Updated: Memories of Bill McMurtrie – highly respected rugby reporter and committee man

Bill Lothian, Matt Vallance, David Barnes and Graham Law remember one of the great servants of the game in Scotland

Bill McMurtrie. Image: Scottish Rugby
Bill McMurtrie. Image: Scottish Rugby

THE passing last week of former Herald rugby correspondent and GHA and SRU committee-man Bill McMurtrie, at the age of 85, prompted an outpouring of grief and happy memories amongst the rugby-writing fraternity.

The Offside Line has collected the recollections of some of his old colleagues who paint a vivid picture of a model professional and an outstanding man. Our thanks to Bill Lothian, Matt Vallance and, indirectly, Graham Law, for their thoughtful words.

  • Bill’s funeral will be Friday 26th July at 11am at The Hurlet Crematorium, then afterwards at the Redhurst Hotel, Giffnock.

MATT VALLANCE (long-standing freelancer):

WE knew his health was failing, but, mindful of how his father, like him a distinguished journalist, had continued, into his nineties, to enliven the Herald’s Letters Pages with his views, from his nursing home room – we hoped to have the wit and wisdom of Bill McMurtrie, who died last week, aged 85, for some time yet.

As befits a man who was perhaps ‘the best President the SRU never had’, Bill received a fulsome obituary tribute on the Union’s website. Yes, for 38 years, as sports sub, sports editor, cricket correspondent, occasional tennis correspondent and most-importantly rugby correspondent, he had chronicled sport, particularly rugby union, in Scotland. However, in a late career poacher-turned-game-keeper move, he gave the SRU in Glasgow and the West sterling service.

When it came time to leave The Herald, Bill freelanced for a while, before taking on media duties for the newly-formed Glasgow Warriors. Those of us with lengthy service at the typeface are convinced, Warriors’ case was never better presented than when Bill and the late Ron Evans – on a veritable shoestring – fought their corner for column inches against football in general and the ‘Big Two’ in particular in his adopted city.


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But putting Warriors on the media map wasn’t Bill’s final gift to Rugby Union. He was a long-serving administrator at Braidholm, not far from his Giffnock home. First as Treasurer and Secretary, with Clarkston, the Glasgow South and the GHA, as that club went through its various name changes and mergers. He and the late Glen Stirling did a fantastic job for that club and for rugby in the West with their extensive coverage of the game.

He was, for a time, a member of the SRU Council, in his role as Glasgow South representative; doubling-up as West District competitions secretary, where his support for the smaller clubs and his willingness to put in the miles as the local face of the Union enhanced the great reputation he had built-up over his years at The Herald.

Bill knew the Law Book backwards, he was a staunch supporter of referees. And he also knew his way through the labyrinth of SRU procedures, as was demonstrated at the 2017 AGM, when his opposition scuppered one of Mark Dodson and The Junta’s wilder fancies – he would never be forgiven for that opposition by The Junta – but the clubs should be grateful for his stand.

When he went to The Herald as a young man, persuading the bean counters to let the paper’s rugby correspondent follow Scotland much further than Twickenham was a tough task, but, over the years, Bill was given the freedom to travel, as he said: “With but not of the various touring Scotland parties”. Thus he followed Scotland and latterly the British and Irish Lions across the world. He was always a popular tourist – I remember he was once invited by Jack Webster, the Glasgow-born ‘King of the Vancouver Airwaves’ – to appear on his popular morning radio show during one Scotland tour to North America.

Another memorable moment came on one Lions’ Tour, when a lunch-stop in a one-horse town in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island was brightened for Bill and the other Scottish journalists by the discovery of Tennent’s Lager on-tap at the local hotel. On that same tour, Bill came up with the designation: ‘The Common Enemy’ for the English members of the touring party – a taste of his quirky sense of humour.

 

 

Bill kept good company. In his 38 years with The Herald, such luminaries as Bill McLaren, Ian Archer, Brian Meek, Doug Gillon and the young James Traynor were like Jim Renwick, Denis Law, Andy Irvine and John Rutherford, Bill was the steady nuts and bolts journalist. The John Greig or Gordon Brown, doing the heavy lifting to empower the fireworks elsewhere on the page.

Yes, he covered the internationals, the Inter-District games and the major club matches, but, Bill would also pop-up unexpectedly at lesser games; I recall meeting him one evening at Broomfield, where Cumnock was entertaining Marr – then a long way down from winning Premierships – in a midweek Ayrshire Cup tie.

