Interview: Ken Scotland reveals why he loved playing against Wales

Now 82, Ken Scotland is 'pictured at home in Edinburgh, in his 'nostalgia/vanity room'. Picture: Neil Hanna
Now 82, Ken Scotland is 'pictured at home in Edinburgh, in his 'nostalgia/vanity room'. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Some years ago, and many more than you might think, a Welsh rugby fan stood nervously before an Edinburgh magistrate hoping against hope that the theft of a string of sausages wouldn’t result in him missing the big match at Murrayfield. He was in luck, for Bailie Herbert Brechin pronounced: “Your countrymen have behaved very well in our city. I will allow you to see the game.” Now, my accounts can’t confirm this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the beak added with a mischievous glint: “We wouldn’t want you to miss another famous home victory, inspired by Ken Scotland.”

Listen to me. I’m saying “I wouldn’t be surprised” as if I saw the great man play. In fact, his dark blue debut came two months before I was born. But his deeds as the first true attacking full-back have echoed down the years of meeting his contemporaries and others who were part of the heaving crowds. One such was Gareth Edwards, just a boy in 1961, who’d only talk about his own darting and dashing a decade later after first raving about how our man would send the valleys contingent home with their giant comedy leeks bent forlornly in two.

“Now there was a player,” says Scotland when we meet at his home in the capital overlooking the Bruntsfield Links golf course. But he was one, too, albeit that he’s an extremely modest fellow and not prone to any kind of raving. He says: “Here’s what I’d like to talk about: those Triple Crowns that we didn’t win, ’61 and ’62. I feel I really let the team down in those years. If I could have my time again… ” Well, here’s what I’d like to talk about: those encounters with Wales, visitors this afternoon, when even in KJF Scotland’s era they weren’t so much games as festivals.

Attendances smashed records. Princes Street burst at the seams. We think of pilgrimages from the Principality being a feature of Edwards’ era but in 1957, Scotland’s first match against the Welsh, the thoroughfare was thronged with 150,000 folk, the rugby fraternity being boosted by Hibs and Hearts both playing cup ties on the same day. “Nothing in rugby is more pleasant than the renewed acquaintance with the thousands of singing supporters from the Welsh valleys,” declared The Scotsman, which as well as the match, would report on the impromptu recitals at “Welsh Corner” at the bandstand underneath the castle. Every two years douce, smoky Edinburgh would be hellzapoppin’ and men would lose their minds and nick bangers. All of this before 1963 when, as Philip Larkin remarked, the Sixties properly began with the release of the Beatles’ first LP.

Here’s the funny thing, though: these games weren’t try orgies. Few ever were during that forwards-dominated period, of course, but the Scots and the Welsh once contested a match that ended three-nil to us. Boring? Not a bit, says Scotland who also featured in a trio of three-all draws with England. “These were engrossing games if you were a player and the crowds kept turning up.”

The ball rarely made it all the way out to the wings and yet there were no grumbles from the terraces and very little adverse comment on the back pages, although the notable year of ’63 when Britain supposedly began to unbutton its inhibitions saw rugby straitjacket itself with possibly the most notorious game ever staged at Murrayfield, more of which shortly.

Now 82, Scotland has ushered me into his “nostalgia-slash-vanity room” where the walls are lined with team photos from his sterling and usually stirring efforts with Heriot’s, the Army, Cambridge Uni, London Scottish, the Lions and on 27 occasions with a thistle on his breast. He retains his wispy frame through a couple of rounds of golf every week and “not getting on terribly well with motor cars and so walking most places”, although it’s noticeable that when his wife Doreen delivers a tray of cheese scones and gingerbread shortie he leaves the lot to your correspondent. Together for 65 years, the couple have three sons, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A decent-sized crowd, then, for his rugby tales, although as I say he’s definitely not one to boast, preferring to praise peers, acknowledge influences and remember old muddied comrades, many no longer with us.

