50 games that defined Scottish rugby: part one

The Offside Line’s whistle-stop tour of 163 years of thrills, spills, glory and despair ... with the odd scandal along the way

Scotland's early matches against England laid the foundations of the international game
Scotland's early matches against England laid the foundations of the international game

SCOTTISH rugby has had its fair share of highs and lows, not to mention a few brushes with the bizarre. The one thing it has not been is mundane.

Here is The Offside Line’s whistle-stop tour of the 50 games which have defined the shape and character of rugby in the sport’s most northerly outpost.

1.

26th December 1857 – Edinburgh Academicals 4G Edinburgh University 1G

Various forms of ba’ games had taken place in towns across Britain for several centuries before William Webb Ellis allegedly decided to run instead of kick in 1823, and in the process laid the foundations of the game which we now know as rugby union. It was 34 years later that the first recorded match of this embryonic sport was played in Scotland, when Edinburgh Academicals took on Edinburgh University in a contest which stretched over four Saturdays (between 26th December 1857 and 16th January 1858) at Raeburn Place – with the former coming from one goal down to score four unanswered goals during the final afternoon. The match had been 25 a side for the first three instalments before increasing to 30 a side for the home stretch.

“Much of the success of the Academicals was due to three or four of their number who had learned to ‘drop-kick’ and played the game in England,” concluded a report of the match in the Edinburgh Evening Courant.


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2.

27th March 1871 – Scotland 1G England 0G

After a couple of false starts, the two most ancient rivals in international rugby finally met at – where else? – Raeburn Place, after a challenge signed by the captains of five senior Scottish clubs was published in Bell’s Life in London and The Scotsman in Edinburgh, which was accepted by the secretary of Blackheath (who happened to be a former Edinburgh Academy pupil). After a deadlocked first half, Scotland won the match by a goal and a try to a single try by England, although both Scottish scores were disputed (the first for an early Scottish surge at a scrummage five yards from the English line and the second for a knock-on).

The other big controversy was whether hacking should be permitted. Common practice in the early years of rugby, it was in the process of being phased out and was initially banned for this encounter, but as passions rose it began to sneak into the contest, until referee Hely Hutchinson Almond, headmaster of Loretto School, threatened to walk off unless the stipulated rules were observed. Scotland’s first score prompted the spectating James Carmichael to throw his top hat into the air and declare: “Flodden is at last revenged!”

The Scotland team for the first ever international match against England at Raeburn Place in 1871
The Scotland team for the first ever international match against England at Raeburn Place in 1871

3.

28th April 1883 – First ever Melrose Sevens Final – Melrose 3 Gala 0

“Want of money made us rack our brains as to what was to be done to keep the club from going to the wall, and the idea struck us that a football tournament might prove attractive but as it was hopeless to think of having several games in one afternoon with 15 players on each side, the teams were reduced to seven men,’ recalled local butcher Ned Haig, a few years after he had been the brains and driving-force behind the first Melrose Sports.

The inaugural event included foot races, dribbling races, drop-kick and place-kicking competitions, while the rugby tournament attracted eight teams, with the host side coming out on top by beating near rivals Gala in the final. It wasn’t long before other Border clubs were emulating the initiative.

From that tiny acorn grew the mighty oak of a game which is now played across the globe and at the Olympics. Its value in helping to develop skills, in testing fitness and work ethic, in exposing youngsters to high-octane competition, and in providing rugby followers with a cracking day out, has been key to its enduring success.

4.

1st March 1884 – England 1G (disputed) Scotland 0G

During the course of the match, a disagreement occurred over whether an England try which came directly from a Scottish knock-on should be allowed. Several players on both teams had stopped playing whilst awaiting the referee’s decision, and the whole episode escalated into what became known as ‘The Dispute’. The issue basically boiled down to a lack of uniformity in the interpretation of the rules and the English RFU’s insistence on being the sole arbiter of disputes. A stalemate resulted in no match between the two countries the following year, and England were then cast into the wilderness by Scotland, Ireland and Wales in 1888 and 1889, before a compromise agreement was finally reached in December 1889, with the International Board (now known as World Rugby) established as the governing authority for the game.

Bark Blue Blood - Book

5.

21st March 1914 – Scotland 15 England 16

This was the last international match before World War One. Six of the Scotland side – William Wallace (Cambridge University), James Huggan (London Scottish), John Will (Cambridge University), Eric Milroy (Watsonians), Fred Turner (Liverpool) and Eric Young (Glasgow Accies) – would go on to lose their lives in the Great War.

Five members of the England team – Ronnie Poulton (Liverpool), JHD Watson (Blackheath), Arthur Dingle (Hartlepool Rovers), Frank Oakley (Royal Navy) and Arthur Maynard (Cambridge University) – would suffer the same fate.

