Bill McLaren: A life of humble devotion

Bill McLaren 1923-2010
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The Independent Online

They gathered, the great and the good, townsfolk and close friends, at Hawick on the Scottish borders this Monday morning, together for the funeral of a simple, humble but great man. Bill McLaren.

Last week, they had rushed to embrace his memory, the tributes pouring in from all corners of the globe for the man who was known as "The Voice of Rugby." A great man? For sure, but not primarily because he was a rugby commentator. Rather, because he was quite simply an outstanding human being. Why should such humble men not be accorded the accolade of "great"?

Truth to tell, Bill McLaren, who died last Tuesday aged 86, was as far from the image of a "rugger bugger" as you could ever find. The idea of standing propped up against a bar sinking pints of beer with your mates until you fell over, the true mien of so many rugby men, was anathema to McLaren. He shunned many of rugby's ways, refusing to allow the hype and happenings of the game to engulf him.

Two seminal moments shaped Bill McLaren's life and fashioned his thinking thereafter. In the latter stages of World War 2, as Second Lieutenant 281771, Royal Artillery, McLaren found himself scrambling up a hillside beneath the intimidating military target of Monte Cassino, on the Italian peninsula. As a forward observation officer, he was an obvious target.

One night, he was relieved from his duties by a colleague and started to make his way back down the mountain, seemingly safe in the darkness. But a German sniper had spotted his movement. The bullets zipped into the ground barely a metre away from him, McLaren hearing their "zing, zing" as they just missed him.

Later, when Cassino had been taken, McLaren went through one of the Italian villages and found rotting German bodies, and Italian civilians, lying stacked up in the open. The stench was as grim as the sight, and the memory never left him. Life was always so much more serious for him thereafter.

The other defining moment of his life came after the war. Courting his wife-to-be, Bette, he used to walk her home and then run from her house on one side of Hawick, the little town where he grew up and always lived in the Scottish borders, to his own lodgings. Gradually, he realised he was losing fitness and kept having to stop. Soon, he was to be diagnosed with tuberculosis, still a killer in those days.

McLaren was confined to an isolation hospital full of men most of whom were to die from the disease. One day, his German doctor all but confirmed McLaren’s inevitable demise. Yet there then emerged a new drug, untried, but one possibly offering hope. Believing he had nothing whatever to lose, McLaren agreed to take it. It was to be instrumental in saving his life.

Yet there was another factor in his eventual recovery which McLaren never forgot. The care, devotion and love of his girlfriend, Bette, helped pull him through. "Without her" he told me one day, as we sat in his bright lounge overlooking the Scottish borders town, "I would have gone under. No mistake about that."

The experience defined his life. He became a famous BBC commentator on rugby union yet he scorned so many of the sport's ways and traditions. McLaren refused just about every invitation to the post-match banquets that always took place in the game's amateur era, especially after Five Nations championship matches.

It wasn't that he didn’t want to mix with those there; rather, he had a rock-like principle that not even his beloved work would keep him away from Bette and his much loved home for a single night. Thus, it was part of his BBC contract that a car would be waiting at the back of the grounds – Lansdowne Road, Twickenham, Cardiff Arms Park and even Paris in the great old days of the amateur game - ready to speed him to an airport for a flight home.

By 10pm most Saturday nights of the international period, Bill McLaren would be having his supper, not in the company of the game's great and good, but with Bette, beside the fire at home. It was where he was happiest.

His devotion to her meant that covering Lions rugby tours was an impossibility. In 1983, for example, I covered the Lions tour to New Zealand. It lasted 13 weeks in all and I once recounted some of the stories to McLaren, as we worked together on his autobiography. He shook his head, grimly.

"Aye, that'd not be for me, laddie" he confessed. "Here's where I’d be wanting to spend my 13 weeks, not all that way away, far from home. Ah don’t noo how yer did it."

The death of their younger daughter, Janie, from cancer in April 2000, hit him hard. An intensely sensitive man and a true gentleman, it was painful extracting from him his innermost feelings of that time. The anguish remained with him for the rest of his life. As we talked, a record, one of Janie's favourites, began to play on the radio in their kitchen. Bill heard it and tears welled up in his eyes, like a brook threatening to burst its banks.

His success in a professional sense always bemused him. "And tae think some fellow was paying me" he;d say about his days commentating at the great rugby grounds of Britain, Ireland and France. "I just hope the wee fellow never gets to hear it, but I'd have done it all for nothing."

And that warm, infectious smile was back on his face.

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