Obituary: Ken Scotland: a pioneering full-back who was one of his country’s all-time greats

Capped 27 times by his country, a star of the 1959 Lions tour to New Zealand, highly competitive on the field and an absolute gentleman off it

Ken Scotland earned 27 caps for his country and was one of the game's all-time great full-backs.
Ken Scotland earned 27 caps for his country and was one of the game's all-time great full-backs.

KEN SCOTLAND

  • Born 29th August 1936, Edinburgh
  • Died 7th January 2023, Edinburgh, aged 86

KEN SCOTLAND earned a richly deserved place of honour in the history of Scottish rugby as one of his country’s greatest ever players, one whose name is universally revered and will resonate through the ages. For those of a certain generation, he represented all that was good about rugby, world class on the pitch and off it, a wonderful ambassador for the game as a complete gent whose self-effacing and modest demeanour revealed no hint of his god-like rugby status or his sporting competitive nature. A true hero to many a schoolboy and countless others.

Recital of career statistics scarcely captures the flavour of his impact but for the record he won 27 Scotland caps, played in five Tests for the British and Irish Lions, represented the Barbarians, Edinburgh and North and Midlands Districts, The Army and Combined Services on many occasions, won three ‘Blues’ with Cambridge University and played club rugby with distinction for Heriot’s F.P.’s, Leicester, London Scottish, Ballymena and Aberdeenshire among others. On occasion he captained almost all those teams. Had circumstances not taken him to Aberdeen in 1963 and of necessity lower level club rugby he would undoubtedly have added to his caps total.

At ‘7s’, he twice won Melrose medals with Heriot’s and once with Cambridge University, ironically in the final against Heriot’s featuring brother Ronnie, so becoming the first person to win there with two different clubs, while with London Scottish he twice won the Middlesex ‘7s’, defeating old Edinburgh rivals, Stewart’s F.P.’s in the 1961 triumph.


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Ken will be particularly remembered for being one of the first attacking full-backs, having been encouraged to join the line to create overlaps by his first captain at Cambridge, Welsh cap Geoff Windsor-Lewis, who recently made the trip from Wales to attend Ken’s funeral. Timing of his run and pace were key to the move’s success. He was also one of the first goal-kickers to use his instep in the ‘round the corner’ style. Such ‘innovations’ helped make him a stand out on the 1959 Lions Tour of Australia and New Zealand, endearing him to that rugby mad nation. The Tour was “a great experience and great fun”, and a personal success for Ken. “The enthusiasm for rugby there was a bit of an eye opener. You were noticed everywhere you went and at times I thought this must be what it’s like for Willie Bauld walking down Gorgie Road!” he later recounted, name checking the great Heart of Midlothian player of the time.

The New Zealand Rugby Almanac described him as “the Lion most likely to win a match for his side”, naming him as one of its five players of the year, while famous Kiwi rugby writer T.P. McLean wrote: “He floated like summer wine through the New Zealand defence.” As a footnote, when Ken’s son Iain visited New Zealand some years ago, he met by chance former All Blacks coach Graeme Henry who eulogised Ken and enthusiastically recalled watching him as a 14-year-old schoolboy.

Nor were his sporting talents confined to the rugby pitch. Ken also represented Scotland at cricket, gaining one cap against Ireland, became a low handicap golfer, captained the tennis team while at George Heriot’s School and was a noted middle distance runner. Later, aged 46, he completed the first Edinburgh Marathon, and, aged 50, the punishing Goat Fell race in Arran, a climb of nearly 3,000 feet.

Kenneth James Forbes Scotland was the eldest child of parents John and Edith nee Forbes, brought up with brother Ronnie and sister Elsie near Heriots’ Goldenacre rugby ground. His father, known as Jack, was a senior Advocates’ Clerk in the capital’s Parliament House housing the Law Courts.

It was fortuitous that Ken lived in the shadow of Goldenacre as he was to spend so much time there developing his sporting talent. He and lifelong friend Eddie McKeating, a fellow Herioter and near neighbour, regularly climbed over the wall ‘out of hours’ to kick a ball and play, initially to the groundsman’s chagrin. Eddie, of course, was also capped by Scotland with the pair making their international debut on the same day. It was a source of great pride for Ken in 2001 to have a new pavilion there named in his honour.

Interest in rugby grew through his father taking him to Inverleith to watch wartime Service internationals and in 1946 to Murrayfield to watch Scotland play the New Zealand Army, an unforgettable experience. He loved everything about it, “the players like gladiators, the noise of the crowd, it really fired my ambition to play for Scotland.” That became a driving force as his potential became apparent at Heriot’s where he played mostly at stand-off in the 1st XV over three seasons and gained selection for Edinburgh and Scottish Schools as well as the All Britain A.T.C. XV.