As Leonard Tiswell put it: “Men who had learned ‘to play the game’ on football grounds might be trusted to do no less in the greater game of war … [he] answered the call as he would the whistle – without question”.

Six members of the Scotland team and five members of the England team from this match in 1914 gave their lives during the Great War
Six members of the Scotland team and five members of the England team from this match in 1914 gave their lives during the Great War

6.

1st January 1920 – France 0 Scotland 5 

This game became known as ‘le match des borgnes’ (the match of the blind) because five players involved had lost an eye during the war – J Hume (Royal High), AD Laing (Royal High) and Jock Wemyss (Edinburgh Wanderers) of Scotland, and R Thierry (RCF) and M-F Lubin-Lebriere (Toulouse) of France.

Legend has it that Wemyss was not issued with a Scotland jersey in the dressing room before the match on the basis that he had played before the war and should still have had his from 1914, and it was only when he lined up ready to run out on to the pitch bare-chested that the committee relented and gave him a new one.

7.

21st March 1925 – Scotland 14 England 11

The greatest 80 minutes in the history of the national team up to that point produced a first Grand Slam, an achievement which would stand unrivalled in the annals of Scottish rugby for nearly 60 years. Playing for the first time at “their monster new ground at Murrayfield” as one press report described it, Scotland had not beaten England since before the war. That record looked set to continue for much of the game as the visitors opened the scoring, led at half-time, and then extended their advantage to 11-5 with the first score of the second 40. But, boasting arguably the greatest back line in their history, the Scots fought back, with Herbert Waddell scoring the winning points from a drop goal.

The team which defeated England to claim the 1925 Grand Slam
The team which defeated England to claim the 1925 Grand Slam

8.

19th March 1927 – Scotland 21 England 13

​The first live radio broadcast of an international match, a huge step towards popularising of the game – and this was a cracker to boot. End to end stuff with Scotland winning the try count 5-2. The Scottish forwards were fired up and with Herbert Waddell controlling play from fly-half, GPS Macpherson and Ian Smith cut the English defence to shreds at every opportunity. England defended stoutly, however, hanging in gamely even though reduced to 14 men after an injury to winger Catcheside, and it took a last minute try from Macpherson to finally clinch victory. A huge 70,000 crowd got their money’s worth, and such was the excitement that contemporary reports tell us that the roars could be heard three miles away in Grange and Newington.

9.

19th March 1938 – England 16 Scotland 21

‘Wilson Shaw’s Match’, as it has gone down in history, saw Scotland outscore their old rivals five tries to one to secure the Triple Crown – their last until the Grand Slam year of 1984. Shaw, Scotland’s stand-off and captain, scored two tries, created a third, and generally wreaked havoc on the home defence.

The try count might suggest a one-sided affair, but with tries only worth three points in those days, England actually stayed in touch throughout. The outcome was still in doubt going into the final minutes, with the visitors just 18-16 up, but Shaw’s second try made sure the Calcutta Cup would return north.

This was the first rugby international to be broadcast live on television, although only a few thousand homes, mainly in and around the London area, had the requisite equipment to view the grainy black and white pictures.

Scotland defeated England to claim the Triple Crown in 1938 in what came to be known as 'Wilson Shaw's Match'
Scotland defeated England to claim the Triple Crown in 1938 in what came to be known as ‘Wilson Shaw’s Match’

10.

1st January 1947 – France 3 Scotland 8

Scotland hadn’t played France since 1931 due to a fall-out over the fielding of professionals, but the end of World War Two offered an ideal opportunity to heal that rift. Brigadier Frank Coutts was a reserve for Scotland and piped the team onto the field at Colombes stadium in freshly liberated Paris.

“I actually should have been in the Palestine with my regiment but the army insisted I stay behind because I had a chance of being capped,” recalled Coutts, many years later.

“We had a lovely dinner that night at the Eiffel Tower and enjoyed the hospitality immensely – so much so that I was a bit worried by the end of the evening that a few of the boys might fall over the edge.

“It was a great occasion because things had been so grim for so long and it was just wonderful to be in this magnificent city, playing rugby and enjoying life.”

  • Read part two tomorrow [Tuesday]

That was the month that was: May 2020

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3 Comments

  1. The first game was recreated to celebrate both clubs 150th anniversary in 2007. This time the Edinburgh University won by six goals to three goals. And the Referee was Malcolm Duck. We all had a great day and night afterwards.

  2. That’s a fantastic piece gents. Thank you!

    I wondered if the first picture was the Accies new kit for 2020? 😁

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