Interview: Grand Slam hero Kenny Milne, one of three Scotland international brothers, on coping with their mother’s tragic suicide

When Scotland take the field in Dublin this afternoon they will do so without the star man, absent for a fortnight since a drinking session threw preparations for the 
Six Nations into turmoil. International
duty – including the duty to whoop it up – was rather different 30 years ago for 
Kenny Milne.

Kenny Milne, now 58, was part of the Scotland side that won the Grand Slam almost 30 years ago. Picture: Neil Hanna
Kenny Milne, now 58, was part of the Scotland side that won the Grand Slam almost 30 years ago. Picture: Neil Hanna

“After our match against Ireland I was chosen for the drugs test,” recalls the 39-times-capped hooker. “I was told I could rehydrate with water or beer. I think I drank five cans so when I boarded the team bus I was well ahead of the rest of the team.

“I was even further ahead at the presidents’ reception because, owing to the beer and also the champagne which we got given for winning the match, I lost every round of the drinking games – three fingers’ worth in the glass each time.

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“Our coach Jim Telfer wasn’t too happy about how we’d played. He’d told us before the banquet: ‘I hate seeing drunken Scotsman so everyone on their best behaviour.’ By the time the food came round I was pretty ill – and absolutely convinced that would be my last-ever game for Scotland.

“I was upset about that so the next day I told a little white lie. ‘Sorry about last night, Jim,’ I said, ‘but I wasn’t actually that pissed. These guys made me drink wine and I really don’t like it. In fact, I’m allergic to it.’ Amazingly he believed me. ‘Kenny wasn’t actually drunk,’ I heard him tell the committee. ‘He’s got an allergy.’”

That wasn’t the end of Milne’s career. He played the rest of that championship which of course climaxed in marvellous Grand Slam magnificence. He turned out for the British Lions in New Zealand and wore the thistle on his breast in two World Cups. He picks up the yarn again: “By the time of the South African tournament I was one of the senior players and ordering a big rare steak. Jim was out there and when this nice bottle of red wine arrived at my table he shouted over: ‘Kenny, I thought you were allergic?’ The bugger had remembered after five bloomin’ years! ‘No need to worry, Jim, I’m over it now.’”

We’re in a coffee-shop close to Milne’s home which is in the same street where he grew up with big brothers Iain and David, the 
oval-ball dynasty of Blackhall, Edinburgh. Early on I get the sense the whole interview could be about fishing, his big passion, or the lost art of hooking now that put-ins are permitted to be squint but the junior member of that terrific triumvirate, now 58, has good stories, funny stories and also heartbreakingly sad ones. The key bit of that opener was him thinking he’d blotted his copybook for all time.

Milne’s rugby ambitions were extremely
modest. As a schoolboy in Heriots’ 6ths he dreamed of getting the call-up to the 1st XV – just for the one game, mind you, any more would be preposterous. When he became an FP it was the same – a solitary turn and he’d be happy, elated even. When the first cap came the year before the Slam he’d thrown the ball so lousily in the lineout, prompting Wales’ Kevin Moseley to quip that the newbie could get a game for Pontypool anytime.

“I had absolutely no self-confidence,” Milne says of his formative years. “I didn’t shine at school. It’s not that I was stupid but I just mucked around. I didn’t study for my exams and it’s easy to say there was no one sitting at my shoulder making sure I put the work in.”

Milne’s mother, Mary, took her own life when he was 11 years old. He tells me the shocking details of her death and asks that I don’t print them. They are horrific and take the breath away. I thought I was going to be talking to Milne about the darkness of the scrum; I didn’t know there was going to be a much blacker place from which he had to emerge.

The tragedy is revealed when I ask about the well-being of Iain, “The Bear”, 44 caps, and a crucial part of the 1984 Slam team. Three years ago, the eldest Milne opened up about his battle with depression and how, if he’d had a gun handy, he’d have used it on himself.

“Iain still has his ups and downs, good days and not so good ones. If you suffer from depression I don’t know if you can ever be completely clear of it, although right at this moment he’s doing remarkably well and I always look forward to our fishing trips together. But Mum had depression and maybe in his case it’s hereditary.