My, “What the Hell are you doing here?”, was quickly answered. The International Board, as World Rugby then was, was toying with one of their periodic Titanic deck chair re-arranging Laws variations; Bill had worked out that while the proposed change would have only marginal effect at the top level, further down the food chain, it might cause chaos, and this game offered him a chance to garner the statistics to help prove or scupper his theory. I cannot remember the outcome, other than, Bill, as so often, was right.

Some of the spark went out of Bill with the loss in November 2019 of his wife Evelyn, from cancer. They were a formidable couple. After Bill stood down from the SRU Council, the Glasgow clubs decided his immense contribution to the game had to be recognised, so they got togethr and presented him with a quaich, naturally at Braidholm. This was a great night, one of the last at which Evelyn was seen. She had us in stitches with her tale of sleeping with the Calcutta Cup, which had been entrusted to Bill for a function in the West.

That particular night saw Bill honoured by the presence of the serving and two past Presidents of the Union – a mark of the respect in which he was held at Murrayfield.

As he once told me: “The McMurtrie family has been covering rugby in Ayr since before the Kaiser’s War”, The family loved the game and it showed in all Bill did around it.

He was born a Paisley ‘Buddie’, attended Paisley Grammar School and then, when his father became editor of the Border Telegraph, Galashiels Academy from the age of seven to 17 when he left school and took his first job as a general reporter with the Berwickshire News, before heading back up the road to Glasgow to brighten the Dear Green Place with his journalistic prowess.

He was a Titan of his craft, those of us who shared the press box with him benefitted from his knowledge and kindness – he will be missed. I would like to think, the news of his passing the previous day having been passed-on to the boys in Pretoria, Saturday’s fantastic result at Loftus Versfeld was, in a way, Warriors winning one for Bill, rather than The Gipper.

Personally, I have much to thank him for – commissions to cover games when I was starting as a freelance, plus his occasional censure as I perhaps went too-far in kicking at the traces of covering rugby in Scotland. He once even paid my fine for me when Mr Justice Milne caught me breaking one of the team’s rules on a Scotland tour. From memory, I was improperly dressed, by not wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap.

Thanks for everything Bill, it was a pleasure knowing you.



BILL LOTHIAN (former rugby correspondent of the Edinburgh Evening News):

BILL was a travelling companion at the coal-face of Scottish rugby journalism for a number of years and standing tall among the reminiscences is the occasion we stood side-by-side on a touchline in Fiji watching Scotland train while the melodious tones of a South Sea gospel choir practising drifted over an adjacent fence.

“Do you hear that? It’s magnificent. We have to go to church on Sunday to hear more,” declared Bill.

“Ok. You arrange it. I’ll come.”

And so we turned up at church only to find Bill had sourced – would you believe – a Church of Scotland bearing the name St Andrew – and for gospel choir read a fire and brimstone sermon instead.

It wasn’t like Bill to be wrong-footed; such was his meticulous attention to detail we nicknamed him Akela (as in cub mistress) because he could be relied upon to round up the press corps in cities such as Paris and ensure we tagged along pied piper style to the correct Metro station for Parc des Princes.

Typically, too, Bill would have bought the requisite number of tickets in advance. For that was Bill, generous to a fault as I discovered on a budget trip to the inaugural rugby World Cup. I was in B&Bs on the outskirts of town but every morning Bill would turn up in his Herald hire car to give me a lift to training or matches.

It was on that trip that I accompanied Bill, who dabbled in officiating, to a provincial New Zealand Referees Association meeting where he had been invited to speak.

Arguing a point of [rugby] law, Bill found himself getting nowhere with his audience so resorted to exclaiming in an exasperated voice “but I told this to the Queensland Referees Association!!”

Reference to the Queensland Refs Association became an in-joke between us!

Always keen to help, Bill would allow fellow reporters to bounce statistics off him as he was the undoubted go-to guy when it came to confirming who had played against whom for how long with points accumulated etc.

Statistics be damned. Within an hour of Scotland clinching a long-awaited Grand Slam in 1984 Bill appeared sporting a sweater proclaiming that fact, and there would have been nobody prouder that day after France were beaten at Murrayfield. That was the human touch.

By way of a link to that game – and without giving too much away! – I did hear Bill mention from time to time (alright frequently) that he had claims to have dismissed an equally youthful subsequent Scotland rugby luminary in a Borders cricket match (Bill was brought up in Galashiels) and the said luminary declined to “walk”.

Though he would be inclined to mention it, to call it a grudge? No chance. Bill wasn’t that type of bloke and any reference was coated with humour. Many of us had so much cause to be grateful for that.

I suspect, however, if Bill, with his innate fairness, said his famous opponent was “out” he was indeed “out”!

Bill’s wife Evelyn pre-deceased him. Thoughts with Bill’s son Andrew as well as daughters Kirsty and Morag and their families.



