Interview: Calcutta Cup hero Peter Brown on a father's sons

On the train to Dunbar, the headline on a discarded newspaper not so much catches my eye as pummels it: 'Tennis coach father starved his daughters to turn them into Wimbledon champs, court told.' Half an hour later, in the uppermost part of his house, Peter Brown is describing an altogether different kind of parenting for little sporting proteges.

Scotland legend and Calcutta Cup-winning captain Peter 'PC' Brown near his home in Dunbar. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Scotland legend and Calcutta Cup-winning captain Peter 'PC' Brown near his home in Dunbar. Picture: Ian Georgeson

There was no touchline ranting for him and his two younger brothers, no thwarted ambition being furiously channelled into offspring endeavours. The old man, Jock, was able to look on proudly as Peter and Gordon grew up tall and sonsy to become Scottish rugby heroes and the hat-trick would almost certainly have been achieved if the middle lad John hadn’t been 
stricken with asthma.

“Father was a lovely, big, warm, 
gentle fellow and his methods were utterly fabulous,” says Brown. “He was so positive and encouraging. You weren’t going to get anywhere without practice and you might as well be competitive, but sport was also to be enjoyed. ‘Stick in until you stick out’, he’d always say. ‘Let them know how good you are’, was another favourite phrase. ‘Show your three best moves right away’.

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“He chose his words carefully. Never ‘Why the heck did you do that?’ but: ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you tried this?’ I rather get the impression current Scotland head coach Vern Cotter uses the same techniques and, personally speaking, you’ve no idea how crucial they were for this boy. A golfer would pay a shrink thousands for that kind of mentoring.” So no reproachfulness, not even the occasional stern word? “No, that was Mother’s department. She kept me in short trousers until third year at school.”

Brown, now 75, laughs at the memory, which obviously didn’t scar him too much. We’re in what he calls his eyrie with the kind of view Hollywood once termed VistaVision. I’m still drinking in the panorama of lush golf course and sparkling sea when he tells me not to miss the dilapidated municipal shunkies, being torn down at last.

The late Gordon’s wit is much-missed. Peter acknowledges his 
genius but is no slouch himself. Then Brown points to where he tutored grandson Hamish when the boy was struggling with his goalkicking. What a man to be learning from! And what a moment to be pondering the question of how best to hoof the egg! Forty-six years ago Peter Currie Brown, known as PC, entered folklore with a shot through the posts which was at once the most ugly and the most beautiful ever offered to the dark 
blue cause.

Okay, ugly is perhaps a bit strong but, rather than soar, the kick kind of squirted. Like the back-garden rocket pioneer’s bold effort from a collapsing launchpad. Like the winning effort in the Brigadoon Highland Games’ 
clootie dumpling-hurling competition. Like a haggis fired from a blunderbuss. Your actual Scottish exocet. And the result was our first victory against England at Twickenham for 33 years. He looks at me, almost hurt. “Did you see it? It scored right in the middle!”

I’ve wanted to meet PC for a while. I’ve shoehorned my 1971 memories of him and that conversion – wartime haircut, splay-footed address, fluttery hands, hanger apparently still in his shirt, turning his back on the ball, final wipe of the nose – into interviews with other players. So, come on then, with Twickers looming again today: was it all just off-the-snottery-cuff?

That rare beast, a goalkicking forward, he waves away my inquiry like he’s shooing Gordon back into position for the restart – and if you don’t know, that’s another bit of golden detail from the 16-15 triumph. “The mannerisms were just me. I didn’t know I was doing them; I didn’t think they were eccentric. But I’d practised my kicking, don’t worry about that. I was following Father’s instruction. Every night I wasn’t training at Gala, my wife Jill and I would go to the junior pitches and she’d say: ‘Hit four dead-straight from 40 yards and then we’ll go home for tea’. If they weren’t I’d start again and, you know, sometimes the offer was more than tea. When Gordon tried to congratulate me at Twickenham, I wanted him to keep his concentration. We still hadn’t quite won.”

Brown lifted the Calcutta Cup five times; no Scot has ever done that before or since. In three of the games, alongside his kicks, he plunged over for a try. The win in ’71 was followed a week later by a trouncing of the Auld Enemy at Murrayfield, an unhappy 100th birthday present for England in a game to mark the fixture’s beginnings. The fourth success in a row over the Auld Enemy the following year had last been achieved by Scotland way back in the 1890s and completed the first-ever championship whitewash suffered by the whiteshirts.

