There was a kind of hush all over the rugby world last night. Bill McLaren, the great voice of rugby union, died yesterday morning, aged 86. It is eight years now since the former schoolmaster hung up his microphone in the BBC television commentary box, but for half a century his gentle Borders burr – painting a vivid picture of the game he played, taught and loved – made him not so much a national as an international institution. From Hawick, his beloved home town in the Scottish Borders, to Invercargill, the southernmost tip of All Black country, McLaren and his words were fondly cherished. He was an MBE, an OBE, a CBE and, in what proved to be the final year of his life, the subject of a huge Facebook campaign for a knighthood.
He became a Scottish rugby legend, but without ever pulling on the thistle jersey. That was the honour he craved most, and he came tantalisingly close to it. A rampaging flank forward with Hawick, he was preparing for the annual trial match at Murrayfield in 1947 when he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. At the age of 23, his playing days were over – and very nearly his life too. "I was desperately ill and fading fast," McLaren recalled in The Independent on Sunday. "Then the specialists asked five of us to be guinea pigs for a new drug called Streptomycine. Three of the others died but I made what amounted to a miracle recovery."
It was while convalescing in East Fortune Sanitorium in East Lothian that McLaren's lyrical lilt first hit the airwaves, making ping-pong poetry of table-tennis matches for the hospital's radio station. "There must have been something in me that wanted to describe rugby football," he said. "I've still got the fictional reports I used to write when I was a wee boy of seven or eight. Scotland always won."
Scotland fell short of world-beating form when McLaren made his national broadcasting debut at Murrayfield in 1953. Wales won 12-0. In 1959 came the transfer to BBC television and William Pollock McLaren remained there until 6 April 2002, signing off with a 27-22 Scottish victory against Wales at the Millennium Stadium. Throughout his broadcasting career, McLaren was never more than a part-timer. He resisted countless offers to become a full-time commentator, preferring to spend his working weekdays on the playing fields of Hawick, teaching physical education to the town's primary school kids. In that capacity, he was responsible for introducing rugby to Colin Deans, Jim Renwick and Tony Stanger, who all went on to win 52 caps for Scotland. Stanger scored the try that won the Grand Slam decider against England at Murrayfield in 1990, with his former teacher behind the microphone. Not that McLaren ever allowed patriotism to intrude on his unfailingly unbiased commentary – even when Alan Lawson plundered two tries in Scotland's Calcutta Cup win of 1976. The London Scottish scrum-half was his son-in-law.
McLaren was a devoted family man and, in recent times while suffering from ill-health, took great pride in the progress of his rugby-playing grandsons. In November, Rory Lawson, the Gloucester scrum-half, helped Scotland to victory over Australia. And last June Jim Thompson, a full-back-cum-wing for Edinburgh, played in the Scotland A team that lifted the Nations Cup. Happily, the McLaren magic lives on in rugby. But last night there was no dancing on the hushed streets of Hawick.
King of the air waves: Rugby pays tribute
Ian McGeechan (Former Scotland and British and Irish Lions player and coach)
"For me, growing up, Bill was the voice of rugby, alongside Cliff Morgan. You will never know how many people Bill brought to the game by the way he commentated. He was an absolute gentleman, totally unbiased. He had the knack of always looking for the best in players and had a massive positive impact on us.
"I don't think anyone could ever estimate just what his value has been to the game and what he has done. But above all Bill didn't just have a massive impact because of rugby. It was also because of his knowledge and understanding of people."
Martin Johnson (England team manager)
"He was the iconic voice of rugby who many of us grew up with and he will be sadly missed."
Chris Paterson (Scotland's most capped player)
"I was shattered when I heard. I feel so sorry for his friends and family. I grew up listening to him and he made rugby sound both entertaining and interesting. I had to pinch myself when I played in games that he commentated on. I don't think there'll be anybody like him again."
Keith Wood (Former Ireland captain)
"Of all the people who have been involved in the game over the last 50 years, his is the voice that will live on. His is the voice that you associate with all the good things in the game. When speaking to him you knew you were in the presence of history."
Gregor Townsend (Scotland attack coach and former British Lions player)
"As a youngster I used to cut out the articles Bill wrote in the The [Glasgow] Herald. He wrote about me when I played for Gala against Melrose and he had such a technical grasp and was able to offer advice for things for a young player to work on. He knew his rugby alright."