Scotland rugby international player and coach

Born: December 12th 1941

Died:May 31st 2018

Nairn MacEwan, who has died aged 76, was a gregarious former Scotland rugby flanker and national coach.

While he first entered the SRU’s radar, chosen for the North and Midlands Inter-District team, he quickly realised that as a Highland player, if he wanted more than a perhaps token cap, he would need to seek higher-quality rugby at club level.

So, he joined Gala and for the majority of his international career he would commute from his home in the Highlands to Netherdale – for training twice a week, then for games – a round trip of some 400-miles. This was back in the days when Perth, Stirling and Edinburgh were not by-passed, the roads were challenging, and it cost to cross the Forth Road Bridge. And, he was an amateur, playing for fun.

He was a regular presence in the Scotland back row for five seasons after making his debut, against France, at Stade Colombes, in January, 1971. He won 20 caps over these years, at a time when the Scottish pack, with its Ayrshire core of Ian McLauchlan, Gordon and Peter Brown and Alistair McHarg was one of the most-feared units in world rugby.

Nairn MacEwan seemed to enjoy playing England; he was four times on the winning side against the Auld Enemy – twice inside a week in 1971: when Scotland won for the first time at “HQ” since 1938, and a week later in the Centenary Test. He was again on the winning side in 1972 – when he scored the only try of the game in a 23-9 Scotland win, and in 1974. His other two visits to Twickenham, in 1973 and 1975 ended in defeat, that latter game seeing him taken off injured after only two minutes.

The Gala XV he played in was also bursting with internationalists: Arthur “Hovis” Brown, Drew Gill, John Frame and Jock Turner, Dunky Paterson, Peter Brown and Ken Oliver were team mates in what was one of Scotland’s top club sides. MacEwan won the majority of his caps with the Borderers, before, at the start of the 1973-74 season he reverted to Highland, where he began is coaching career.

He was the inspiration behind the Inverness club’s climb from Regional Leagues to the National League, mentoring the young George Mackie to become the second Highland player, after MacEwan, to win a full Scotland cap. He was greatly cheered, in his final weeks, to learn Highland had won National League Three.

In 1977 he succeeded Bill Dickinson as Scotland coach, holding the post for three years, before being replaced by Jim Telfer. These were difficult times for MacEwan. Age, retirements and injuries, had caught-up with the legendary “Mean Machine” Scotland pack he had played in and the Scots found winning difficult. His sacking hurt him deeply and soured his relationship with the Murrayfield “blazers”.

He continued to work tirelessly for rugby development in the Highlands and Islands, although, his perfectionist nature occasionally saw him fall-out with those he felt were not giving of their best. He also had spells coaching in Italy, Ireland and in Glasgow, with both Accies and GHK.

Then, when Scotland took on a mentoring role with the fledgling Swedish Rugby Union, MacEwan went across the North Sea, where his enthusiasm and innovative ideas were welcomed and greatly appreciated.

He was an innovative and forward-thinking coach, believing in the same sort of expansive rugby which his fellow Gala and Scotland player, Gregor Townsend, has brought so-successfully to Glasgow and now Scotland.

Nairn Alexander MacEwan was born in Dar-Es-Salaam, where his father Alexander was stationed as a British Army accountant. Alex and wife Mary had four children, Christine, Nairn, Euan and Angus.

Aged 11 he went to Morrison’s Academy, and on leaving, aged 18, he joined Royal Insurance. He married first wife Wilma in 1962, moving to Inverness shortly afterwards. The marriage produced three children, Fraser, Karen and Nick.

He had had open heart surgery in 1979, and after recovering, and the break-up of his marriage to Wilma, he went off to coach in Italy, where he married second wife Sheila. His coaching career then took him to Ireland, where son Cahal was born. Returning to Strathconon, he opened his famous An Shebeen restaurant, before daughter Caitlin was born in 1991.

He enjoyed learning Gaelic and joining the local Gaelic choir, which led him to compete, with them at the Mod. His final resting place will be on his croft in Strathconon. He was always a proud Scotsman – which led him to support independence from the 1970s – and the plaque to be placed will read the summation of his legacy: ‘Honour me – call me Highlander’.

despite the initial controversy the idea faced. He loved nature and animals maintaining his land as a bio-diverse, natural habitat.

Health issues surfaced again in the late 1998s, when he underwent heart by-pass surgery, he closed the restaurant, but continued to work part-time in the insurance industry.

He later, in 2006, contracted Lyme’s Disease which made for a difficult and often painful final years, which were spent in a care home in Inverness, where he died.

Matt Vallance