“She was a teacher and I’m sure if she’d been around I’d have done my studies. Who knows, maybe all we Milnes would have turned out differently and we wouldn’t have become rugby players. That’s not to say we weren’t looked after – we were. Our father did a remarkable job of bringing up the three of us and our sister Susan. He was a doctor who didn’t re-marry and was able to keep the home together while running a busy practice – amazing. We’ve all made our way in life and done things which made him proud and which hopefully would have made our mother proud as well.”

Now Milne is laughing because he’s remembering the occasion when the brotherly trio formed the Barbarians’ front row. He’d dearly hoped they’d get picked together for Scotland, the closest being the two occasions he teamed up with Iain. The match in ’89 was against East Midlands and the Baa-Baas flew the old man, also Ken, down to Northampton where he enjoyed celebrity status. “That was a very special day and at the end of the game we signed some autographs but I think Dad signed more. The spectators wanted to know who’d sired us. Maybe they were interested in stud rights!”

Milne speaks lovingly about his father, his siblings and also his wife, Ellie, and it’s obvious that at various moments they’ve been vital to our man’s story. “Ellie is a wonderful woman and has been a hugely positive influence in my life by just telling me how good I was at doing certain things when I simply didn’t believe it myself.”

He praises her compassion after he decided they should have Iain live with them when it was obvious the big man was in a bad way. “I’m not sure how many women would have put up with the brother-in-law staying for 18 months but there were no issues and no complaints from Ellie – even though a couple of chairs suffered some wear and tear before he went back to his own place!”

Okay, but surely not all the fixtures and fittings survived intact in his parents’ home adjoining Dad’s surgery with three strapping, sports-daft lads breenging around? “No, they didn’t. When our father died 12 years ago and the house was being cleared we didn’t find much of value. Lots of vases
and the like had been Araldite-d back together.

“It wasn’t just rugby – we played all ball games. And I’d worked out that a circuit of the house was 50 yards so would run round it 100 times pretending to be David Bedford.” Milne was first to go to Heriot’s. He passed the entrance exam that the eldest two had failed, after which they were able to follow him there. “I tease Iain and David that they wouldn’t have rugby careers if it wasn’t for my brains,” he says, “though I think I peaked
in that test. It was steadily downhill after that. I used to keep two homework jotters – one which never had any instructions in an effort to fool my parents. Wasn’t that kind of ingenious, though?”

The brotherly bond grew ever tighter after the tragedy. “Big brother looked out for little brother so I was grateful to Iain for that. Middle brother could be annoying to little brother, which is middle brother’s right, but I remember David coming to my aid when I was punched at a disco. There was a gang of ten confronting me until David put the ringleader up against a wall. I think we’ve all been there for each other since our mother
died and we’re still very close.” Family is very important to Milne. Ask him to nominate his greatest-ever game and it’s not the Slam or the Lions but the day he helped save Heriot’s from relegation at Melrose – club, you see, being like a family.

“On the rugby field, Edinburgh vs Glasgow when George Graham was vying for honours at the same time as David, Iain absolutely destroyed George to help David’s cause. But Iain was quite the gentleman for a big muckle prop. He could have murdered guys like Stan Buchan of Watsonians who was half his size but he would exert just enough force for us to win. When Iain went off to Harlequins, opposition front rows would try and wind up David in the scrum: ‘You’re not as good as your brother.’ I’d go: ‘Yes, but he’s a whole lot better than you.’”

Milne treasures those games when all three locked arms for the grunting cause. “The first time was away to Gordonians. Iain and David had excelled at rugby at school and I was always playing catch-up so that day I was absolutely crappin’ it. I think I did all right, though, and later when it was the three Milnes together that must have been quite intimidating for other front rows who probably thought: ‘If we go for one of them the other two will jump right in.’” Another chuckle: the first time Milne was summoned to Scotland training he walked in with The Bear. “I had my hair slicked back. Gary Callander said: ‘Look out, here’s Bros.’” Such an entrance wasn’t really him; neither was the hairstyle and he reverted to a more modest coo’s lick. As with every stage of his life Milne had to find his feet. “I used to run over the ball in the loose with Scotland knowing that Fin [Finlay Calder] or Soley [David Sole] were expert at picking up and driving on.” But, as with every stage, he got there eventually.

