Ken Scotland: an unlikely revolutionary who embodies the spirit of rugby

The architect of modern full-back play has written a typically thoughtful and illuminating autobiography

Ken Scotland had a huge influence on the development of modern full-back play in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Image: © Craig Watson -
Ken Scotland had a huge influence on the development of modern full-back play in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Image: © Craig Watson -

BEFORE Stuart Hogg there was Gavin Hastings, before Gavin Hastings there was Andy Irvine, and before Andy Irvine there was Ken Scotland – who really started it all off in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  

Previously, the role of a full-back was as the last line of defence, and while some would attack from deep – running back loose kicks – the idea of joining back-line moves to create that all important extra man was virtually unheard of. Then a combination of circumstance, timing and ​Scotland’s all-round rugby ability changed the way the game was played forever.

And it wasn’t just in Scotland [the country] that Scotland [the player] made a huge impact, his influence stretched around the globe.

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In 1960, The Rugby Almanack of New Zealand selected him as one of ‘Five Players of the Year’, praising the versatility which saw him deployed at scrum-half, stand-off and centre for the 1959 Lions, but it was his demonstrations of “how dangerous a clever fast-running full-back can be” that really got the judges’ juices flowing.

“He floated like summer down through the New Zealand defence,” was Kiwi writer Terry McLean‘s poetic observation at the time.

Scotland is not your archetypal revolutionary. Well-mannered and softly-spoken, he is very much a product of his post-war, middle-class Edinburgh upbringing, and he is quick to emphasise that he was part of a movement – a changing rugby culture – rather than a maverick doing it his own way and to hell with the consequences.

“For many historians of the game, the high-water mark is perhaps still the 1920s and 1930s, and the people who were running rugby in the 1950s were all people who had played the game during that era,” he explains. “They had missed chunks of their career in the forces during the war, and when they came back they played the game that was played pre-war, and, to be honest, I don’t think there was much change in tactics at all during the early post-war years into the fifties.

“One of the first innovators was Danny Craven of South Africa, who analysed forward played in a way that nobody else had done. Even into the 1930s, it was first-up-first-down, so the front and second rows could be in any sort of order. Then the 1951 Springboks came along and they were a revelation in this country in terms of forward play. To begin with, it was very much scrummaging only but then the French developed attacking plays off their back-row, mainly from line-outs but also from scrums, and that was something they had initially picked up from the Springboks.

“So, by the 1950s, the game was just beginning to develop after a post-war stasis, and I suppose I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

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“In my second year of National Service with the Royal Signals at Catterick – when I did very little but play rugby and cricket – we had a guy called Gethin Evans, who was straight from ​the Welsh ‘stand-off factory’, but because I was the established stand-off, we put him at full-back, and we actually worked out quite a lot of moves that season bringing him into the line in various ways, although it was more him taking the ball at first receiver to dummy down the blindside and things like that.

“At about the same time, David Brace and Mike Smith, the Oxford half-backs in the mid-fifties, developed different moves – nothing wildly exciting but enough to leave an element of doubt in the opposition’s mind as to who was going to be first receiver in the middle of the field – and that was a new concept at the time. It was quite radical.”

A student of the game

After finishing his National Service, Scotland enrolled at Cambridge University, but produced what he still considers the worst game of rugby he ever played in the Freshers Trial, meaning that despite having already been capped as a full-back earlier that year (something of a surprise given that he had only previously played a handful of games in that position as a schoolboy), he ended up as third choice for the 1957 Varsity Match.

Fortunately, he bounced back from that inauspicious start, and within 16 months was touring New Zealand with the 1959 Lions, which was undoubtedly the highlight of his rugby career, despite losing the Test series 3-1.

“We scored more points than any team had done before or are ever likely to do again, record numbers of people turned out to watch the games, and I think we were a very popular touring side,” he reflects. “When we won the Fourth Test, the New Zealanders took it really well and I think they thought we deserved to get something out of the trip.”

It was at Cambridge that he really found his feet and established his style as arguably the first modern full-back, playing alongside fellow Scotsman Gordon Waddell at stand-off, with whom he developed an intuitive understanding

“There was only two clubs in Britain at that time with a first-class fixture list who trained in daylight, and that was Cambridge and Oxford,” he says. “Some clubs had floodlights, but they weren’t to the standard we have now, and a lot of top clubs had to train by streetlight or whatever other light they could get, so we were in a really privileged position in terms of how we were able to prepare for games.”

It also helped that all rugby matters were led by the players, who – as students – tended to be younger and more open to innovation.

“There was little tactical appreciation went on at that time,” he recalls. “Before my first international game in Paris, I don’t think there was any tactical discussion – certainly not that I was involved in – so that was something that the players developed.

