Behind The Thistle

Posted by in January's Magazine

Billy Gould, our esteemed editor here at The Leither, is always grumbling about deadlines. Apparently, promising to submit an article then not doing so until two weeks after the ‘due date’ is very inconvenient. He should speak to the guys at Birlinn, who have just published my book Behind The Thistle – Playing for Scotland. I told them the book would be done by October 2007. It just made it onto the shelves in the last weeks of 2010. I like to think there is a certain greatness to that sort of lateness.

I have an excuse, though – the book is an absolute monster. Pulling together a 480 page tome containing some 160,000 words and over 200 pictures is no minor undertaking – and I am deeply indebted to Peter Burns, who became co-author earlier this year, and provided some much need impetus in the final push towards getting the bloody thing finished. Had he not got involved, I am in no doubt that I would still be drowning under the weight of something that grew way beyond the expectations of everyone initially involved in the project.


Behind the Thistle consists of over seventy interviews with Scotland internationalists stretching back to the end of World War Two. I feel comfortable talking the book up, because I am not trying to sell myself. Peter and I were merely the facilitators. This is the story of Scottish rugby, told by the guys who were there, in their own words.

It spans five and a half decades, from the immediate post-war years – when deprivation and grief for loved ones lost formed an unusual alliance with hope for a brighter future – right through to the present day, in which we are seeing the first generation of rugby players who have known nothing but a fully professional game.

My favourite section is definitely the first, when Frank Coutts and Russell Bruce talk us through the Victory Internationals and the resumption of a full fixture schedule in 1947. Reading about those two wonderful men, both of whom have sadly passed away since being interviewed, gives you a real sense of where the sport we know today has come from. Coutts talking about playing France on New Year’s Day 1947, and then attending the post-match dinner at the top of the Eiffel Tower, is incredibly poignant.

“That was a great occasion because things had been so grim for so long and it was just wonderful to be in this magnificent city, playing rugby and enjoying life,” he said. “It was sad because people who might have been there were no longer with us, and you could argue that I would never have been involved had so-and-so not been killed in the war, but that was the life we had and I was thrilled to be there.”

There is a lot of fun in the book as well, as you would expect from something containing the wit and wisdom of such affable rogues as Jim Renwick, Peter Brown, Norrie Rowan, Gavin and Scott Hastings, and Peter Wright. One story by ‘Lucky’ Jim Pollock gives a fascinating and funny insight into what it was like to be an international rugby player before the advent of professionalism: “The last game I played for Scotland was in Paris in 1985. We ended up in a nightclub and I ordered two whiskies, a vodka and a gin and tonic. Bang, bang, bang, bang, the drinks were laid down: two bottles of whisky, a bottle of vodka and a bottle of gin! I tried to pay but the barman managed to explain that the first drinks were all free, so I decided to throw in a bottle of champagne as well.”

“About two hours later, I was outside lying on top of a Porsche when a blue van with a flashing light on top comes round the corner and four gendarmes jump out, pick me up and throw me in the back. It was one of those sobering moments when you think: I’m in big trouble here.”

“The van was tootling along at about ten miles an hour when suddenly the backdoor opened and one of the policemen kicked me out of the van. I hit the ground – my dinner-suit is wrecked all the way down the left side – and as I turned to call them all the names under the sun I noticed my hotel. Somehow I made it to my room. I opened the door, and walked in… and there is absolutely nothing there. No wardrobe, no TV, no bed, no chair… absolutely nothing. I ended up sleeping on the floor. When I woke in the morning my suitcase was outside the door – but the furniture was still gone. Who took it? Well, nobody was coughing up to that the next day.”

Playing rugby for Scotland is the dream of many, but the privilege of only a lucky few. I’m very glad that this book gave me the opportunity to speak to a few of those men who have pulled on the dark blue jersey about their experiences.

Messrs Barnes & Burns book: Behind the Thistle, nominated for Sports Book of the Year, is available from the usual outlets and

One response to “Behind The Thistle”

  1. Wet Wendy says:

    Of all the journalist/authors I know, David is the best. I look forward to him being presented the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize for Literature in the future.

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