Hawick Rugby Club, the Bill McLaren Foundation and Live Borders have joined forces to establish a new digital rugby archive in the Borders.
Thousands of documents, photos and a miscellany of rugby memorabilia from Bill McLaren’s house have already been transferred to the archives in Hawick’s Heritage Hub.
And a similar volume of memorabilia from Hawick RFC will also be transferred to the climate-controlled facilities at the hub in the coming weeks.
Murray Watson, a Hawick Rugby Club member and honorary research fellow at the University of Dundee, has spent the last two and a half years finding and sorting all the material.
But he explained this week how the weather played its part in the project.
Murray said: “It all began with the floods in Hawick back in October 2005.
“The rugby club was very badly flooded and there was a rush to protect all of our memorabilia – thousands of old photos, programmes, balls, trophies and cups.
“It was all sorted into plastic boxes; it was a real treasure trove.”
A few years later, the club teamed up with Alzheimer Scotland to run a rugby reminiscence group.
“As one of the oldest club’s in Scotland – we’re coming up to our 150th anniversary in 2023 – Alzheimer Scotland approached us about hosting this group,” said Murray.
“George Keown was guest speaker at one of the meetings and he mentioned that the very first All Blacks team to play in Scotland did so at Mansfield Park in 1888.
“He said the team presented Hawick RFC with a ceremonial Māori spear.
“We hunted high and low and couldn’t find it but we did find lots of other things, including a Scottish cap dating back to 1896.”
Around the same time, Bill McLaren sadly died, on January 19, 2010.
“I knew the family as Bill had close associations with the club so I became his literary executor – his house was an Aladdin’s Cave of material,” said Murray.
“Bill kept his newspaper cuttings, rugby programmes, photographs and lots and lots of written records, including his diaries.
“In a time before Google, he had kept so much data.
“It was a world class resource, dating back almost to the time when rugby first began here in Scotland.”
But there was far more besides rugby records.
Murray said: “Bill also taught primary pupils in Hawick and he had notes about all the pupils and their successes. It was all in the glory hole, his study, at home.
“So the material is not just of interest to rugby fans and scholars, but of considerable local interest too.”
Murray subsequently packed up 150 boxes of material which, thanks to the new partnership wth Live Borders, is now already in its new home at the hub.
In the next few weeks, Hawick RFC’s memorabilia will also be transported to the new hub.
And that’s when the hard work will really begin.
Murray explained: “The next stage is cataloguing it – there are thousands of items so it won’t be a quick job!
“We’ll then need to start fundraising in earnest to digitise all the information.
“A lot of the items are very old and are starting to disintegrate; the 1896 cap, for example, is falling to bits.
“By digitising the items, we’ll be preserving them in perpetuity for future generations to enjoy.
“New technology will allow us to do all kinds of exciting things.
“We can have a traditional archive, with an online catalogue enabling people to come to the hub to see it.
“However, because the material will be digitised, people all over the world will be able to access it too.
“The material can also be used for reminiscence therapy programmes.
“As a pilot project, we created a DVD of Bill’s rugby and TV commentaries dating back to 1953. This has been used to help people with dementia – bringing their memories back to life.
“We also want to engage with primary school pupils across the globe, as well as assisting family historians.”
A feasibility study at the end of last year proved there was support for the archive.
And Murray is delighted to now be working with Live Borders. But there’s a long road to traverse before the archive is up and running.
He added: “We have thousands of items that all need to be digitised so it’s going to take a long time.
“We will need volunteers to help and local knowledge will play a part too, helping us identiy people in all the pictures.
“But it will be worth the effort to have this world class resource here in Hawick.”
Partners announce the news
News of the rugby archive at Hawick’s Heritage Hub was announced in a joint statement by Ross Cameron, a Bill McLaren Foundation trustee, and Paul Brough, Live Borders’ archive manager.
It said: “We are delighted to be working as partners. This is a fantastic, world class collection of rugby-related materials.
“Working together we intend to realise the exciting plans given such an enthusiastic thumbs up by the feasibility study conducted by Alan Jones Associates for Hawick Rugby Club last year.”
Linda Lawson, Bill McLaren’s daughter, said: “Dad would have been absolutely delighted. He gathered and kept so much stuff from way back in his teenage years.
“It is a veritable treasure trove that people from all over the world will be able to enjoy.”
Bill McLaren was born on October 16, 1923, in Hawick. He continued to call the town home after marrying Bette, whom he met on a blind date in the town hall in 1947.
During a career with the BBC which spanned almost 50 years, Bill became the best known and most widely respected commentator in world rugby. His voice came to represent the sport in the same way Murray Walker did for Formula One or Harry Carpenter did for boxing.
A talented flanker in his youth, he served with the Royal Artillery during World War Two. He was on the verge of a full Scotland cap when he contracted tuberculosis.
Indeed, Bill’s first commentary was made while convalescing from TB in East Lothian, describing table tennis matches for the hospital radio.
He made his national debut for BBC radio in 1953, when Scotland was beaten 12-0 by Wales, before switching to television six years later.