Ken Scotland was also capped by Scotland a cricketer.
Ken Scotland was also capped by Scotland a cricketer.

He modelled his play on Jackie Kyle, the great Irish No 10, earning widespread plaudits, being described by then rugby master George Blamire as “the schemer in chief … perhaps the most complete footballer Heriot’s has ever had.” Even when playing full-back, Ken thought “as a stand off”. He also flourished at cricket spending six years in the 1st XI, scoring several centuries and excelling as wicket keeper, while in the Annual Sports Championship he was runner-up to Eddie McKeating. Away from the sporting arena he was School Captain and Flight Sergeant in the R.A.F. cadets.

National Service with the Royal Signals based at Catterick followed as his rugby career developed down south with appearances for The Army and Combined Services leading to his first cap aged 20 as a full-back against France at Colombes in Paris in January 1957.  Conditions were dire with the dressing rooms “primitive” and crowd “seeming to be on top of you” as Ken marked his debut with a win, scoring all Scotland’s points with a penalty and dropped goal after missing an earlier penalty. “Mistakes never bothered me very much,” as he recalled.

Next came Cambridge University and an Honours degree in History and Economics awaited subject to passing a Latin exam for which he received tuition from retired Edinburgh Academy headmaster A.L.F.Smith. It caused Ken difficulty and put him under pressure which carried over on to the rugby field when he played “the worst game of my life” in the Freshers’ Trial. After that sticky start his confidence returned with games for London Scottish before establishing himself in the University side for the Varsity matches, captaining the team in their 1960 win. Selection for the Lions ensued and he was a regular for Scotland until 1963 when employment took him to Aberdeen, entailing playing for ‘open club’ Aberdeenshire as the senior clubs Gordonians and Aberdeen Grammar F.P.’s were then ‘closed clubs.’

Although he thoroughly enjoyed his rugby with Aberdeenshire, their lower level fixtures did not enhance his international career. To his credit he persevered and won a final cap in 1965, enabling him to surpass Dan Drysdale’s record total of international caps for a Herioter. While in Aberdeen he was a regular for North and Midlands including games against the touring All Blacks and Australians before hanging up his boots in 1969.

Ken Scotland in action for Cambridge University during the 1958 Varsity Match
Ken Scotland in action for Cambridge University during the 1958 Varsity Match

 

On 3rd April 1961, at St Andrews Church, Juniper Green, Ken married Doreen Marshall whom he had met through friends at school dances. They shared almost 62 years of happy marriage during which they had three sons, Robin, Iain and Alistair.

After Cambridge, Ken worked initially in management consultancy in the Midlands while playing for Leicester before moving back to Scotland where he took up a post in Aberdeen with Hall’s Builders, later becoming Deputy Managing Director with Aberdeen Construction Group. After ten years in Aberdeen, the family returned to Edinburgh where Ken worked in house construction with the Walker Group and Salvesens and was a non executive Director on the Scottish Postal Board. Thereafter, he and Doreen enjoyed several years at Brodick Castle in Arran where Ken was Administrator, before doing a similar job at Paxton House, Berwickshire, prior to returning to Edinburgh.

The couple enjoyed hillwalking and golfing together along with friends with whom they spent annual golfing weekends over many years. Ken played regularly at Bruntsfield Links where he maintained a single figure handicap into his sixties and was a competitive player who according to his sons very rarely, if ever, conceded putts! In 2020, he wrote an excellent memoir, “Ken Scotland – The Autobiography,” an outstanding read marked by his insight, candour, modesty and subtle humour.

Reflecting his impact, when Tom Kiernan the legendary Irish and Lions captain was interviewed on the occasion of his 50th cap and asked: ‘Who is the greatest player of your time?’, he replied: “Ken Scotland, it was a privilege to be on the same field as him.”

Much loved by family and friends, Ken was an unassuming, honest gent who treated everyone the same, irrespective of station in life. Doreen has asked that her appreciation of the fantastic support she has received from her sons at this difficult time be recorded. Ken is survived by Doreen, their sons, his siblings, seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

JACK DAVIDSON

Ken Scotland will be remembered as one of the country's greatest ever player and as a true gentleman.Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Ken Scotland will be remembered as one of the country’s greatest ever player and as a true gentleman.
Image: © Craig Watson – www.craigwatson.co.uk

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About Jack Davidson 16 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.

2 Comments

  1. Not for the first time I’m compelled to say we will not see his like again. To achieve such eminence in the sporting field and earn a living, exemplary.

  2. A sad occasion but what a career and life. I read his book last year and was blown away by some of his achievements inside and outside of Rugby. An innovator of the game.

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