NGR Mair (1928-2014)
On 3 February 1951, 22-year-old NGR Mair (42-47) boarded the team bus outside the North British Hotel and headed off down to Murrayfield to win the second of his four rugby caps. This was his home debut and was against a highly-rated Welsh XV which featured 11 British Lions.
The 81,000-strong crowd had been swelled by a selection of his six sisters and five surviving brothers.
Against all the odds, Scotland prevailed by the then record margin of 19-0. It would be the highlight of his rugby career. By November of that year, NGR had been dropped for the match against the touring South Africans. As many of you will know, Scotland lost that South African test by a world record score of 44-0.
His omission clearly rankled, but the heavy defeat would detonate one of his more memorable, tongue-in-cheek anecdotes when he came to pen his preview of the 1965 South African tour. 'I do not want to dwell for long on the disastrous events of the South African Test of November 1951,' he said. 'But, suffice to say that never in the history of Scottish rugby has a selectorial error been so harshly punished.'
His international rugby career may have been over, but his career as a journalist was well underway.
On behalf of the family, can I welcome you all today to Merchiston Castle School to celebrate my father's life. Norman George Robertson Mair was born on 7 October 1928, the last of the 13 children to Alexander William Mair and, to a no doubt much-relieved, Elizabeth Mackay Bisset Mair.
Dad's father died within a couple of months of his birth in a fire at the family home at 9 Corrennie Drive in the Morningside district of Edinburgh. The headline in The Scotsman of 14 November 1928 read: 'Death of Professor Mair - Brilliant Greek Scholar'.
Dad was extremely proud of his father, who was not only a Professor at the University of Edinburgh but also a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. For various reasons both of those universities meant a lot to the family and, had he been in better health last year, he would have been thrilled to be able to fully appreciate the fact that his granddaughter, Jennifer, had won a place at Caius to study medicine.
Dad formed a particularly close bond with his mother, Elizabeth, and rarely did a day go by at home without him taking the opportunity to remind us that our standards fell some way short of hers. He had a similarly close relationship with his eldest Gilbert, who had a huge influence on Dad's life.
Today marks one of the final chapters in the history of that family as, of the 13 children, only one survives: his sister, Gwen. Gwen, like two of his her sisters, Eileen and Enid, spent most of her life in or around Edinburgh, and all three of them kept a watchful eye over Dad. Most of the 13 children, like Dad, lived to a good age - a cumulative 900-odd years, according to my mother's rough calculation.
It was only towards the end of the last century that the ranks started to become seriously depleted. I recall my father and his brother Colin undertaking an impromptu roll call and reluctantly concluding that the family had suffered 'a middle order batting collapse'.
Dad outlived all but one of his siblings and many of his best friends (including his best man, the legendary Scottish winger Arthur Smith). What is clear is that he had a tremendous time growing up in Edinburgh with so many brothers, sisters and good friends.
My parents set up home at 15 Dreghorn Loan, Colinton in 1969. That remains the family home to this day, although for a long time it was more of a 'sporting base camp' from which the four of us nipped back and forth to report match scores.
The house led directly into the Colinton Lawn Tennis Club and it was almost as if the two were one. We all played tennis (and other sports) for hours on end - usually under Dad's critical eye. I don't remember any of us being advised, by Dad at least, that schoolwork should come first.
And to what effect...
Patrick was a fine tennis player. In his youth, he played at County level and won junior Scottish doubles titles. He went on to play for the University of Aberdeen and to be Club champion at Colinton and, more recently, at Perth Tennis Club. Nowadays, you are as likely to find him on the golf course as often as a tennis court. Like his father and brother, he studied law and is now a lawyer in Perth for Perth and Kinross Council.
He is lucky to have inherited his father's sense of humour; but unlucky to have inherited his father's obsession with the golf swing and its workings. Patrick remained Dad's most loyal confidant on matters sporting... and therefore on all matters! Put simply, Patrick was a great friend to Dad.
Michele is the youngest of his offspring and is a distinguished tennis player, having represented both Scotland and Great Britain at various levels. She has now forged a successful career in sports management. However, her greatest talent was that she could play Dad better than any of us. Michele had the enviable knack of being able to use her natural charm to get 'immunity from prosecution' in circumstances where the rest of us would incur the full extent of Dad's wrath.
To be honest, she was rather adept at shifting blame onto her rather downtrodden elder brother.
And so to Suzi: there is more of Dad in Suzi than the rest of us put together - she has all the attributes he most admired and all the vices he really rather liked.
She was the leading tennis player in Scotland in the early 1980's, culminating in an appearance at Wimbledon in 1984, before following her parents into a successful career in journalism. Suzi's success brought Dad great pleasure, as have her children Jessica, Charlotte, Victoria and the aforementioned Jennifer. Their academic and sporting success, combined with their general exuberance, was good for Dad and there is no doubt that he played an important role in their young lives. My own children Olivia, Venetia and Alex are no less fond of their grandfather.
