Interview: Billy Steele on turning Flower of Scotland into our anthem

Now 71, Billy Steele lives in a converted steading in Burntisland. He's the man responsible for turning Flower of Scotland into a sporting anthem. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Now 71, Billy Steele lives in a converted steading in Burntisland. He's the man responsible for turning Flower of Scotland into a sporting anthem. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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On the steep climb to his home, which sits just below the television transmitter at Burntisland, Billy Steele wonders why I’ve come to see him. He doesn’t think there’s much of a story in his rugby career and this feeling of anti-climax is compounded when we reach the handsomely converted steading and thick mist prevents him from showing off the panoramic view across the Forth.

“Lucky to win my first cap for Scotland, even luckier to win my second,” he says. This was an opinion expressed by others, although Steele seems to believe it himself. He was a “skinny wee bugger”. He was a bundle of nerves before every game. But, from the Muckle Toon of Langholm via RAF bases to the South African veldt before retiring to Fife, there is a tale here, for sure.

Steele was a hero of 1971’s unforgettable wham-bam: two victories over England in a week. First there was our first Five Nations triumph at Twickenham for 33 years, 16-15 right at the death. The following Saturday at Murrayfield in a match to celebrate the centenary of the inaugural encounter between the teams, the win was rather more convincing.

“It was 26-6, five tries to none,” says Steele, who ran in the last of them from his station on the wing. “That wasn’t any kind of friendly – there was no such thing. England picked the wrong team – too many city slickers. We’d just beaten them, rather liked the feeling and were desperate to do it again.”

The home changing-room afterwards was a scene of lusty celebration. “It had been a great victory, crowning my greatest week in rugby,” he continues. “And then I got told there was a police escort waiting outside to rush me to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Mum had collapsed in the main stand.”

Steele’s mother Jean died the next day of a stroke, which denied him the chance of one last conversation with her. “She was at the game with my sister Violet who told me it was my try which made her pass out. So that day began happy and ended very sad. Five tries is the most we’ve ever scored against England. Ninety thousand folk saw us do it – plus my poor old mum. What a way to go.”

William Charles Common Steele is 71 and retains the athletic build of the physical training instructor he used to be. This was his role in the RAF, he explains, after I ask what type of planes he flew. “The only flying I did was queasily, down the wing, and some might even dispute that!” But he won 25 caps, whipped England four times, whipped the fantastic Welsh wide of the 1970s twice and is also an Invincible from the ’74 Lions tour so it beats me how he didn’t think I wouldn’t enjoy a couple of hours in his company.

There’s also his vital role as choirmaster on that South African expedition when he taught his team-mates Flower of Scotland and – the sons of proud Edward’s army among them – they couldn’t take the field without first belting it out. Those nerves of his were jangling at BBC Television Centre when he had to lead his band of brothers in a rendition during the Sports Personality of the Year show. “I kept telling myself: ‘You’re no’ in Langholm now.’ Backstage I met Denis Law and Bill Shankly. I can’t do Shanks’ voice but he said: ‘Son, son, son, I’m fascinated: how did you get these English baskets to sing it?’”

We’ll find out later but let’s start in Langholm where Steele’s father Doug was a mill worker at Reid & Taylor – “They advertised ‘the most expensive twist cloth in the world’, which I never quite understood.” Doug wasn’t a rugby man. “He thought it was silly, getting knocked about for bugger all, and I reckon that motivated me to play the game.”

At first, at primary school, there was no option: you had to play. “Twenty-five-a-side, on a playground that was half-grass, half-concrete, and rather like I suppose it might be Celtic vs Rangers or Barcelona vs Real Madrid in football schools, we played Hawick vs Langholm. If you were crap you were Langholm.”