DAVID BARNES:

MY first interaction with Bill was as a wet-behind-the-ears cub-reporter in the early 2000s tasked with interviewing the Australian-born stand-off Dan Parks, who had been in the firing line of some fairly harsh criticism following a recent lacklustre performance for Scotland.

I phoned Mr McMurtrie, the media manager at Glasgow Warriors where Parks played his club rugby, to politely ask him to set up a chat, and was met with a frosty response. The long and the short of it was that it wasn’t his job to organise my diary, so if I want to speak to someone then I should have the initiative and energy to sort it out myself.

Bill was now on the SRU payroll, but remained a journalist of his era at heart, meaning reporters should live by their contact books, and it is up to potential interviewees to field calls and decide for themselves if they were willing to speak or not.

I, meanwhile, had been warned by central Murrayfield that dire consequences could be in store if I disobeyed the new guidelines whereby any and all communication should be carefully stage-managed from the initial point of contact onwards by the SRU’s ever-expanding media department.

With that flea ringing in my ear, I laid down the phone and resolved that direct action was indeed required. So, after hanging round the players’ door outside the changing room at Hughenden – where Warriors then played – for over an hour after that Friday night’s game against Celtic Warriors (remember them?), Parks finally strolled past, rather hesitantly agreed to a five-minute interview, and that Sunday morning I had my first ‘exclusive’ in the Scottish Mail on Sunday – which was a fairly bland affair … but nobody else had it!

That was a valuable lesson, but Bill must have felt slightly guilty about the terse tone of our exchange because a few weeks later he bumped into my old man at rugby match and let him know: “Your boy is doing alright but I had to give him a bit of a hard time. He needs to stand on his own two feet.”

I would regularly bump into Bill at matches – at Firhill, Scotstoun, Murrayfield and most recently Braidholm – over the next two decades, and always be grateful for his generous words of encouragement. I was also glad to be able to help out in more recent years when he would email to ask if I could source URC or Six Nations disciplinary reports, which he would analyse and record the stats of. Old habits die hard and it was great brain training as he fought against the after-effects of a stroke he suffered in 2018.

His contribution to Scottish rugby during the 28 years as the game’s correspondent for The Herald and then as a committee man was immense, and it seems slightly unfair to pin-point one moment in particular above all others – but the 2017 SRU AGM stands out.

During the first six years of Mark Dodson’s tenure as Chief Executive of Scottish Rugby, these events had tended to be rather sedate affairs, but the departure of Sir Moir Lockhead as the organisation’s chair heralded a change in approach to governance from the SRU Board.

On the eve of this AGM, Ian Barr – who would later serve as SRU President – resigned from the Governance Working Party which had been tasked with rationalising and modernising the Union’s byelaws because he believed the motion which had been proposed by the SRU President and the Chairman of the Board on behalf of the Council and the Board did not reflect the recommendations of the working party.

This included the disappearance of Byelaw 4 which provided for clubs to earn commission on their international ticket allocation, and of Byelaw 22 which recognised the authority of the Council – elected by member clubs – to appoint the Union’s Trustees, who held the assets of the Union (including Murrayfield) on the clubs’ behalf.

Bill led the resistance back in 2017, and after a long stand-off over whether the Board should have the right to ‘determine’ rather than ‘manage’ the game’s rules and regulations, he eventually won the day.

It all seemed rather prosaic to a lot of us at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that this was a crucial early success in a long battle over who the game in Scotland belongs to, which led to Sir Bill Gammell and Norman Murray’s unsuccessful power-grab governance review of late 2019 and early 2020, before the current governance structure which re-asserted the clubs’ rights was eventually voted into being in September 2022.

“I would need all my fingers and all my toes to count the number of times he recounted that story – I think there was a lot of pride of his role in that,” recalled son Andrew, earlier this week.



GRAHAM LAW, whose tenure as rugby correspondent for The Scotsman, now works in the SRU communications department, and wrote this comprehensive obituary which was published on the site last week.

Click HERE  to read.


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4 Comments

  1. I mam saddened by Bill’s passing. An excellent and fair journalist, I remember a long post match chat with him at Clackston Rugby Club in the early ’70’s. Great tributes to a real gentleman.

  2. Lovely tributes. A real gentleman of the press and someone as a player you were always relaxed to speak to. He will be sadly missed. 🐻

  3. Lovely tapestry of reflections from people who experienced Bill in different ways; his Herald match reports were my introduction to coverage as a boy….and I have never lost interest since. Thanks for this lovely piece

  4. Lovely tribute to a huge figure in the Scottish game. He will be missed by all.

    My condolences to his family and friends.

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