Dutch of class: Frans ten Bos on playing for Scotland

Frans ten Bos, pictured near his home in Kirriemuir. Picture: Robert Perry
Frans ten Bos, pictured near his home in Kirriemuir. Picture: Robert Perry
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TIM Visser won’t be the first Dutchman to play for Scotland today - Frans ten Bos blazed a trail as a Scottish cap with roots in the Netherlands over half a century ago.

WHEN Tim Visser takes the field at Murrayfield this afternoon, many will believe him to be the first Dutchman to wear the thistle. The journey which saw the wing end up in Scotland will be pored over and much repeated: how his rugby-obsessed father introduced him and brother Sep to the game as toddlers; how the speedster’s brilliance at the Amsterdam Sevens won him a scholarship to Barnard Castle School; how he played for England under-18s and then Newcastle Falcons before joining Edinburgh in the summer of 2009.

Ten Bos, centre, passing ball for London Counties v All Blacks in 1963

Ten Bos, centre, passing ball for London Counties v All Blacks in 1963

Yet Visser is not the first Dutchman to play for Scotland, and nor does his story contain any of the drama of the events which brought Frans ten Bos to Murrayfield over half a century ago. How he came to play for Scotland remains a remarkable story which has its roots in the days before the Second World War when his Anglophile parents were so sure that Europe would erupt that “whenever my mother was pregnant and about to pop, my father would send her over to Britain, which is why I and my two sisters were all born here”. That foresight probably saved ten Bos’s life.

“My father [also Frans] worked in the aviation industry in its early years, and knew war was coming because although he lived in Brussels he spent a lot of time in Holland at the family’s place in Almelo, which is only 20 miles from Germany,” says ten Bos. “He and his brother were very keen on shooting so they would go to Germany a great deal and couldn’t understand how their friends were speaking so highly of Hitler. He had everything planned for the outbreak of war, with little nest-eggs all over the place.

“One night mother woke up and said ‘Frans, I’m terrified, there’s a terrible thunderstorm’ and he said ‘that’s not thunder, that’s guns, let’s go’. He had everything organised: he had a plane fuelled and ready to go, and two cars – a big one full of gear and a little one for the family – but as they got to the airport the first shell to land on Brussels airport landed right on their plane. So he filled some extra gerrycans and went down the Belgian coast, winding through the legions of refugees on the roads, stopping at every port but obviously there was no chance of getting out. So they drove down to Bordeaux, which was the last port in France, in a journey full of incident.

“They spent two weeks there but couldn’t get out. Eventually there were three cocoa boats from west Africa which were heading to Britain and everyone knew they would be the last boats out of France. My mother knew that the ships were only taking British subjects, but she also knew that children had precedence so she said ‘OK, well just take my children’ and handed the three of us over along with our nappies and bottles. The man was horrified and allowed my parents to go too. It was still touch and go though: of the three ships that left that night, only ours made it – the other two were torpedoed.”

The winning Scottish rugby team which made history on Saturday 3rd February 1962 by beating Wales at Cardiff for the first time in 37 years

The winning Scottish rugby team which made history on Saturday 3rd February 1962 by beating Wales at Cardiff for the first time in 37 years

As a prominent Dutch pilot, his father was initially stationed in London, but when ten Bos’s sister “went completely doo-lally with the bombs”, three-year-old ten Bos, his siblings and their mother moved into a tiny cottage on the banks of the Awe near his mother’s best friend, who lived in Taynuilt. Ten Bos’s father commanded a squadron of Greenock-based Swordfish fighter-bombers doing North Atlantic convoy duty from the deck of a converted oil tanker, but when he was moved to Leuchars, the family relocated to Elie.

Although a rugby player at Lathallan prep school and then Fettes College in Edinburgh, his real passion was hockey. Indeed, as a fresher at Oxford, he only went along to the rugby trial on a whim. They immediately recognised in him a remarkable talent, and he was roped in to the first-team squad and never made it to the hockey trial the next day. By the time he left Oxford for London Scottish, trading one of the best sides in world rugby for another, he was already tipped for great things.