For my part, I never found Dad anything other than supportive, although I would like to share one personal recollection to capture the somewhat unusual nature of that support. It was July 1991 and I had been involved in an accident in Ecuador which resulted in me losing the middle finger from my left hand.
Dad was reporting on the Open at Royal Birkdale when he and Mum received a call from the British Consul giving them the news that I had just come round after a long and difficult operation. Now, interrupting Dad at the Open was a very high-risk strategy but, once he had ascertained that the injuries were indeed 'life threatening' he took the trouble to call me at the hospital. The conversation went something like this:
'Will it affect your throwing in?' Dad asked by way of an opening shot.
'No - it's my left hand.'
'Thank goodness,' he replied.
'But Dad, I write left-handed!'
'Oh, don't worry about that, you only need two fingers to write with - you need a full hand to throw a rugby ball!'
He then asked if I had given much thought as to whether I would now use an overlapping or interlocking grip for golf. When I told him that my golf grip wasn't exactly my top priority as I lay fighting for what remained of my left hand in the bowels of some grim Ecuadorian hospital, he told me not to worry and that he had already looked into it on my behalf. He had asked Jack Nicklaus and Nicklaus had told him I 'would have no choice but to go with an interlocking grip'.
That problem solved, there were the briefest of enquiries as to how I was feeling before handing the phone over to my mother.
I will return to the family and, in particular, to my mother in a minute, but first I'm eager to share with you a few facts from Dad's career:
At School, he held all three 'offices of state': captain of School; captain of cricket and, most importantly, captain of rugby. In addition, he was a fine scholar, debater and a one-time winner of the Rogerson Divinity Prize. That divinity prize is not something Dad has often referred to, but it may yet come in handy.
From Merchiston via National Service, Dad headed to the University of Edinburgh to study sport - I mean, law. Again, he excelled, as he was President of the University Athletic Club; captain of University Cricket and captain of University Rugby for two years. Upon leaving Edinburgh, the official records of the university noted that 'Norman liked to talk rugby in his spare time'. That's 60 years of spare time!
If I give the impression that Dad's early life was dominated by sport, then I do him a major disservice. Whether by hard work (no doubt crammed in at the last moment), or more likely through a process of osmosis, born of being surrounded by a very clever array of brothers and sisters, Dad benefitted from a wonderful, all-round education.
He was as well read as many academics and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Shakespeare, the great poets and a wide variety of classical and contemporary texts. If, as Allan Massie cited in his excellent obituary, there were echoes of PG Wodehouse in Dad's writing, it was not surprising. Dad loved Wodehouse's work.
Along with his sense of humour, his literary background formed the foundation of any number of his anecdotes. Readers were frequently astounded at his ability to reference so wide an array of sources. The essence of his writing is beautifully captured in a book called Stargazing, which tells the story of lighthouse keepers working off Scotland's west coast.
The author records how Ross, one of the lighthouse keepers, would eagerly await the twice weekly boat from the mainland bearing vital provisions. To Ross, no provision was more vital than Dad's latest columns in The Scotsman. At one point, Ross insisted that the author include a passage of Dad's 'wonderful prose' in the pages of the book, before informing the author that he could keep his Robbie Burns, since 'he couldnae hold a candle to our man Norman.'
I would like to mention some of Dad's other notable sporting achievements and contributions away from rugby, as I feel we have that position well covered later on in the service.
As many of you will know, Dad was a double cap, playing cricket for Scotland against Worcester in 1952. He also played cricket for two clubs that meant much to him: the historic Grange Cricket Club in Edinburgh and the beautiful Manderston Cricket Club in the Borders.
Dad was a keen, if occasional, outside left for the Spartans Football Club in Edinburgh, which emerged from the Edinburgh University football team of the late 40's and early 50's. Like his brother Kenneth, he loved his football. In the days when the boundaries between football and rugby were less pronounced, Dad was friends with many of the leading footballers of the day, with particular reference to the great Hibs winger Gordon Smith. When Gordon died in 2004, Dad was touched to be invited by the Hibernian Football Club to join the official party at Gordon's funeral.
As has been observed in various obituaries, Dad was a prolific practiser but infrequent competitor at golf. That said, he won his final medal at Duddington - in 1978. Although in his later years he was not keen on exhibiting his golfing skills in public, he was a good enough player to have navigated Gullane No.2 in 69 shots. He was a proud member of both Duddingston Golf Club and the R&A.
He wrote the history of Duddingston and was subsequently made an honorary member of the fine Edinburgh golf course in a touching presentation made last year by Bill Lothian. He also wrote or contributed to the histories of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and Prestwick Golf Club, both of whose rich heritage he so enjoyed researching.
Not only was Dad an avid sportsman, but he also made significant contributions in terms of coaching and sports administration. As Andy Irvine will explain, journalism ruled Dad out of a formal coaching role but evne on a part-time basis he made a major impact, such as when coaching the unfancied Oxford University side of 1964 to victory in that year's Varsity Match.
Less visibly, he was Suzi, Patrick and Michele's tennis coach for many years - the fourth child being uncoachable. Whilst they all benefited from coaching and hitting with some great teachers, Dad was their first coach and was undoubtedly the 'guiding mind' behind all of their careers.
