IT WAS in some ways fitting that Ernie Michie, British and Irish Lion #318, should pass away on Saturday night, after Scotland had played South Africa at Murrayfield.
Ernie, who had celebrated his 88th birthday earlier this month, was one of the great characters of Scottish rugby. He won 15 caps for the national team, was a Lion in South Africa in 1955, and a Barbarian; while his clubs were Aberdeen Grammar, Aberdeen University, London Scottish, Leicester, Langholm and Highland.
He was an outstanding schoolboy player in his native Aberdeen, with Aberdeen Grammar School. Even before he had embarked on his senior career, there was excitement around him.
North District picked him as a teenager, and he was still an undergraduate at Aberdeen University when awarded the first of an eventual 15 Scotland caps, for the opening international of the 1954 Five Nations, against France, at Murrayfield.
His boiler-house partner that day was the future Sir Ewen Fergusson, then a student at Oxford University. Changed days indeed, you cannot visualise two students locking the Scotland scrum today. They were two of five new caps in the Scotland pack, the others being hooker Bob McEwen and two Hawick legends Hugh McLeod and Adam Robson.
By the end of that season, Ernie had amassed five caps. The following season, he missed the opening game, in Paris. However, so-poor was the Scottish display that afternoon, the team’s 17th straight international defeat, that the selectors organised an international trial before the Welsh game.
This allowed Arthur Smith to command his first cap while “the havoc” which Michie wrought about the park got him reinstated, in spite of criticism from the Glasgow Herald’s Rugby Correspondent, on account of his disregard for the offside law.
It was a timely comeback by Ernie. On 5th February, 1955, that 17-game losing run was ended, courtesy of a 14-8 Murrayfield win in what has gone down in history as “Arthur Smith’s Match.” Yes, the future Lions captain scored one of the great Murrayfield tries, but, all 15 Scottish players, in getting that monkey of repeated losses off the team’s back, became legends.
Ernie held his place for the remainder of the season, which saw Ireland beaten, again at Murrayfield, before the heart-break of a narrow defeat in the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham, when a seemingly good try, between the posts, by prop Tom Elliot of Gala, was disallowed.
That summer, Ernie, along with fellow Scots Angus Cameron, Arthur Smith, Hugh McLeod, Tom Elliot and Jim Greenwood were chosen for the Lions’ tour to South Africa.
He didn’t feature in the Test XV, but played for the ‘Dirt Trackers’ in 11 matches on tour, scoring a try against East Africa in Nairobi, and becoming a familiar figure as, kilted, he piped the Lions onto the field in the four Tests. “Why shouldn’t I have taken my pipes on tour?” he replied, when asked.
He held his Scotland place throughout the 1956 season and again throughout the 1957 season, which, for him, ended with another overseas tour, to North America with the Barbarians. However, having completed his university course and done his National Service, during which he represented The Army and Combined Services, his job with the Forestry Commission saw him forced to move from London Scottish to Leicester.
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Arguably, Leicester had a stronger fixture list, however, John M Bannerman had decreed that Scottish forwards playing in England, if they didn’t play for London Scottish or the two Oxbridge universities, could not be picked for the national team, so, Ernie was in the wilderness after 15 caps.
He did return to Scotland for season 1958-59, when following a work posting to the Scottish Borders, he was a member of the Langholm team which won the Border League and the Unofficial Championship. Arguably he was in the form of his life, but, there would be no Scotland recall.
From Langholm, he moved again, to Inverness, where he enjoyed a lengthy association with Highland. He remained in the Highlands after his retirement from the Forestry Commission, continuing to take a keen interest in rugby for the remainder of his long life.
It was a joy to hear his reminiscences on those carefree amateur days of the 1950s, and about how SRU politics cost him some caps. Ernie was a marvellous character, with a wealth of stories, and, for a man of his accomplishments, modest in the extreme.
He gifted several of his international shirts to Highland, where they are on-display in the clubhouse.
He is survived by wife Sybil, sons Ian and Fergus, daughter Morag and their families.
Ernest James Stewart Michie – 7 November, 1933 – 13 November, 2021.