scotland’s greatest days in sport. But now reporter, photographer and modest middle-distance hero have re-convened at his garage where he makes his model boats. Battleships, paddle-steamers, fishery research vessels, submarines and a 12ft 8ins Bismark which “looks great on Loch Lomond”. The garage houses 21 remote-control boats which maybe doesn’t sound many until you inspect the breathtaking detail. Mostly these crafts are crafted from junk. For instance, the Bismark is powered by the radiator-cooling motors salvaged from three Fiat Pandas.
Worried I might snap a funnel, necessitating Joseph Lauchlin Stewart to mould another deodorant top as a replacement, I leave him and our snapper to it. “A lot of boats,” I say. “That’s just the garage,” sighs Helen. “You should see the guest bedroom.” Then she says: “If there’s any you fancy, take them away with you. I won’t mind although I suppose he might.” A few minutes later, Stewart re-emerges. He still looks as wiry as he did in his running days, as if a Caramel Wafer never passed his lips then or now, although maybe’s he’s finally grown into that old man’s face. It was a strong face, the one he wore when cuddling that ridiculously overstuffed teddy-bear mascot after his sensational sprint finish at Meadowbank Stadium, but it made him look older than 27. And, with the short, back and sides, more like a miner or man of hard graft – or, because it was also a handsome face, the fifth-down-the-cast plucky Jock in a black-and-white POW movie. “I’m going to be 70 this month,” he says, “which’ll make the race 43 years ago. Say it quick!”
I’m remembering his thrilling win because big-time athletics returns to Meadowbank today with the UK Women’s League meeting – but what reminds him? “Oh every so often something will make me think about it. I’ll show you the medal if you like.” In the snug front room bulging with photos of the grandkids but also military history books – The Eclipse of the Big Gun, The Dauntless Dive Bomber of WW2, Stirling at War – he fishes the big gold coin out of a drawer. And for most of our chat he prefers to stay standing because he’s always stood – in his job as a dental mechanic and in the garage with his boats.
The medal has dulled but not the race. YouTube it and you see again Australia’s Ron Clarke and England’s Dick Taylor breaking and Stewart scuttling out of the pack to tuck in behind, the wee Scot almost using the taller runners as a windbreak as the Games’ opening day was doused in gusty rain. “Just over 200 metres to go and the world record-holder leads,” said commentator David Coleman, referring to Clarke. “And it’s Stewart who comes away!”
Stewart doesn’t have a computer, despairs of kids stuck in front of screens instead of being outside running, and is none too enamoured with the effect they’ve had on the older generation. “I’ve got five pals and we were boatbuilders together. Then, around the same time, they all got computers and just packed in the boats.” So for 1970 he relies on his memory and the occasional re-showing. “Aye David Coleman,” he says. “Near the end of the race he said something about none of us, Clarke, Taylor and myself, being very fast. He didn’t seem to know I’d never been beaten over the last 100m.”
What of the build-up, the opening ceremony? Presumably it wasn’t quite as spectacular as the one for the London Olympics. “I missed that,” he says. “I don’t see much TV because I’m a do-er rather than a watcher. I’ve heard it was quite something, though, and yes Edinburgh’s was more homely. We just marched in front of our placards in our blazers and flannels and none of us would have been any the wiser.”
Stewart stayed in the Games Village, the student accommodation at Edinburgh Uni’s Pollock Halls. All the hard work had been done, with many a training run spent in contemplation of his sub HMS Olympus and how he was going to get it to submerge and surface, and the day before his race he went golfing with 1500m runner Norman Morrison. “I don’t know why, because I wasn’t a golfer. To try and take my mind off the 10,000m, I suppose, because we were all nervous of running in front of a home crowd. I worried about getting a stitch. But that wasn’t the problem after the game; my arms were sore from the golf.
“On the morning of the race I’d have had Corn Flakes for breakfast and a Rich Tea biscuit a bit later on. I wasn’t eating much at that time – unbeknown to me I had an ulcer. But I remember chatting to Ian Stewart [the Games’ 5000m champ a week later] by a wee wall and he asked me how I was feeling. ‘That’s the problem,’ I said, ‘I feel great!’ I thought I had the chance of a medal but I wasn’t thinking about gold. Ron Clarke had broken 19 world records but never won a major championship. A lot of people thought he might finally do it in Edinburgh and, you know, he was my idol too.”
On Meadowbank’s new-for-the-Games synthetic “tartan track”, Dick Taylor, the British champ, had been working with Clarke to kill off the pack. “That pair were in cahoots,” laughs Stewart. Legend has it that somewhere on those final four laps, Taylor warned Clarke about the Scot’s finishing powers. In front of a wildy cheering stand, Stewart sprinted the last 100m in under 11 seconds and for final 50 couldn’t remember his Puma spikes touching the rubberised surface. “It was like I was running on a cloud. I thought I was flying.” Straight after the race, Stewart returned to his former position, behind the other two. When the trio went before the press, it seemed that Taylor and especially the athletics aristocrat Clarke having lost was the bigger story. The Scotsman’s John Rafferty wrote: “If one were to judge by their faces, Clarke and Taylor might have dead-heated for the gold. Stewart, obviously, had the bronze.” Our man smiles when I read the report back to him. “It’s true, most of the questions went to the other guys. They were the big names, I was only a wee Scot.