His conversation is peppered with the names of flamboyant characters such as Frans ten Bos and Tremayne Rodd. Ten Bos fled the Nazis to help power the Scots’ pack – “A great pal, did very well for himself in business, had a flat in Eton Square and I often used to stay over.” Rodd was the scrum-half, playboyish and extremely well-connected. “We were in opposition, him for the Navy and me for the Army, at Twickenham in ’56 – my first big game. He was a keen gambler and would sometimes turn up for matches straight from Crockfords. He wore an expensive coat right down to his ankles and we used to tease him: ‘Did you pinch that off cousin Percy?’”

But Scotland’s story properly begins with Eddie McKeating. “We were joined at the hip,” he says of his oldest chum from rugby. “He’s three days younger than me, we were born 200 yards from each other and he lived even closer to [Heriot’s] Goldenacre than I did and I was not much more than a decent pitch away. At school he was captain of rugby, of cricket and of athletics – a great athlete, much better than me – and I fondly recall that on Hogmanay 1954, after playing for London Scottish Schools against Richmond, we popped into a pub near King’s Cross and purchased a half-bottle of port and two screwtops. We couldn’t afford the sleeper carriage so we sat up the whole journey home, toasted the new year and speculated on what it might bring us.

“On Hogmanay 1955 we were in a nightclub in Toulouse having turned out for the Combined Services and on Hogmanay 1956 we received intimation that we would win out first caps together, against France in Paris.” It was a winning debut, 6-0 the score, Scotland bagging all our points with the boot, and indeed he was twice a victor in the French capital, no mean feat. For that fixture it was traditional for the team to troop along to the Folies Bergere for some scantily-clad cabaret downtime. “Always on the Thursday night,” he stresses. “Once, The Scotsman’s great football writer, John Rafferty, accompanied the team to Paris and rather gave the impression we’d been whooping it up the evening before the game. I was dismayed by his report; we simply wouldn’t have done that.”

Nevertheless, Scotland will add later: “Most of us who played rugby would at some point have disgraced ourselves. After my debut I was with the France winger Andre Boniface who was soon 
filling up my glass with a variety of liqueurs, nearly all of them quite lethal. The next day [Daily Express rugby correspondent] Pat Marshall wrote about ‘the fair-haired young full-back sipping pineapple juice on the Left Bank’. What a laugh. Even though I probably didn’t believe anything I ever read in newspapers subsequently, I was grateful to him for that. He did me a big favour because ‘Legless at the lido’ really should have been the headline!”

Then Scotland jumps up from his chair and finds the team photo from Paris ’57. They all look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, right enough, although 
few have survived. “Ernie Michie might still be around. Eddie is down in Newcastle, hanging on in there, and we keep in touch. But we’re all that’s left.”

The trio would retain their places for the next game, at home to Wales. “The Welsh didn’t like coming to Murrayfield, we had a good record against them, and that went back to my time as a supporter. In 1951 after 
a Lions tour when their side was packed with notables, we won 19-0. Then in ’55, when they were well-fancied again, we ended a slump of 17 losses in a row by beating them again when Arthur Smith, whose first game that was, scored a fantastic try.”

Once again Scotland veers off course to discuss the attributes of another; that’s a very neat sidestep he’s got. “Arthur was a role model for me, much clever and wiser. When I arrived at Cambridge he was in his final year and the thing I tried to learn from him was how to manage one’s 
time; he did this incredibly well. At Cambridge 
you usually aspired to get a first or a blue or a 
girlfriend or to be one of the boys, the latter 
usually meaning you would have achieved 
nothing. Arthur, though, managed all four!”

In that ’57 game the Welsh XV featured Cliff Morgan. Over to Scotland to supply yet more warm words: “He was a huge character, a singer and a raconteur who found a great role for himself at the BBC with that lovely lilt to his voice. On the pitch he was a running stand-off, nippy and tricky and definitely one from the Welsh No 10s production-line.” But the Scots won that day, 9-6, with records claiming the cheers of triumph could be heard back on Princes Street.

Two years later we squeezed home 6-5 and Scotland pays tribute to the dark-blue pack who in ’59 stood up to Welsh forwards a stone-per-man beefier and in the following seasons would supply the heavy lifting for those Triple Crown bids, ultimately dashed. Included among their number were Mike Campbell-amerton and David Rollo: “The best story about Dave is probably the one when he was a travelling reserve enjoying a pint before the game with one of the selectors. The second had gone down just as nicely when he was told to hurry up and get changed: someone had gone down with flu and he’d have to play with beer inside him. Needless to say it didn’t affect Dave’s performance.”