Despite being born in London and being genetically completely Dutch, ten Bos had spent his whole life in Scotland and considered himself totally Scottish (he couldn’t speak a word of Dutch). Not everyone was willing to accept this, however. Before going to Oxford, he won the Sword of Honour at Eaton Hall while becoming an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (with whom he was in Suez), but only because his efforts to get into the Cameron Highlanders were rebuffed. “My school wrote to General Sir Douglas Wimberley, the C/O of the Cameron Highlanders,” laughs ten Bos, “only for me to get a letter by return saying ‘Dear ten Bos, you’re obviously a thoroughly good chap but this is a Scottish regiment – I suggest you join the Signals’.”

When ten Bos (known to pals as “Fanny” in homage to Dutch “flying housewife” Fanny Blankers-Koen, and to headline writers as “the Dutch cap”) was selected to play in the 1959 trial, it was preceded by an amusing exchange of letters in which the SRU explained that they understood his mother to be Scottish. Although Ten Bos clarified that this was not the case, when he made his Murrayfield debut against France in 1960, his pen portrait in the match programme contained the caption: 
“F ten Bos, whose mother is Scottish”.

Ten Bos is a larger-than-life character who was 6ft 3in and almost 16 stone in his pomp – “a colossus in those days, I was a head taller than most opponents, although these days I’d be smaller than Tim Visser and about the right size to play scrum-half”. Talking to him at his house in Glen Prosen transports you back to a different era, when the game was played just for fun, and international teams were not allowed to assemble until a maximum of 24 hours before the game. The perks which top players take for granted were also notable by their absence.

“We’d read that we’d been selected in the paper and then we’d receive a card in the post the next day, which would read ‘Dear ten Bos, you’ve been selected to play against X on Saturday, please bring the shirt which you have in your possession’,” he says. “My jersey was once in shreds, so they made me post it back before they’d send me another.

“After my first match at Murrayfield, against France, there was a black-tie dinner at what is now the Balmoral, at which we got absolutely stocious. I made a terrible mistake by ordering a Sunday newspaper and making one local telephone call, so I got a bill for one shilling and ten pence from the SRU – and there were 102,000 at Murrayfield that day. The SRU were formidably tight.”

Ten Bos is a man who does rather than watches, which is perhaps why he has little enthusiasm for the professional game (his only trip to Murrayfield during the past 17 years was a dull 9-9 draw against England). He looks back on his playing days with unalloyed pride, and eulogises the fantastic characters he played with: men like Ken Scotland, second-row partner Mike Campbell-Lamerton, hooker Norman Bruce, prop David Rollo and the inimitable Tremayne Rodd.

That affection is returned in spades by his team-mates. Bill McLaren often recalled bumping into ten Bos after dinner with Hawick and Scotland prop Hughie McLeod in Paris in 1963 the night before Scotland played France. “Frans, ye think ye’re a guid forward, but really ye’re jist a big lump o’ potted meat,” McLeod told the second row. “If ah was half yer size I’d pick up the first two Frenchman that looked at me the morn and ah’d chuck them right ower the bloody stand.”

Scotland beat France 11-6 in a game that ten Bos – and McLeod – rates as his best for Scotland. It is still a source of irritation that another of his performances is still rated above that rare win at Stade Colombes. “Everyone remembers the game which I think was the worst game I ever played for Scotland, which was when we beat Wales 8-3 at Cardiff Arms Park in 1962,” he says. “Scotland had never won at the Arms Park and it was a wet, muddy day. I did two things in that game – I scored my only try for Scotland and gave the scoring pass to Ronnie Glasgow for his try – but other than that I played like an absolute drain. The next day the papers kept calling me ‘hero ten Bos’, but it was probably the worst I ever played for Scotland.”

So what advice would he give to his erstwhile countryman on his first visit to Murrayfield? “I’d just tell him to enjoy it, as I did,” says ten Bos. “It’s a great honour to play for Scotland, so savour it – these will be the best days of your life, as they were of mine.”