“By the start of my second year at Cambridge, I was fairly well established as first choice full-back but I continued to think like a stand-off, and taking our lead from that Oxford half-back pairing of Brace and Smith, we started experimenting with using different attacking formations, in conjunction with scissor and dummy-scissor movements, to bring the full-back in as an attacking force.

“The first move we practiced was the full-back coming into the tree-quarter line outside the outside-centre, aiming to create the classic two-on-one situation. It was called either from a line-out or a scrum close to one touchline. The move was called regularly in these early games, but only rarely executed. With no such thing then as a miss-pass, the ball had to go quickly and accurately through four pairs of hands before any possible advantage could arise, so it could be wasteful of hard-won possession. When everything clicked, we scored tries from the move and the principle of creating an overlap worked well enough to encourage me to use the idea, but in open play rather than in a set-piece situation.

“Although it quickly fell out of favour as a set-piece move, coming into the line outside the outside centre remained my favourite point of attack.”

“There is nothing new under the sun and I would never claim to have started it,” he adds. “I had a chat with Vivian Jenkins [the great Welsh full-back of the 1930s] not long before he died, and he said: ‘You were not the first attacking full-back, I was an attacking full-back.’ Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to go into enough detail.

“Certainly, there was what you would call counter-attacking full-backs, so that if they collected a loose kick ahead, they would develop something else, but actually attacking off your own ball, I wasn’t aware of anybody else doing it, to be honest.”

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It is important to highlight that there is not a hint of conceit in Scotland’s self-evaluation. Modest to a fault, it came as a surprise to almost everyone who knows him – or knows of him – to learn that he has recently published an autobiography. It started off as a memoir for his family and developed into the 220-page volume which stands as a tribute to the game before it all got so dreadfully serious.

“I suppose, in a way, that’s why I eventually decided to go public,” he says. “Given that my main ambition was to play rugby for Scotland, and there are still young boys around with an ambition to play rugby for Scotland, the difference between the way they will make the grade as opposed to the way I did is absolutely chalk and cheese.

“They hardly play any rugby at all – they are hot-housed, and analysed, and sent to the gym, and one thing or another – which is totally foreign to the game I played. I can’t say I really envy that.”

True to character, the self-penned book is a gentle read. Thoughtful, self-deprecating and unerringly honest without being mean-spirited. It will provoke a sense of nostalgia for an era when the game was just as competitive but the spirit was more joyful – even amongst those who weren’t alive at the time to experience it first-hand!

More than anything else, the book is two enduring love stories – dedicated to Doreen, his wife of 59 years (and counting), and to the game of rugby.

For a player who reached such dizzying heights, it says a lot that he has remained so engaged with the game at ground-floor level.

Making friends in the north

Towards the end of his career, when work took him to Aberdeen, there was a lack of first-class rugby options in the city so he joined Aberdeenshire, who played well down the grades compared to what he had been used to. During his first few months at the club “the average numbers at training stayed steadily at three” and his first home game was a real eye-opener for a decorated internationalist.  “The amenities failed to match, by some way, those to which I had become accustomed at Cambridge or Leicester – it has one communal changing-room, for both teams and the referee, completely devoid of either artificial light or running water”. Despite all this, he lasted seven seasons with the club, and stresses that he greatly enjoyed every moment of it, before eventually hanging up his boots at the age of 33.

In later life, Scotland served on the committee at his ‘home’ club, Heriot’s, which included two years as President between 2000 and 2002. Now well into his 80s but looking fit enough to pull the boots on again, he still follows rugby avidly at all levels but retains a particular affection for the amateur club game.

“Winter Saturday afternoons were always about playing a rugby match, then latterly watching a rugby match, and being that kind of traditionalist I try to decide what’s going to be the best game in north Edinburgh and fortunately they are all within walking distance,” he says, before lamenting the fact that his routine is currently on hold due to the amateur game being shut down until at least January by Covid.

“There was a point when Heriot’s tended to have away games at the same time as Edinburgh Accies were at home, so I spent quite a bit of time at Raeburn Place for one season. Stewart’s-Melville is quite interesting because they are playing a couple of divisions below that, so you get to see a bit of depth. Then just around the corner ​from my home, Royal High are playing down in the regional leagues and there are not many there but the few spectators who are have a tremendous time shouting at the referee and opposition. The players all seem to enjoy it, the referee enjoys it.  You go into the bar afterwards and socialise – the game is still there at the grassroots – and I enjoy it!”

At a time when Covid has pushed rugby to a fork in the road, a socially-distanced hour shooting the breeze with Ken Scotland is a powerful reminder that whatever way the sport moves forward, it must not all be driven by spreadsheets and commercial imperatives.

Purchase a signed copy of Ken Scotland’s autobiography HERE.

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About David Barnes 4028 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.


  1. What a legend.
    I think Stuart Hogg should come and play the last seven years of his rugby career at Aberdeenshire.

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