“Eventually I did get asked why I hadn’t made the initial break. ‘Because I wasn’t invited,’ I said, which got a laugh. I got asked about the rain, whether it had been a problem, but to be honest I didn’t notice it. And I was asked if the crowd had helped me home and I said they had, although I’d run the mile at half-time in a big Celtic-Rangers game in front of 110,000 at Hampden and that had maybe been a wee bit noisier.”
To refuel after a race won on a bowl of cereal and a biscuit, Stewart enjoyed a steak. There was a small party in the pub across from Meadowbank which he thinks was called the Gold Medal back then and Shettleston Harriers coach Alex Naylor bought a bottle of champagne.” Presumably for the rest of the Games, he was on such a high, like he’d not come down from that cloud? “Aye, sort of,” he says with more of that classic understatement. “One day myself and a few of lads visited Edinburgh Castle and the officers invited us into the mess for tea.” Soon back at work at Glasgow’s Dental Hospital, “making falsers”, he thinks his next race after the famous victory was in Dunoon on the Highland Games circuit – “back on the grass, dodging the coos.” Although he won the Scottish equivalent, he turned down an invite to the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. “I thought it’d be too fancy an affair.”
But Stewart, whose son Glen was a runner too, didn’t shun all the celebrity-boosting opportunities on offer. An anti-smoking campaign with the slogan “Cigarettes are for losers” cast him as a youth coach in a Scotland tracksuit scolding a lad wheezing in last place on account of a fondness for the fags. In 1970, this must have been the equivalent of a spot on Strictly Come Dancing. Better than that, I reckon, even if you were to add an out-for-Christmas autobiography and personalised clothing range, for Stewart’s catchphrase became a playground favourite across the land: “Come on, John, you can do better than that!” He chuckles. “It was a favourite of running-tracks as well, just before the gun.” I ask him about some of the other guys in dark blue vests in ’70 such as the Ians, Stewart and McCafferty, the latter winning silver in the 5,000m. “I think I was one of the few Scots that got a medal who actually lived in Scotland. A lot were Anglo-Scots like Jim Alder and Ian Stewart. Ian hardly ever came to Scotland and when I ran against him the year before the Games he represented England. McCafferty? I had some good tussles with him in those football match races.
“Once I turned up for an Old Firm game with a Union Jack on my vest, which panicked the officials. ‘You can’t wear that – it’ll start a riot at one end,’ they said. ‘Wait until you see my shorts,’ I said. They were green-and-white. And Ian was also my room-mate at the Munich Olympics in ’72. I remember we were at the post office in the Games Village talking to an Israeli athlete shortly after the massacre [11 members of their team were murdered]. He told us: ‘We expect trouble round every corner.’ But I haven’t seen Ian for years. There was a wee re-union last year and I tried to contact him but his phone just rang out.”
Now, where were we? Ah yes, boats. After school Stewart applied to become a draughtsman at John Brown’s Shipyard on the Clyde but so did 200 other lads and he missed out. It must be highly unlikely, though, that any of them can boast a fleet this impressive, just a few days short of their 70th birthday. A lot of boat parts can be bought ready-made but Stewart has preferred to hang around scrapyards, picking up car aerials, the metal blades on windscreen wipers, radiator hose and other gubbins which he can bend and shape to his nautical needs. We’re back in the garage again and I’m fascinated by a deck bustling with tiny characters. “See him in the long black coat?” says Stewart. “Gestapo.”
Is there a connection between endurance running and boat-building? “Yes I think so. For me, when I’ve been worried about something, they’ve been great stress-breakers.” Certainly the boats have been more fun than moulding dentures and he’s just as proud of a hat-trick of awards from the Blackpool Model Boat Show as he is his gold medal. There’s a story about the last of these successes, for his tribute to the Flying Phantom, the final one built on the Clyde. When the real thing capsized on the river in 2007 with the loss of three lives, divers could see no more than 15 inches in the murky water and so borrowed the model to help salvage the vessel.
In a local newspaper, Stewart was described as “a Bonhill model-maker” before mention was made of his running feats. It’s what wee weeklies do, and respect to them for that, even if the report reminds me of the possibly-mythical headline localising the Titanic tragedy: “North-east man drowns at sea.” Is there a Titanic suspended from these walls? “I’m afraid not,” he says. “I wanted to build one, and found some teak for it in the old torpedo factory in Alexandria that’s actually older than the liner. But I’ve got arthritis in my hands now and it would have needed me to cut too many portholes.”
So he contents himself with keeping the fleet in good nick and there are always repairs to be done. “See that battleship there? It’s the Repulse. That’s the boat I built straight after Edinburgh, so it’s one of the things which makes me think of the race. But that works both ways. All this talk of Edinburgh reminds me that its decks are cracked and I must get on with fixing them. So if you’ll just take an end, son ... ”