This is an inspirational yarn for Cotter and his men to be packing in the hamper for today’s game. And Brown, with son Ross, will be at Twickenham with them. “I’ve got a feeling Scotland could do it,” he says. “I love the way 
Finn Russell plays, that wonderful adventure.”

Really, Peter, John and Gordon should have been practitioners of the round, rather than oval, ball. Dad Jock and two of his brothers were notable footballers – goalie Jock won the 1939 Scottish Cup with Clyde and, after the war, the old First Division with Hibs and Peter with that Chaplinesque gait scuttles off to fetch his Scotland cap. Uncle Jim represented the USA in the first World Cup while Uncle Tom turned out for Ipswich Town.

“At 13 I was already a two-footed soccer player, as was John, 18 months younger than me, and on our council estate in Troon before 20-a-side football we were told: ‘You Browns take a cock or a hen – you’re not playing together’.” Gordon, five years younger than Peter and always addressed by his siblings as “Wee Yin”, had a football/rugby dilemma at 16 and seeing Peter make it all the way to Murrayfield 
persuaded him to choose the latter.

“John didn’t take up rugby till later. He got the closest to Father’s wonderful hand-eye co-ordination. Father was a scratch golfer and undefeated at badminton for years and didn’t mind that his laddies all played rugby.” Jock was a riveter to trade – “holder-on” it says in Brown’s birth certificate – and he held on to goalkeeping long enough for his eldest to see him play. “I was fortunate. He’d actually retired to become Kilmarnock’s physio but they had a keeper crisis so there he was at Somerset Park, a dive to the right to fist the ball away against the dreaded Ayr United in the Ayrshire Cup. He was meticulous, cutting out photos from the pink and green sports papers so he knew where penalties would go. He told me: ‘Often I’d be lying on the ground waiting to catch the ball in my bunnet’.” At that stage, young Peter was dreaming of scoring the winning goal at Wembley. Well, that’s almost what happened.

Second-row or No 8, PC won the first of 24 caps in 1964. “I was so nervous. I mean, a wonderful thing was about to happen, but my stomach was churning. Brian Henderson was trying to tell me jokes but I had to run to the loo. I started reciting my Rabbie Burns: ‘When chapman billies leave the street/And drouthy neibors, neibors meet’.” He was never that jittery again. Indeed, in the following season’s 3-3 draw at Twickenham, the much more experienced Ian Laughland was surprised 
to receive words of encouragement from our man. By ’71 Laughland was a selector choosing the next Scotland captain. “He told me years later that he got me the job because I’d been such a ‘f*****g whippersnapper’ that day!”

Brown followed Jim Telfer into the post and resolved to take a softer tack. “The team had been well trained by Jim but, in his talks, he’d flattened them. He’d say: ‘Brown, you’re a big f*****g lassie. That mistake in the last game – don’t you f*****g dare do it again’. So I’d go: ‘Alastair [McHarg], you know you’re the best lineout jumper in the world.’ Alastair gave me a 
puzzled look. He knew I thought I was the best. Afterwards he said: ‘Your patter’s f*****g rotten but I love it’.”

Before long, Gordon was in the team room listening to the patter, Jock, too. Father had become the Scotland 
physio. “The night before games at the Braid Hills Hotel [Edinburgh base for Murrayfield games] he had the sweeties, wee bottles of sherry and copies of Men Only in his room and we’d all 
congregate there for massages. His positivity was great for the players and when I spoke to them he would have heard his old advice being repeated. I was thrilled to be able to do that.”

During games, Jock even tended to the injured English if assistance was required and Cardiff was the scene of a special moment when Peter was 
unable to continue and Jock waved his towel to signal for a replacement – 
Gordon. That match had been preceded by typical Brown banter. Peter: “Great news, I’m back in the team.” Gordon: “Who’s been dropped?” Peter: “You.”

Gordon died in 2001, aged 53, from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. “He was let down very badly, limping around for a year before there was a proper diagnosis. If it had been done properly he could have been cured.”

