Remembering Our Scottish Roots, Pre-1914

In a week that our Saracens Professional side welcome London Scottish RFC to Allianz Park for a pre-season match, it is good to reflect upon the distinctly Scottish influence that helped shape the Club in the period prior to August 1914.

Saracens has long had a tradition of attracting exiles from foreign shores, and embracing them into the heart of North London. Whilst today the 2014 squad can boast players from around the world, in the pre-1914 era Saracens had representatives from all over the British Isles, plus one flamboyant Frenchman to boot! Of all these players, however, it was the strong Scottish contingent that was to figure most prominently for the club, as recorded in ORG William’s official club history in 1926 – “A large proportion of the team was composed of young Scotsmen employed in the banks…[most prominently] captain Duncan Macmillan, a fleet wing threequarter and deadly tackle” – ORG Williams, ‘Saracens Football Club – A Brief History of its First 50 Years, 1926’

This historical Scottish influence was at its strongest in the years leading into the First World War. Such was the number of men from beyond Hadrian’s Wall that a Saracens trial game played on March 1st 1913 was recorded by Williams as “England Vs The Rest, or rather Scotland”!

McMillan & Black Saracens 1913

WC Black stands behind his 1913-14 captain, D McMillan

The match winner that day was proud Scot and Saracens club captain for the 1913/14 season Duncan McMillan. Born in 1891 and raised in Blantyre Street, Glasgow, he was to “learn his rugger at Glasgow High School” before moving to London with his family, and finding work in his father’s industry as an Iron Merchants Clerk. Joining the club in 1908/09, he was voted to the committee in 1910/11, first team Vice-Captain in 1912/13 and finally selected first team captain in 1913/14. He was a natural choice of captain, as his “bluff genial manner [and] natural generalship stamped him as a born leader of men.” Another notable Scot in the team was Walter Cairns Black, visible in the photo behind McMillan, who was to be the first volunteer to enlist from the club joining the London Scottish Regiment at the outbreak of war in August 1914. The strong Scottish contribution to Saracens 1st XV rugby was further reinforced by Dr. CJ Buckheim, who ‘only played a few games…[but] had played for Glasgow University 1st XV and Glasgow High School F.P. 1st XV”.

Scottish rugby in this era was especially noted for two reasons: their tough forward play and their strictest adherence to the sport’s amateur ethos. Following the splitting of the Rugby and Northern Unions in 1895, Scotland was to remain one of the great bastions of the strict amateurism propounded by the Rugby Union code. Such was their fanatical zeal, they accused the 1905 All Blacks of ‘professionalism’, due to their practice of paying a small food allowance to their touring players, despite the fact that this practice was copied directly from the 1904 British team’s tour to NZ, captained by none other than Scottish international David Bedell-Sivright!

As for the Scottish style of play, it was typically characterised by a greater reliance of powerful forward rushes, hacking the ball upfield and descending en masse. The more aesthetically pleasing and artful backline play was more closely associated with the Welsh style of play during this era. Exactly what style of play Saracens adopted under Duncan McMillan is hard to deduce, but we know for sure their Captain had a clear vision and “instilled in the hearts and heads of the young players how rugger should be played!

Of those Saracens players on the park on March 1st, 1913, an estimated 90% would enlist to fight in the First World War – a record of service more than matched by today’s visitors to Allianz Park,

Ronnie Simpson, London Scottish

Ronnie Simpson, killed in action September 1914 at the Battle of the Aisne

London Scottish, who were tragically to lose 103 playing members during the conflict. Their losses included the first rugby international to be killed in conflict, 24-year-old Ronald Simson, who lost his life on September 14th 1914. He, and the many other brave London Scottish members who gave their lives during WW1 were recently commemorated in a memorial match vs Blackheath Rugby Club in May 2014; more than 165 players from both Clubs were killed during the 1914-18 conflict. London Scottish Club Secretary Paul McFarland has recently suggested “It would be wonderful if, across the country, other clubs were to pair up and do something along these lines” and Club President Rod Lynch spoke for many when he commented “It is impossible for any civilised person to celebrate war in itself, but the sacrifice made by that generation still touches us over the gulf of years with pride and sadness in equal measure”. We, at Saracens, echo these sentiments, and encourage rugby fans everywhere to join us in remembering and respecting the fallen players from our sport. Our own commemorative project was launched, appropriately, on August 4th, 2014 – the Centenary of Britain’s declaration of war – and may be viewed here on this new website

To return to the England Vs Rest (Scotland) game, ORG Williams describes how, with the scores level at half time, the England side’s forward pack “fell to pieces in the second half,” and Captain McMillan kicked the final winning penalty for ‘The Rest’ side. Williams concludes “a harder, keener game rarely having been seen in Southgate. At times the tackling was immense; men were brought down and put down hard”.  We’re expecting another tough match this evening from our Scottish visitors – let’s only hope they don’t enjoy that same level of success today!

TD Weir & CR Veitch

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