With a voice almost operatic in clarity and range, instantly recognisable and uniquely blessed with a Borders twang, Bill McLaren “The Voice of Rugby” enjoyed almost 50 years as a national broadcaster. Three years have flown by since his passing but many of the great rugby moments he created with his magical turn of phrase are still fresh in the mind. I’m so lucky to have grown up around Bill McLaren, Papa to me, and with the 2013 Six Nations Championship fast approaching I felt what better place to start than to write a few words on the man himself.
William Pollock McLaren was a big, raw-boned flank forward born and brought up in Hawick, where he began his rugby career playing for the famous Greens. After returning from fighting at Monte Cassino in the Second World War war he came agonisingly close to winning his first Scotland cap, but was struck down by tuberculosis before he could fulfill his dream of playing for his country. He was one of 7 patients chosen by doctors to trial a new drug in the hope of curing the disease – two survived. Forced to give up playing the game he loved so dearly he joined the Hawick Express as a junior reporter and it was his editor John Murray Hood who suggested he audition as a commentator. Our national team’s loss was the rugby world’s gain.
His first national radio commentary was on South of Scotland versus the touring Springboks at Hawick’s home ground, Mansfield Park, in 1952. The following year he called his first international match, Scotland’s 12-0 loss to Wales in the early stages of TV broadcasting. In the five decades that followed his voice became synonymous with rugby both in Scotland and across the world, bringing the game to generations of fans. His style enticed even those who didn’t know the game well, adept as he was at explaining technicalities and highlighting the flair of players. Even for those fans who couldn’t quite grasp the rules, Papa would make sure they had something to appreciate.
He was a true student of the game and it is difficult to describe just how dedicated he was to the sport and to his role, determined to both entertain and educate the listener. His pre-game research was relentless. I remember visiting Hawick to see Nana & Papa with the family many times as a youngster. My brother Gregor and I would trawl our way through his endless pile of video tapes, digging out copies of matches involving our heroes. We’d watch them while Papa worked tirelessly in his ‘glory hole’ (office) preparing for his next match. Hours later he’d run us down to Wilton Lodge Park and we’d relive the great moments of the matches we’d watched earlier commentating our way through it… “Jeffries with the pickup from the scrum, feeds to Rory Lawson, Lawson to Chalmers, on to the ball comes Hastings, Gavin Hastings with pace and power, rounds Underwood, over the top of Carling, links with Gregor Lawson who scores in the corner! What a score.”
His preparation for each match was systematic, accurate and perfectly planned. In the early part of the week he’d prepare his ‘Big Sheet’, to guide him in the heat of the moment during commentary. Best described as a giant, hand written, 1000 piece jigsaw, it would outline the names of players and officials, detailing position, club, caps, tries scored, favourite tv show, match history…the list of facts was endless. For those of you have seen one of Papa’s Big Sheets I’m sure you’ll agree each one really is a work of art, elaborately colour-coded in a way only he could understand.
Papa had the most incredible memory, and in the run up to a game he would sharpen his tongue using a technique that was incredible to watch. He had a scabby old pack of cards made up of numbers 1-15 in both red of diamonds and black of clubs. He’d use a marker pen to graffiti the Ace as number 1, the Jack #11, the Queen #12, King #13 and the Jokers with numbers 14 and 15. He would shuffle the cards randomly and then turn them over one by one, reciting the name of the player due to wear that number, as well as the endless fact he had gathered for each man. As the week developed he would produce the cards at a mesmerising pace, names rolling effortlessly off his tongue simply at the flash of a number as he visualised a game and executed a phantom commentary. The homework he did meant he very rarely made a mistake in broadcast and the information was delivered not as dry pieces of data but as wonderful gems which were soaked up by the listener.
With these foundations in place he could rely on his wit, compassion, humour and inexhaustible resevoir of adoration for the game and its people to set him apart. Perhaps the greatest wonder of BIll McLaren’s commentary was his total impartiality. No matter whether he was commentating on South Africa vs Australia, Edinburgh vs Bath, Hawick vs Gala or on his son-in-law (my dad) scoring two tries for Scotland in the 1976 Calcutta Cup match vs England, Papa simply revelled in the rugby. How else do you explain him describing “Big Vleis Visagie – born when meat was cheap”, “Peter Stringer – they say in Cork that if you catch him you get to make a wish”, “Thomas Castaignede – the baby faced assassin”, “Simon Geoghan – all arms and legs like a flying octopus” and after scoring an outstanding try for the All Blacks “Hika the hooker from Ngongotaha”?!
I feel blessed to own a video tape of him commentating on me and my brother playing together. Yes it was only a Scottish Premiership club game between Heriots and West of Scotland, but the 20 seconds that he commentated on the 8-9-15 move that had touches for both Lawsons and finished with Gregor scoring under the posts will always be pulled out from time to time for another watch! It’s safe to say he didn’t save his unique turn of phrase for broadcasting alone. He was a great golfer and taught me how to swing my sticks, describing some of my poorer shots as “a right howk”. He affectionately referred to us grandkids as “The Hitler youth”, and spoke of dinner with the family as “like feeding time at the zoo”.
As a family we miss those days so dearly but do so with a smile on our faces thinking of the endless memories he has given us. He was the most wonderful humble man, a true gent and an inspiration to me. Little did he realise how well loved he was by rugby fans worldwide. I’ve never felt more proud than on that March afternoon at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff where i joined 80,000 others in belting out “for he’s a jolly good fellow” prior to his final international commentary, Wales vs Scotland, the same fixture where it all began. During the game I spotted a Welsh fan holding a banner in the crowd saying “Bill McLaren is Welsh”, which seems to encapsulate just how loved he was by the rugby public, who took him to their hearts regardless of their club or nationality.
In his final interview he was asked what the best thing was about his 50 years as a commentator at rugby matches. His answer? “I’ve hardly ever had to pay to get in.” For a Hawick man who loved every part of the game of rugby union, what better could he ask for than to watch the sport he loved week upon week and year upon year. He has left a legacy of the finest voice ever heard in the sport. What a guy.
For more information on how his legacy lives on please visit and sign up to http://www.billmclarenfoundation.co.uk