Scottish rugby loses a legend with death of Ken Scotland

Former Scotland and Lions full-back had a huge impact on how the game evolved in the late 1950s and early 1960s

Ken Scotland was one of the greatest rugby players Scotland has ever produced. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Ken Scotland was one of the greatest rugby players Scotland has ever produced. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

SCOTTISH rugby lost one of its all-time greats on Saturday morning with the death of Ken Scotland, aged 86, after a battle with cancer. He passed away at his home in the Barnton area of Edinburgh with his beloved wife, Doreen, and their three sons – Robin, Iain and Alistair – by his side.

He was a physically slight man by the standards of modern professional rugby players, but a giant of the game on a global level during his pomp in the late 1950s and early 1960s, creating a legacy which has endured to this day. Before Scotland, full-backs attacked from deep off kicked ball, but he helped revolutionise the position as one of the first of the breed to join the back-line as a strike-runner.

He was also a pioneer of the ’round-the-corner’ as opposed to the traditional ‘toe-poke’ technique for place kicking.

He was capped 27 times for Scotland between his international debut against France in January 1957 and his last appearance against the same opposition in January 1965. He also played in five out of six Test matches and 22 out of a total 33 games during the 1959 British and Irish Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand.


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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 Lions the previous year, but it was his demonstrations of “how dangerous a clever fast-running full-back can be” that really stood him out as a player of exceptional ability.

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

The modest and softly-spoken Scotland was an unlikely rugby revolutionary, and his role in glamourising the full-back position had a lot to do with circumstance. Having played almost all his rugby at stand-off up until being selected at full-back in the second national trial ahead of the 1957 Five Nations, he found himself deployed at a high level in a position he was not really familiar with, and his background compelled him to push forward more than his predecessors in that role would ever have dreamed of. It should be said that the conviction with which he embraced the new role reflected a steely determination and powerful competitive instinct which was not immediately apparent in his off-field demeanour.

He was also a high level cricketer as a batsman and wicket-keeper, capped by Scotland against Ireland in 1958, and he enjoyed playing golf competitively in later life.

A product of George Heriot’s School, he played senior rugby for 34 teams (including international and invitational matches) according to his 2020 autobiography, including the Royal Signals Catterick during his national service, Cambridge University, Leicester, whilst based in the East Midlands as trainee management consultant, and Aberdeenshire, when work took him to the Granite City towards the end of his playing career.

After eventually hanging up his boots, Scotland served on the committee at his ‘home’ club, Heriot’s, which included two years as President between 2000 and 2002.

His decision to pen a biography which was published in November 2020 seemed out of character, but he explained at the time that he wanted a memoir to pass on to his sons and their families.

In an interview he gave to this website to mark the publication of his book, Scotland revealed how – despite being well into his eighties – he still got an awful lot out of the game in which he had made his name.

“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 said, before lamenting the fact that his routine was currently on hold due to the amateur game being shutdown 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!”


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

About David Barnes 3179 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he 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.

11 Comments

  1. I have only just heard the devastating news of Ken’s death. I was a small boy at Heriot’s when he was the star stand off in the 1st XV, and when he was a Lion in ’59 I had his photographs all over my bedroom wall. All I wanted to do was to follow in his footsteps, and to meet him and be able to talk to him. Thankfully that happened and I will never forget him, both as a player and as a gentleman who always had the time of day.

  2. Read his book recently myself….it opened up a few things about that era for me. I was a 70’s child and i just missed his career in terms of lore. But the book really brought to life the amateur game of the time.

    He was one of the trailblazers of the modern full back position.

    A life well lived by any account.

  3. I never saw him play live, just on TV and as a naive ten year old rugby fan who thought he was captain of Scotland because he was Mr Scotland. Seriously, having admired his playing career and read his excellent biography where his humble approach to life and his rugby success didn’t hold him back from driving with his wife through the Buckingham Palace gates in his Mini van to attend a Palace reception in 1962! His senior career foundered prematurely when he took up employment in Aberdeen and was no longer competing in top flight club rugby but he still played up there such was his love of the game.
    A true Scottish rugby star acclaimed all over the rugby world.

  4. ““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!”

    Well worth highlighting in my opinion.

    • I seriously wonder for the mental health of the person who disliked this post. Hopefully it was just finger trouble.

  5. Ken was my absolute playing hero. It is said, you should nevefr meet your hero, but, in Ken’s case, it was an absolute pleasure. He was a complete gentleman and it was always a joy to speak with him. For me, Scotland’s greatest back, not merely our best full-back. I am devastated at his passing – we shall not see his like again.

    16
  6. class player remember players from EDINBURGH NORTHERN who I played with playing Heriots 3rds and MR SCOTLAND was still playing then, against them this was about 1977.
    R.I.P MR KEN SCOTLAND

    • I played in that game for Heriots, and if memory serves we had a late call-off, and Ken either had his kit in the car, or may have been running the line, and stepped in to play. He was a great player and Herioter. My condolences to Ian, Robin, and the whole family

    • Interesting.My brother played with him a few times around then for Heriot’s 6th XV when “KJF” must have been about 40.
      I met him once.Absolute gentlemen-handshake “like the crack of doom” despite his very slim build.

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