PIERRE DANOS’ oft quoted diktat that ‘in rugby there are those who play the piano – and those who shift them’ comes readily to mind when thinking about Harry Whitaker. Shifting pianos was never a problem for the likes of Jock Beattie and Hugh McLeod, and there have been many fine players amongst Hawick’s serried international ranks, but only three can be truly said to have achieved virtuoso status – Wattie Sutherland, Jim Renwick and Harry.
When in 1957, Harold Macmillan told the country that we ‘had never had it so good’ he was not kidding so far as Hawick was concerned. The mills were booming, the town was the highest dollar earner per head of population in the UK, it had just been voted the best dressed town in Britain, Jack Hegarty’s great championship winning side were at the top of the Scottish game – and it was always sunny at the Common Riding. ‘The grey auld toon’ was at that time, as David Hill so memorably wrote, ‘a grand place to be a laddie in’ – and the perfect environment to nurture Harry Whitaker’s sublime sporting talents.
Scrum-half in the High School 1st XV at 14, opening the batting for Hawick & Wilton at 16, a stylish inside left for Hawick Legion in the Sunday League, halcyon days with the PSA in the Border semi-junior league, unforgettably stamping his class all over the exhibition match played against the full Hawick side to celebrate the opening of the new pavilion at Cavers View.
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Two tries on his debut for the ‘Greens’ in 1963 in the then traditional September holiday Monday game against the reigning Scottish champions, Glasgow High – and then winning a regular place in the side when Glen Turnbull went to Rugby League the following season, Harry took to senior rugby ‘as to the manner born’ – quick hands and a great box-kick, a killer break, superb game management, a telepathic understanding with Colin Telfer – and unbelievably brave.
Faith was in short supply when the Hawick seven was announced for the Gala tournament at the beginning of April 1966 – four raw, untested youngsters behind the scrum (John Auchinleck, Rob Welsh, Colin and Harry) and three front five forwards (Norman Suddon, Peter Robertson and Rob Brydon) packing down in front of them. Few rated their prospects, but after breezing past Gordonians and Selkirk in the early rounds, they swamped a very strong Cardiff seven (which included Gareth Edwards) 20-5 in the semi-final and blew away a highly rated Loughborough Colleges seven (which included Gerald Davies) 25-15 in the final. A great day for Hawick rugby and the launch pad for the glorious ten-in-a-row – with Norman Mair writing in The Scotsman the following week at Melrose about Harry ‘breaking with the impudence of a street urchin ringing other people’s door bells’.
Eddie McGovern, who managed Hawick Royal Albert in the East of Scotland football league, turned up at pre-season training at Mansfield one Saturday afternoon in August that year. Ian Cleghorn’s car had broken down so they were a man short for their game against Chirnside United. Could Harry fill in? He could – and did – and scored a hat-trick!
Harry toured South Africa with the Scottish Border Club earning praise from no less a personage than Doctor Dannie Craven – then he captained Hawick to the Border League and the Scottish Unofficial Championship in season 1967-68. He was at the height of his rugby powers – international recognition was a given – but Harry was his own man – and he signed Rugby League for Workington Town – not for the money but for the challenge it presented.
Rugby League was a hard and at times brutal game in those days, and Workington Town was maybe not the most fashionable of clubs, but Harry built a meaningful career through hard work, guts and innate talent, playing alongside the likes of Paul Charlton and Ike Southward. He had no regrets whatsoever about ‘going South’ and always argued that League was the better game – but there remains a suspicion that his talents were better suited to Union – and intriguing conjecture as to what might have been had he played his cards differently. Certainly, for those of us who saw him play, it is a hypothetically close call between Harry and Gareth Edwards for the starting scrum-half slot with the 1971 Lions tour of New Zealand.
Harry was always keen on the horses and an inveterate student of bloodstock form – and back in Hawick after his playing days were over he and ‘Pie’ Laidlaw opened a bookies shop down Baker Street – but he had always been interested in sports injuries and working from scratch, studying at home on his own, he qualified as a registered osteopath and ran a highly regarded clinic from his house in Beaconsfield Terrace – so highly regarded that Rugby League luminaries such as Ellerly Hanley, Sean Edwards and Alan Tait travelled up to Hawick for treatment.
Golf was by then Harry’s game – over the Vertish with Bill McLaren – or ‘troot suppers’ down at Goswick with Jim Renwick – with bagging four holes-in-one over the piece as fitting testament to his proficiency on the links..
Harry was an avid reader with eclectic tastes. A deep thinker with strong views – interesting and interested – happy to set the world to rights over a couple of pints in the High Level on a Thursday night.
An outstanding sportsman, a proud Teri, a self-effacing polymath – but Harry was, however, first and foremost a committed family man and our thoughts must be with Joan, Kevin, Jane and their families at this incredibly sad and very difficult time.
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Thrae the hert as always Barney, and beautifully stated…….a truly wonderful and articulate man.
A wonderful obituary, condolences to his family and friends.
A wonderful obituary . Like many I wish I’d of seen Harry play . Sincere condolences to his family , friends and all in Hawick . RIP .
Wonderful obituary. Brought back many happy memories of Hawick and one of its favourite sons.
Sad to hear the news of Harry’s passing. A bit older than me so, unfortunately, never had the chance to compete against him on the field of play. Did however, enjoy our many chats (on rugby, golf, horse racing cricket, you name it, he was well read) as I lay on his treatment table. His remedial skills managed to cure some troublesome injuries of mine, when “conventional” treatments had failed.
A true Hawick legend, but more importantly a really nice guy.
Rest in peace Harry
I wish I had seen him play!
A great read, well done Barney. I’m sure you could write a book about those great times.
Wonderful tribute – RIP HW.
Great appreciation Barney.Would definitely have played for Scotland had he not gone South.Loved listening tae a “discussion “ wi Harry,Jim and Terence.Forthright,educational,and the barbs that went in each other’s direction were hilarious but always good friends.
Like many “Robbie Dyes” followed the magnificent ten sevens. A chat wi Harry in later life was always instructive and illuminating whether it be rugby or horses. Always remember his phrase ” what ee need in rugby is vision” possibly a short commodity which could be returning in our Scotland team.
Lovely obit Barney. I never saw Harry play (I’m a youngster…) but I remember my dad telling me what a great player he was.
Harry told a young lad he knew if the lad was ever picked to be Hawick Cornet he would follow him on a horse to Mosspaul .
Lo and behold it came to fruition
Now in his mid fifties
Harry went and got riding lessons and did what he promised To become a proud Mosstrooper
A great Hawick personality RIP
Nice one Barney(senior)
Lovely obituary Ian. RIP
Great obituary. As a kid growing up in Hawick in the 1950s, both parents in mills, mum in Pringles, dad at Pesco’s, this really resonates. I remember the sense of loss and disbelief amongst my elders when it happened. Harry’s gone tae league.
Agree wholeheartedly with both Stewart & Bill.
Wasn’t sure if one ‘t’ or two in Harry’s name but certainly would not be arguing with the author.
Your old flatmate!
We did need to check the one ‘t’ or two ‘t’ issue!
Taught me how to play! Cards at Gala textile college.
My rugby hero after watching him in66 atGala sports
Super appreciation of the great Harry Whittaker who was a cap that got away.
Remember being at the Gala sevens in 1966 when the young Hawick seven started their 10 in a row. What a team ! England perhaps won the football world cup in ’66 but the Hawick seven were world champions at sevens then.Nice photo of Harry Whittaker being watched over by a young and svelt Ian Barnes.As the appreciation states it was perhaps the best time to be a Teri.
If Carlsberg did obituaries…..brilliant read.