Milne had left Heriot’s to become a van driver at a Leith pie factory – “Not what my folks envisaged for me when I went to the school.” He jokes that the pong of pies about his person was what first attracted Ellie but it was hard graft, getting up at 5am, six days a week, and rushing from his Saturday shift to make games. “Folk used to say about Gary Armstrong that he was only a poor lorry driver but I was poorer! I’d been to a private school so no one ever thought to wonder about that. I didn’t mind, though. Ellie and I had a wee flat round the corner from the factory and we were as happy then as we are now. I’ve always told the kids: “Life isn’t all about money.’” Dad to Stuart and Jenny, Milne rose to become boss of the firm and now runs his own print business.

The biggest Scotland stars right now are earning half a million a season from the sport. Good luck to them, says Milne. But what does he think about the Finn Russell episode? “It’s different getting drunk after a game when that behaviour was expected, as it was in my day. But expected behaviour in my day was also being ready to train and if Fin or Gav [Gavin Hastings] or Craig [Chalmers] had ever turned up pished then Jim Telfer wouldn’t have tolerated it so I don’t think Gregor Townsend was out of order doing what he did. As Alex Ferguson said: ‘If you can’t change people then change people.’ You hope there will be a reconciliation between the pair of them … or you hope that Adam Hastings plays out of his skin. This could be the catalyst for Adam, the second man emerging from the shadows who proves himself to be 
every bit as good.”

Milne thinks the modern player can be too quick to accept the acclaim when they win, and too quick to blame the coaches if they don’t. Russell, after a full and frank exchange of views with Townsend at half-time in the last Calcutta Cup, led the charge to a famous fightback. “I don’t want to take anything away from Scotland that day but England had the match won only to drop concentration. If Finn is that brilliant 
to have transformed that game then 
why didn’t he do it against Ireland in the World Cup?”

We return to 1990 and Dublin, where Milne never lost, although that day was a close-run affair, turned Scotland’s way by Derek White at the back of the scrum, the No 8 appreciating Milne’s hooking skills at the business end. Ever-rigorous and always demanding more, Telfer was concerned that one of the pack’s secret calls – “JJ Watsonian” – had been captured by TV microphones and therefore couldn’t be used against next opponents France. “I suggested we pronounce ‘JJ’ the French way and Jim bashed me on the head with his big book. I was always trying to raise a laugh. With my lack of self-confidence I thought it was a way of getting folk to like me. After we’d beaten Wales, Jim said: ‘Right boys, we play England for the Calcutta Cup, the championship, the Triple Crown and the Grand Slam.’ I piped up: ‘Well, surely we can win one of them?’”

How would he sum up his relationship with Telfer? “In one word: fear! His achievement that season, alongside Ian McGeechan, was phenomenal but Jim got me when I was at my least confident. In the week leading up to the England game, if you’d asked me on the Tuesday or Wednesday if I thought we could win I’d have said no. On the Friday I was probably the last who didn’t believe. But Jim, even though I was scared of him, did great work. He’d hammered us and hammered us at training and then we were all shown clips of good things we’d done in games. He took us down and then built us up. England were probably just as fit as us and definitely classier, but I don’t think they had our mental toughness of having been put through the stress of three-and-a-half-hour sessions under Jim. Coming through all that, we were ready for them.”

Milne didn’t just walk on to the pitch in the spellbinding slow march behind the captain – he walked off at the triumphant end as well. “Half our team sprinted for the tunnel. They wanted to get away before the crowd swallowed them up. But I thought: ‘No, I’m going to enjoy every minute of this.’ The fans were slapping me on the back, shouting my name, telling me I was a hero.”

And he was. All that running round the house and smashing ornaments, all that turning out for the 6ths and dreaming – and all that brotherly encouragement and love – had got him there in the end.