How often does Big Brother think about Wee Yin? “Every single day. A couple of years ago at a dinner this bloke asked me how long it had been since Gordon passed away and when I told him he said: ‘Oh well, you must be over it by now’. I thought to myself: ‘There’s a guy who’s never lost anyone’.

“As well as brothers, Gordon and I were best pals. We spoke every day. He had something funny to tell me every day. That’s what I miss the most, his relentless bloody patter. We were 
different characters. I was more driven,
absolutely determined to qualify as an accountant, which I only did when Jill picked me up at the dancing in 
Glasgow and sorted out my studying. Gordon was much more easygoing. He was everybody’s friend.”

Exclusive golf club membership came easy to him; so did extra dispensation to gain a banking position. “He had to sit an exam. Time was up and he hadn’t quite completed his paper. The bank really wanted him so he was told to come back in the afternoon. Over lunch I helped him with the answers!”

Peter still marvels at Gordon’s luminous aura, and jumps from his chair for an impersonation of rugby’s great, garrulous, cuddly marauder in “Broon frae Troon” mode: “ ‘It’s me! I’m here! We can start the party now!’ Everyone loved him. Women were entranced.

“Do you know I had a paper round in Troon, passed on to John and then Gordon. John came close to beating my record time but Gordon was a whole hour out. Every person he met he’d stop and chat. On the beach there when we were both playing we’d practise lineouts, him against me with Jill throwing and a crowd would gather.

“We didn’t play against each other very often but the last time was the Melrose Sevens as I was finishing up. Gala had won the tournament three years in a row and Gordon, playing for West of Scotland, told Jill: ‘If he catches the ball from the kick-off I’m going to stuff him. Sure enough he did. We were grappling on the ground, which maybe looked quite fierce, but we were killing ourselves laughing.”

Brown won 30 Scotland caps and romped to eight tries for the 1974 British Lions in South Africa. The world of rugby flocked to his home town for his funeral. “Everybody was laughing, then everybody was crying. Big McHarg [pictured], the hardest bastard ever, wept all the way through. He was one of the pallbearers along with 
Bill Beaumont, Fran Cotton, Roger
Uttley, Gordon’s son Rory, my boy Ross, who stood in for me after a shoulder operation, and a little friend from Wales. That was the last joke Gordon played on Gareth Edwards – everyone else was 6ft 3ins-plus. He said he wanted to be the biggest and heaviest carry-oot that had ever left Troon and he was. The last time I met Beaumont he was still complaining of a jiggered back.

“His death was terribly hard on our parents. Although they both lived to grand old ages they were never the same. On the first anniversary I rang up John. ‘Please don’t do it again’, he said. ‘That was the worst day of my life. Let’s remember 
Gordon on what would have been his birthday’. So that’s what we do.”

PC and Jill, who also have two daughters, moved to Dunbar when this son of Ayrshire, after a long time in the Borders, could do without the sea no more. He likes to golf, take photographs, listen to Shirley Bassey at full blast and, through the Tomorrow’s People charity, encourage young people towards job interviews and beyond. He worries today he might have come across as a bit big-headed but I tell him he’s done 
little but deliver fine tributes to his dear old dad and the Wee Yin.

Gordon, he says, would love to be rooting for Scotland today, remembering the epic day in ’71 and the fairly colourful night before. “I didn’t drink until my forties, so I can remember this,” says Peter. “We were taken to see Pyjama Tops, the big erotic play of the day. This was SRU-approved; the selectors were in the front two rows with the team. The star was Fiona Richmond, a regular in Men Only, and there was a tank full of water on the stage for gratuitous topless swimming. The plot, such as it was, concerned a man’s inability to perform in the bedroom. But in the second half he succeeded and the rest of the play was about finding out the identity of the lucky lady. It turned out to be the au pair and, on that night, she was wearing a Scotland shirt and 
absolutely nothing else!” Funnily enough that was Scotland in the game. Flat in the first 40; rising 
brilliantly to the occasion later.

Last question: what would Peter say to Gordon if he was to suddenly come dandering along the beach? “I’m not sure but I know what he’d say to me, which is what he always said: ‘What was your record against England again?’ I was five wins, a draw and two defeats. He was six wins and two defeats. He loved that he came out on top by a point. Then he’d add: ‘But your kick in ’71, PC – what a beauty’.”