Then, in ’61, came that 3-0 game with two absolutely crucial interventions by Scotland. First he set up Arthur Smith, by then his captain, for the match-winning points, tries in those days only worth three. “Intuitive genius,” The Scotsman’s voice of rugby Jack Dunn called it – “a peach of a pass”. Then in the second half he felled the flying Dewi Webb to save a certain try. “Down the wing he went like a bullet,” Dunn said of the Welshman, “but hey presto, and to the profound relief of Scots patriots, KJF Scotland, who had played immaculately, got across and brought him down on the corner flag.”

“Do I remember the tackle?” says Scotland. “I didn’t make very many and indeed have good memories of both. All right, I’m joking. But that one was almost identical to when I stopped Jim Hetherington of England in the Calcutta Cup match of ’59. It was between Jim and me for a place on that year’s Lions tour. The selectors would have been worried about my defensive capabilities before that match so maybe that tackle got me on the plane.”

The crowd in ’61 was 70,000, a post-war record for Murrayfield; the Scots had slain the Welsh dragon yet again. But two years later, by which time Scotland was captain, Wales would exact revenge in the most infamous fashion. The Welsh forwards won most of the ball and scrum-half and skipper Clive Rowlands kicked the vast bulk of it into touch. There were a staggering 111 lineouts and the man closest to Rowlands, stand-off 
David Watkins, only touched the ball five times. It’s a wonder that another packed crowd didn’t stream out of the stadium in search of sausages to steal.

Nowadays this would be castigated as “anti-rugby”. In a less demonstrative age, “Boots, boots, boots,” was the closest Jack Dunn got to any outright criticism of Rowlands, although reporting on an Edinburgh Uni match at Murrayfield 48 hours later, this one featuring some excitement and a handful of tries, the writer noted the presence in the crowd of some Welsh stragglers and suggested that when they eventually got back home they could remind their countrymen that rugby “was always intended to be a handling game”. Then in 1970 the rules were changed making it illegal to kick direct into touch except from within your team’s 22. Never again would there be 111 lineouts in a match.

“It was pretty unique,” the diplomatic Scotland remarks of that gargantuan stat. “I never quizzed Clive about his tactics although I’ve since heard him say they were forced on him by the wet and windy conditions. We’d beaten France in Paris in our previous game by kicking a lot and hoped to repeat that. It was a very frustrating day but to be honest we’d wanted to play a similar sort of game to the Welsh only they’d been better at it.”

At least Scotland wasn’t a stick-in-the-mud, not that day or on any other. As a full-back he was as revolutionary as the Beatles. Rather than infernally kick, he would run. When he kicked for goal he used his instep which was almost as radical and modern. The likes of JPR Williams, Andy Irvine and Stuart Hogg were and are brilliant talents and nothing was going to stop their thrilling charges from deep. But it was Scotland who lit the path for them.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t get him to accept the credit for this. It takes a while for him to tell me how his attacking game evolved. Starting out as a stand-off certainly broadened his perspective. At Cambridge his captain, Geoff Windsor-Lewis, who would play against him for Wales, encouraged Scotland to join the backline beyond the outside centre. He and fellow Scot Gordon Waddell would workshop some moves, dummy scissors and the like, which would turn up 
later in the Welsh interplay between JPR and Gerald Davies. On his Lions tour down in New Zealand, surrounded by top players, he was afforded the scope to be “freelance”, diving for three ties in his first match. Of course, he says, not everything worked. Smart opposition got wise and blocked the radicalism next time round so he’d have to try something else. He was, and is still, a student of the game – “A bit of a nerd,” he laughs.

Living history, too. Never saw Scotland play; wished I had. Nevertheless, I think I’ve just been treated to some of the zippiness and elusiveness he displayed in his career. The All Blacks chronicler Terry McLean once remarked of him that 
he “floated like summer down through the New Zealand defence”. He’s still doing it.