Interview: Ken Scotland – 60 years since international debut

Former British & Irish Lion Ken Scotland with his 1959 shirt. Picture: Neil Hanna
Former British & Irish Lion Ken Scotland with his 1959 shirt. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Ken Scotland– the mere mention of his name brings a smile to the faces of late middle-aged and elderly men who watched him in his pomp. Thursday will mark the 60th anniversary of his arrival on the international stage, with a match-winning display for Scotland against France in Paris. A star was born that day, a man who revolutionised full-back play, and place kicking, as the first instep goal kicker.

Kenneth James Forbes Scotland – a double Scotland internationalist, capped by his country at both rugby and cricket – was doing things back then since only replicated by the likes of his fellow Herioter, Andy Irvine, and by Stuart Hogg today. Now 80, he remains sharp and only too happy to cast his mind back to his debut.

“Thinking back to all these years ago, I have to admit it was all a bit of a surprise to me,” Scotland recalls. “I was doing my National Service with the Royal Signals at Catterick when I got a letter from the SRU to report to Hawick for the first Scotland trial, as reserve full-back, which was underlined.

“I had been a stand-off all the way through school at Heriot’s and I had actually played there for the Rest in the first trial the previous season, my first out of school. But I had never played full-back. However, a trial was a trial and off I went. Anyway, when I got to Mansfield Park, I discovered that Mickey Grant, of Harlequins, who was nominally a stand-off but had been named at full-back, had called off, and I was in. I must have had a decent game because I kept my place, still in the minor team, for the final trial at Murrayfield.”

One report of that Hawick trial said: “KJF Scotland delighted the crowd with some magnificent catching and kicking, for a first match in the position, his 
display was excellent”.

Taking up the story, Scotland said: “Next thing I knew, I had been selected over the incumbent, Robin Chisholm, of Melrose, for the Paris game. The Army were only too happy to give me leave to play and I travelled back up to Edinburgh for the flight to Paris on the Thursday. And, to make it all the more memorable, Eddie McKeating, with whom I had played all the way through Heriot’s, was also given his first cap 
in Paris.

“We had the traditional pre-match 
visit to the Folies Bergere – which was an eye-opener for me – on the Thursday
night, then Jim Greenwood took a training session on the Friday, at which I was told I would be taking the place kicks. Then, it was on with the game on the Saturday”.

As Scotland modestly recalls, it was a dour affair, a forward battle in terrible conditions, with the Scots surviving an early shock when hooker Bob MacEwen was carried off, only, as was the case in those pre-substitute days, to return 15 minutes later.

“Bob was very good to me in my early days at Cambridge and at London Scottish – a lovely man and a great rugby thinker,” Scotland recalls. He also remembers the way the Scottish pack, with Ian MacGregor, who died last month, gave as good as they got against the burly French.

“It was a bit of a battle, and Ian was always up for a fight. We played ten-man rugby, which was the right thing to do in the conditions, with Micky Grant, who was – unfairly, I think – dropped after the match and Arthur Dorward keeping our pack going forward. I don’t think the backs saw the ball all day”.

After a pointless first half, in which Scotland hit the crossbar with a 
14th-minute penalty attempt, with conditions worsening, Scotland broke the deadlock when he gathered a weak clearing kick from the French stand-off, Jacques Bouquet, and, from 30 metres out, dropped a goal. Seven minutes later, he completed the 6-0 win – Scotland’s first in Paris since 1949 - with what he recalls was a fairly simple 30m penalty.

The Scottish papers were full of praise for the 20-year-old newcomer, but he knew nothing of the stir his heroics had caused, being back square-bashing at Catterick.

“The Daily Record awarded me their Sports Star of the Month prize – a travelling clock, but the SRU would not permit me to accept it, or I would have professionalised myself,” he recalls.

“Of course, the SRU seemed terrified of any of us speaking to the press back then; that said, while we were never quoted directly, we found ways round it. After all, The Scotsman’s Norman Mair was always worth speaking to”.

After Paris, he held his place for 
the remaining three internationals 
that seaso, kicking a penalty in each game.

On his Murrayfield debut against Wales, Scotland contributed a penalty goal to a match which was won via Arthur Dorward’s memorable 40m dropped goal for a 9-6 win. The Irish match was lost 5-3, with Scotland scoring Scotland’s points with another penalty. “That game was played in a snow storm and we were all frozen. Near the end, with all the players seemingly 
hoping for the final whistle, the Irish had a scrum right on our line, and there was Ian MacGregorexhorting us: ‘Come on boys, we can still win this – he refused to give up; but we lost, and Ian was dropped”.

The Calcutta Cup match saw a dominant England win 16-3 to clinch a Grand Slam in front of the Queen and Prince Philip, with Scotland scoring another penalty.

He completed his National Service in September, 1957 – just in time to take up a place at Cambridge University, but, he recalls, it was a close-run thing. “I hadn’t taken Latin at school, and I needed a Latin qualification to get into Cambridge, but a sergeant in the Army Education Corps tutored me and, just a week before the deadline, I passed my exam and could go to Cambridge.”

With the switch, his form deserted him. “In the freshers trial at Cambridge, I played simply the worst match of my career,”he said. “I still got into my college team, but I had gone from first-choice full-back for Scotland to third-choice for Cambridge and, had it not been for London Scottish offering me games, I would not have played much”.

There was a funny side to this. 
Scotland was named in the London Scottish team to face Cambridge University, but the two Cambridge full-backs ahead of him both got injured and, although he was listed at full-back for Scottish in the match programme, he actually played for Cambridge.

His loss of form cost him his “Blue” in 1957 and his Scotland place for the 1958 Five Nations, but, after the unfortunate Robin Chisholm took a bad knock to 
the head at Landsdowne Road, Scotland was recalled for the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield – he never looked back.

Scotland continued to play top-class rugby until 1965, amassing 27 Scotland caps, including four as captain, while playing for Royal Signals, Cambridge University, London Scottish, Leicester and Aberdeenshire, as well as his home club of Heriot’s.

The need to earn a living took Ken around the country, making lasting friendships at every club he represented. Today, he remains a staunch supporter of club rugby, and is still a regular at Goldenacre for Heriot’s matches.

“I prefer the club game to the professional one – the club guys are playing because they love the game. I think that is important.

“Running a club these days is hard work, with the costs involved, and I have great respect for the guys who organise and run clubs like Heriot’s in the Premiership. Melrose have a huge financial advantage from their Sevens, and good luck to them, but places such as Hawick and Gala are struggling. Ayr have worked wonders in broadening support across Ayrshire, but, in the capital, you have five top-flight clubs battling to attract players and sponsorship, and competing with the SRU-backed professional side, it isn’t easy, but the clubs are making a good fist of it. I also think, Glasgow has managed to come-up with a sort of club feel to their organisation, which hasn’t yet happened with Edinburgh”.

But, he is still very much a Scotland fan and has a good feeling about the upcoming Six Nations. “I think we’ve got the best set of backs we have had in years and, if the forwards can give them enough ball, they will damage opponents, but, that said, Ireland and England are the teams setting the standard this 
season,” he said.