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Significant Scots
William McLaren


Bill McLaren spent 50 years commentating on rugby union matches for BBC radio and television.

In this role his powerful Scottish tones, memorable turns of phrase, dedication to research and rigid impartiality proved an awesome combination, enhancing the broadcast experience for millions of listeners and viewers throughout club and international seasons.

His intelligence and warmth also made him one of the best-liked figures among the distinguished set of sports commentators working for the BBC over the latter half of the 20th century, and earned him the sobriquet the “Voice of Rugby”.

William McLaren was born in 1923 at Hawick, Roxburghshire. His father was the factory manager of a knitwear company. As a young boy he played games of rugby by himself at home with a paper ball he had made, keeping a list of scores in a ledger given to him by his parents. His love of the game continued into adolescence, and he first represented Hawick as a flanker at the age of 17.

During the Second World War he served with the artillery in Italy and North Africa. On returning to Scotland he resumed his commitments to Hawick — eventually captaining the side — at the same time as studying for a diploma in physical education in Aberdeen.

In 1948 he was selected for the final trial to represent the Scottish national team but was unable to compete, having been given a diagnosis of tuberculosis. He spent the following 19 months at the East Fortune sanatorium. He was lucky in one respect, however, being prescribed a new drug called streptomycin. Its effects were deemed miraculous, and X-rays of McLaren’s healed lungs were sent around Europe as proof of the medicine’s worth.

During his isolation McLaren began to forge his broadcasting career, having set up a putting green in the hospital grounds so that he could commentate on golfing competitions between patients for the hospital radio service. When he recovered he worked for three years as a reporter on the Hawick Express, all the while maintaining his strong interest in rugby. Unbeknown to him, a colleague with BBC connections wrote to a friend in London recommending McLaren’s services as a rugby commentator.

On the strength of this McLaren was offered a commentary test. He was characteristically reluctant to accept the challenge but eventually agreed, making his debut on the Scottish Home Service in January 1952 for the South of Scotland versus South Africa game. BBC producers were impressed and hired him immediately, initially paying him 3 a game.

From the off McLaren devoted himself to pre-match preparation. Dressed in his sheepskin coat or brown macintosh, he was a familiar, though unobtrusive, figure on the touchlines of practice grounds as he observed each team training for the following day’s game in order to familiarise himself with the players.

Everyone’s name, position and number would then be committed to a pack of cards which he memorised. During matches he also had two “big sheets” in front of him in the commentary box. In appearance these were described by his fellow BBC commentator Nigel Starmer-Smith as “a work of art in multi-coloured Biros with detail that might well include what each player had for breakfast”.

McLaren also jotted down phrases he had been working on to further enhance his impressive baritone. He once described the Wales scrum-half Robert Howley as “wiggling his way upfield like a baggy in a border burn”. During another match, in the early 1990s, he said that the England backs passed the ball with a fluency that was “like chocolate bar service from a slot machine”. Scott Hastings and Sean Lineen were described as “the Scottish centres, bobbing up and down like demented prairie dogs”. He would also often chortle: “They’ll be dancing in the streets of . . . . . tonight,” — the missing word being the home ground of whoever had scored the vital try.

McLaren’s day job was to supervise sport and teach PE in Hawick’s five primary schools. He filled this role from the early 1950s until 1987, and was proud to have taught several of Scotland’s future international players in their youth. One was the wing, Tony Stanger, who scored the winning try in the epic Calcutta Cup match of 1990 at Murrayfield. He also coached the Scottish greats Jim Renwick and Colin Deans as juniors.

His favourite rugby moment was Scotland’s 1976 triumph over England in which his son-in-law, Alan Lawson, scored twice. He later admitted he almost fell out of the commentary box on that occasion.

McLaren was sceptical of rugby union as it developed into a professional sport. He found the players to be increasingly remote, as what he knew as a game turned into a business. It was perhaps fitting that his final Six Nations commentary for the BBC, in Cardiff in April 2002, resulted in a win for his country against Wales. He was given a standing ovation that day, as the crowd sang For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.

McLaren’s loyalty was never in question. He was approached by ITV to work for them during coverage of the World Cups of 1991 and 1995 but refused, despite the large sums of money on offer, saying that he would prefer to stay with the BBC.

He was a keen Scottish country dancer, golfer and family man who lived in Hawick all his life. In 2001 he was the first non-international to be inducted into the Rugby Hall of Fame. He was appointed CBE in 2003.

Bill McLaren, CBE, rugby union broadcaster, was born on October 16, 1923. He died on January 19, 2010, aged 86

The above taken from the Times Online site.

Below is a tribute from John Henderson...

Audio recording of Gerald Williams talking with Bill McLaren on the radio in the 1980s. We have split this up into 8 audio files around 1.5Mb each for those with dial up access.

For broadband visitors the entire interview can be downloaded here!

Track 1  Track 2  Track 3  Track 4  Track 5  Track 6  Track 7  Track 8


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