The skinny wee bugger thought he wasn’t cut out for rugby but inspirational PE teacher Jim Tuton – “One of my heroes” – encouraged him to persevere. By the time he broke into the real Langholm team at the age of 17 he’d developed a nifty sidestep. “On my paper-round I used to dodge lamp-posts and pillar-boxes and the odd pedestrian, although you had to be careful not to frighten the wee wifies, swerving past them on dark winter mornings.” His running technique was really survivor’s instinct. “In rugby back then rucks were bloody fierce. You didn’t want to get caught in one and I was determined never to be. I would say my forte was running up my own arse. Backwards, sideways, any which way!”

Steele pays tribute to a Langholm stalwart, Christie Elliott, in readying him for a Scotland debut against England in 1969 that he might have dreamed about but didn’t think would come his way. “I got into the team without playing a trial,” he says, explaining where the quibble about him being lucky came from. Injury delayed his second cap for two years and, self-consciously, he says the sceptical may have reckoned there to be good fortune involved in his first try for his country against France in Paris, although here he takes issue. “I kicked ahead and the ball then bounced back into my hands but that was meant. Get your knee over it, stab it into the ground so it rolls over on the point, then by the time the revolutions have slowed and you’ve caught up it will pop up nicely. I practised that a lot. In the Borders we were fanatical about these skills. For me that one worked almost every time and it got me a lot of tries.”

Steele could be satisfied with his performance, especially since the collywobbles had properly struck beforehand. “Knowing I was going to be up against [Jack] Cantoni I couldn’t sleep. I ended up walking the streets of Paris in the early morning, no one else around. Really, I was nervous playing my first international and no less nervous at my last. There were times when I thought about taking sleeping pills the night before a game but I was worried I might drop off during it because out on the wing you sometimes never saw the ball for ages.”

In between his first and second official appearances there was a ’69 tour of Argentina led by Jim Telfer when caps weren’t awarded and, it seems, normal rules didn’t apply with the roughhouse hosts benefiting from local referees turning a blind eye to their aggro. “Colin Blaikie and I were recalling not long ago how, when I had the ball in one of the games we played over there, three of their guys jumped on him. The Argentine centre [Alejandro] Travaglini was a 6ft 4ins monster. The boy I was up against pretended to rub my hair but would tug it. Then he spat at me.”

It may be harder to escape such thuggery these days with cameras everywhere but the legitimate hits are bigger. Steele, who met his wife Trisha when based at RAF Yarrow in Bedfordshire, watched sons Liam and Lawson play the game and now he has a grandson, two-year-old Charlie, enrolled in rugby tots. “It worries me how physical the sport had become,” he says. Instruction in the Steele sidestep would seem essential for the little lad.

Back to ’71 and the first of a sequence of classics against Wales, the 19-18 rip-snorter won when John Taylor’s tricky left-footed kick floated between the posts. The lead changed hands six times, as it did in one of Steele’s matches against Ireland. Such you-score-we-score bonanzas were common in his era.

Though the rivalry with England was never less than fierce, Wales represented the greater challenge, and Scotland would gain revenge for ’71 in the next two home encounters. “I didn’t like playing against Gerald Davies because he was such a will o’ the wisp. To be honest I didn’t like playing against John Bevan either because he hit you harder than any other winger, but there was maybe more chance of throwing him a wee dummy.

“Now, I don’t want this to come across as big-headed but remember that try I scored in the ’73 game? I seemed to venture into an area where you shouldn’t tread, the place where you’d be torn apart by legends. But I got so close to Mervyn Davies that I could have kissed him before sidestepping away. Then I seemed to be eyeball-to-eyeball with JPR [Williams] and somehow I got past him, too. I still don’t know how I landed that one.” And the next time Wales visited Murrayfield, in ’75, half the Principality seemed to accompany them. “The attendance was supposed to be 104,000 but looked like more. The game had to be stopped to allow the terraces to spill right on to the side of the pitch.” Another occasion when, for a wingman, a good sidestep was essential.

Mention of JPR brings us back to the Lions. Steele roomed with the Welsh full-back for part of that tour and he smiles as he recalls the day of a thrilling find under their beds. “JPR said: ‘Hey Steeley, I’ve got 24 Lion beers!’ I looked under mine: ‘And I’ve got 24 Castles!’ Every member of the party had been given cans. The South Africans were hoping we’d get blind drunk before the second Test. But we saved all the beer for a break in the middle of the tour. The only trouble was the plane up to Victoria Falls couldn’t take off because it was weighed down by 2,000 cans.”

