Obituary: Keith Macdonald: a crash tackling centre for Scotland in the mid-1950s

He was billed by the Scottish Rugby Union for an extra egg he had eaten at breakfast on the morning of the 1957 Calcutta Cup match

Keith Macdonald carries the ball during the 1955 Inter-City match
Keith Macdonald carries the ball during the 1955 Inter-City match

Keith Macdonald

  • Born: 13th May 1933, Dundee
  • Died: 20th September 2021, Elie

KEITH MACDONALD, who has died aged 88, was a crash tackling Scottish international centre three-quarter who won six caps in the mid 1950s playing out of Stewart’s College FP’s and was one of Scotland’s oldest  internationalists.

While also an excellent attacking player, his defensive skills were what tended to catch the eye, including that of the press. After the 1957 Calcutta Cup fixture at Twickenham which England won, the Times report stated: “The Scottish tackling was murderous … especially Macdonald’s”. Unfortunately, his career was beset by injury problems but for which he would undoubtedly have won more caps instead of having to retire aged 26 because of knee issues.

In addition to his caps, he also represented the Barbarians, Co-Optimists, the RAF, Edinburgh District, Steele Bodger’s XV and although chosen for Combined Services was unable to play through illness.

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Sufficiently highly regarded to be selected initially for the Lions for their four month 1959 tour of Australia and New Zealand, he was unable to go because of injury concerns and employment leave issues.

Keith Roy Macdonald was born in Dundee, the only child of William, a jute mill manager, and Lily Whitton. In 1936, because of William’s job, the family moved to Calcutta where Keith, aged five, memorably rescued a friend from the Hooghly River. With war imminent, he and his mother returned to Dundee, but it was decided he would be safer staying with relatives in Detroit. Together with his mother he sailed to America where she left Keith with her brother, Tom Whitton, a former Scottish cross country internationalist, and his wife. Unsurprisingly this was a testing period for Keith who did not see his mother again until war finished, by which time he had an American accent to accompany his sports of baseball and American football.

At Dundee High School he was nicknamed ‘America’ and subject to some teasing, but not for long once Keith’s efforts on the rugby pitch were observed. By this time his parents had separated and later divorced.

In late 1946, Keith, with his mother, moved to Edinburgh where he began attending Daniel Stewart’s College and developing his sporting talent, particularly on the rugby field, with the school magazine congratulating him for “ brilliant play in attack and defence.”

In 1949 and 1950, he represented Edinburgh Schools against Glasgow, scoring a try on his debut, while in 1951 he became the first College pupil to be selected for Scottish Schoolboys against their English counterparts, but regrettably the match fell victim to the weather.

Apart from rugby, he played cricket for the 1st XI, and was junior and joint senior sports champion, successful at both track and field events, winning prizes in events as diverse as shot put and half-mile.

On leaving school he undertook National Service in the RAF, based at Waddington, Lincolnshire, during which time he played for the RAF against the Army at Twickenham in 1952. A year later he toured with them playing  Bayonne in France and a Spanish XV in Madrid, while he also managed five games for Leicester during this period.

Once demobbed he resumed playing for Stewart’s FP’s where his good form led to selection for Edinburgh in 1954 and the first of several international trials. His debut international came in a win against France at Murrayfield in January 1956 followed by games against Wales and Ireland. A press report of the Welsh game stated: “The only Scottish back who can escape censure is Macdonald, the youngest player behind the scrum who covered up for his more experienced colleagues in a fashion that was most admirable.” And one on the Irish game said: “Once again Scotland had reason to be grateful for the great fighting spirit of Macdonald – not only did he have to tame his heavier adversaries but he made chances for both Scotland’s tries”.

In 1957 he played against Wales, Ireland and England, the latter in a defeat at Twickenham with another report stating: “… but for Macdonald’s devastating tackling of the powerful WPC Davies, the score might have become incalculable … his crash tackling had rattled Davies into some most erratic passes”. After the match a severely ruffled Davies refused to shake hands but later apologised at the post-match dinner.

In those days amateurism was ferociously enforced by the SRU with expenses regularly minutely scrutinised. Even so, Keith was rather taken aback a week after the Calcutta Cup match when billed by the Union for an extra egg he had eaten at breakfast on the morning of the match.  That year he also played for Barbarians in the Mobbs Memorial match against East Midlands, alongside fellow Scots J.L. Allan, Arthur Dorward, Adam Robson and Arthur Smith, and played for an International XV against  Edinburgh Accies in their centenary match.

Injury hampered his career considerably, severely restricting his appearances in Stewart’s FP’s unofficial championship win in 1958, and causing him to miss further Scotland appearances in 1958 and 1959. His club also enjoyed a lot of seven-a-side success but again injury curtailed Keith’s appearances meaning he missed the 1956 Melrose win, although he appeared in the 1957 final and won medals at Langholm and Murrayfield tournaments. Teammates included fellow internationalists Grant Weatherstone, Gregor Sharp and Bill Relph. Keith also set a club record for the number of tries scored in one game, notching 5 against Kelvinside Accies in 1955.

In 1957, at Inverleith Church in Edinburgh, he married Dorothy Pentland with whom he enjoyed almost forty years of happy marriage during which they had daughter Gill. Keith then worked in insurance sales with Norwich Union as the couple began married life living in the Trinity area. In 1964 the opportunity arose for him to take over running a family business concern in Milnathort, Cunningham’s bacon factory. Channelling all his energy and drive into the project, often working seven days a week, he built up the enterprise into a highly successful company which was eventually sold to Booker cash-and-carry business allowing Keith to retire in 1985.

The family lived initially in Milnathort before moving to Glenisla, then Bankfoot, before settling in Elie in the early 1990s. After Dorothy’s death in 1996, Keith met widow Carolyn McEachran, whom he married in 2002.

After rugby Keith became a keen golfer playing off a four handicap and enjoying membership of Royal Burgess, Gleneagles and Elie, where his house overlooked the course. He also took part in RIGS outings [Rugby Internationalists Golf Society] and played in America at courses such as Kiawah Island and Bay Hill, as well as Augusta where aged 60 he scored an impressive 85.

Performance cars were another interest with Aston Martin and Porsche among the favourite models he owned.

He thoroughly enjoyed life in Elie and the regular breaks he and Carolyn spent in Soto Grande, Spain. A sociable gent who enjoyed a good party, Keith was a loyal friend to many. His resilience, determination and work ethic enabled him overcome childhood challenges to play international rugby and prosper in business.

He is survived by his wife, daughter and granddaughter Issy.


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About Jack Davidson 12 Articles
Jack is a retired lawyer/QC from Edinburgh with a passion for sports history. He has contributed obituaries and historically themed sports articles to various publications, including: The Scotsman, The Herald and Nutmeg Magazine.


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