In terms of sports administration, Dad was a member of Lord Mackay's panel that reported in 1999 on the future of Scottish rugby as well as being a member of the selection committees for both the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame and the Scottish Cricket Hall of Fame. However, organisation and processes were far from his core strength and he was much better as a contibutor than as a facilitator or minute taker. That said, it should be recorded that he was for over 25 years the secretary of Colinton Tennis Club. It might surprise you to learn that he was way ahead of his time in being one of the first tennis club secretaries to move to a paperless record system... in that he kept no records.
At all levels, whether as a player, coach, administrator or journalist, Dad made a really significant contribution to sport and this was recognised by multiple awards, culminating in an MBE in 1994 for services to sports journalism.
It was of course as a leading journalist that Dad will be best remembered. Andy Irvine has been kind enough to accept the family's invitation to speak today and that is very fitting. Not simply because Andy was such an outstanding rugby player, but because he was a very loyal friend to my father - all the way to the end. I will leave Andy to talk to you about Dad's influence as a rugby journalist, but I would like to say a word or two abut his career as a golf journalist.
Dad covered professional golf for over 40 years for The Scotsman, The Observer and Edinburgh Evening News. He was well respected by the leading players of the day.
I vividly remember standing with Dad on the practice ground at an Open Championship and listening to him chatting with Gary Player, when another journalist walked past and said to Gary:
'Don't be giving Norman too many tips.'
Mr Player replied instantly: 'There is nothing I can tell Norman about golf that he doesn't already know.'
Dad's brief extended not just to writing about professional golfers but to amateurs - some good and some not so good. In a letter in last Wednesday's Scotsman, a reader recalled Dad's coverage of a European Amateur Team championship of the 1980's, a somewhat dodgy affair which, to quote the reader, included all manner of duffers and rabbits. In one of his reports, Dad memorably said of one struggling competitor: 'He finally managed to board the par five in nine shots - only to ruin it all by five putting.'
Dad was one of two distinguished golf writers at 15 Dreghorn Loan. He was immensely proud of my mother Lewine's efforts in building a very eminent journalistic career which included The Times, The Daily Telegraph and now Global Golf Post.
Her achievements were all the more remarkable in that she had to combine her writing with the unenviable task of picking up the debris left behind by the mini-hurricane which preceded every rugby match, every golf tournament and every article that Dad ever wrote. And that's without going into the near nuclear fall-out that would follow from some poor sub-editor moving the odd innocent comma.
Mum had an altogether calmer, more organised approach to her writing than Dad... albeit that Dad set the bar impossibly low on that front. Mum also possessed the one thing that Dad would have traded everything else for - she could hit the ball miles off the tee!
One critical role at 15 Dreghorn Loan in which we all had to play our part was to act as the first line of defence when exasperated sports editors or publishers rang to chase after Dad's copy. There was one particular publisher whom Dad kept avoiding for months on end, and we all took it in turns to defend Dad's patch. One day, Mum forced me to take the call:
'Is Norman there?' he asked.
Looking at Dad, I got the sort of waspish look that indicated very plainly that he was out - so I replied with the stock answer that he was out playing golf.
'Again?' the publisher responded. 'Well, he must be getting good at it by now!'
The same publisher rang again some days later and unfortunately, I was first to the phone. Even more unfortunately, Dad and I had just had an argument.
'Is Norman there?' the publisher asked. I got the same 'not on your life' look from Dad, but in a rash, anger-induced moment, I declared: 'Yes, of course he is. He's right in front of me - I'll hand you over'.
That was a mistake... a BIG mistake.
As many of you know, the last 2/3 years have been difficult for Dad has Alzheimer's has tightened its grip and he has been unable to fight his way out of his own 22.
As Alistair McHarg, the former Scotland second row, kindly put it: 'Alzheimer's was a particularly distressing illness to afflict such a fantastic scribe and a man of such exceptional wit'.
On behalf of the family, I would like to thank the staff at Thorburn Manor, the care home in the old Bonaly Primary School which is situated midway between this School and our family house. We are certain that Dad took great comfort from the familiarity of the surroundings, the proximity to home and the quality of care. In particular, can I thank Nomberto who is here today, and who led the charge when it came to dealing with Dad's sometimes disconcertingly volcanic temper with such ill-disguised ease.
We would also like to thank all of my father's journalistic colleagues for their very generous words in recent days. In particular, as my sister Michele has noted, The Scotsman's coverage last week was a credit to the newspaper which gave my father his most prominent platform.
Can I also thank the Headmaster of Merchiston for allowing us the use of his fine hall, and Nick for taking today's service. In his quiet way, there was no prouder Merchistonian than Dad and he would have been no less appreciative than the rest of us.
In my view, my father's defining feature was his complete loyalty: to his many colleagues and friends across the sporting world; to Scottish rugby and, above all, to his family. On which note, can I conclude by saying how grateful the family are to all of you for coming here today.
Written and delivered by Logan M Mair (80-86).