Steele hadn’t expected to make the expedition. Quite apart from his modesty in his own abilities, he’d been “jabbed and measured up” as a reserve for the 1971 Lions but didn’t get the call, and three years later he suffered a bad injury which caused him to miss all of the Five Nations. “I was playing for the RAF against Pontypool on Boxing Day when I heard my knee crack. I remember Bobby Windsor standing over me, stopping any more bodies piling on top. But I needed my cartilage out and in those days that meant your knee being ripped apart.” The same Windsor, incidentally, would also come to room with Steele on a tour for the ages.

He continues: “There were a lot of anti-apartheid demos in protest at us going to South Africa. Willie John McBride was our captain and he called us together to say: ‘Anyone with any doubts they will have my respect and be free to leave the room.’ No one moved; that told Willie he had a good bunch with him. Then, thinking of Ireland and the Troubles, he said: ‘My beloved province is tearing itself to pieces and I can’t do bugger all about that. I can’t do anything about South Africa either.’

“But we thought rugby could be a force of good, even in just a small way. We played coloured sides and we played black sides. When we kept winning the Tests the black communities started supporting us. Well, at least until the South Africans reduced their standing areas and made them try and watch the games with the sun in their eyes.”

What they could see wasn’t pretty. “The Springboks tried to punch us off the park. Whenever there was a big scrap JJ [Williams], Geech [Ian McGeechan] and myself – the dancers – would be getting the hell out of the way and we’d meet JPR charging past us at a hundred miles an hour to join in.”

Losing the series was going to be a national humiliation for the hosts and, gifts of copious free booze weren’t their only attempts at distraction. “There were receptions before each game. The dignitaries would leave at about nine-thirty and who would appear? Forty dancing girls – suntanned lovelies.” The Lions had been happy with first-Test referee Max Baise and requested him again. “He’d penalised the Springboks for not being ten yards from the lineout – you couldn’t ask for fairer than that. But we were told he was no longer on the approved list. I guess the South Africans must have put him on the rack! He did do the fourth Test when the series had been won and he disallowed Slatt’s [Fergus Slattery’s] try. Well, he had to live there, after all.”

Wine and women couldn’t break the Lions because they had a song, Flower of Scotland becoming their anthem after Steele got up to sing it at one of the team’s cabaret nights. “We had them often – three-and-a-half months was a long time away – and everybody had to do a turn. Bobby Windsor was the catalyst for them and he would tell these daft stories. He’s like Jim Renwick and what we Borderers call dourthie – funny without needing jokes. What was I going to do? I liked folk music, loved the Corries …

Flower of Scotland was pretty obscure, I think, back in 1974. The other Scots on the tour didn’t know the song. It just caught on, everyone loved it. One night in our room Bobby woke me up: ‘Steeley, I’ve got the tune but what are the words again?’ I said: ‘Bobby, we’re playing Eastern Province tomorrow – that’s going to be hellish and we need our sleep.’ And then we started singing it on the bus going to games. We changed ‘proud Edward’s army’ to ‘the Springbok army’, although I reckon the English guys would have sung the original anyway. Before the second Test the South Africans were trying to hurry us into the stadium. We wouldn’t get off until we’d finished. Each of us felt ten foot tall and ready to thump someone. Well, maybe not me.”

From Lions battle-cry to Scotland’s anthem, Steele has enjoyed hearing the song endure and inspire further sporting endeavour, but he’s not protective of its current status. “I’m not a Nat – the opposite, in fact. I just think Flower of Scotland is a lovely song. Some folk reckon it’s too slow and a bit of a dirge but that depends on how it’s performed – the Lions always sung it with thunder. If there’s a mood for change, fair enough. But Murrayfield seems quite fond of the song. You might have a job getting this Scotland team and the fans to give it up.”