Monthly Archives: February 2016

Six Nations 2016 – An Extract from ‘Behind the Thistle’

Ahead of this weekend’s matches that kick off of the Six Nations 2016 we take a look back to the genesis of the current Scotland team and how it has grown to a squad that was a whisker away from the semi-finals in the 2015 World Cup; a team that were crushed emotionally in that great, bittersweet battle against Australia, a game that will live on in infamy in every Scotsman’s memory.

This extract is from Behind the Thistle: Playing Rugby for Scotland, and is from Chapter 25 and starts with the 2013 season:


2013 and 2014 saw another period of transition. Scott Johnson had been employed by Robinson as a skills and attack coach at the start of the 2012 season and took on the head coach role after the Englishman’s abdication. Johnson in turn employed the services of former England international turned Sky TV analyst Dean Ryan on a short-term contract as his forwards coach for the 2013 Six Nations and the hurriedly assembled coaching team pulled a rabbit out of the hat in leading Scotland to third in the table – the highest finish they have enjoyed since occupying the same position in 2006 (although the 2013 team recorded just two wins to the 2006 team’s three – and one of these was a daylight robbery one-point win over an otherwise dominant Ireland at Murrayfield).

Behind the Thistle pbkJohnson came to Scotland with a mixed reputation as a popular skills coach but with mixed results as a head coach. After negotiations with the SRU following the 2013 Six Nations, it was revealed that he would remain as temporary caretaker coach and would, in time, move ‘upstairs’ to the SRU’s Director of Rugby position, last occupied by Ian McGeechan in 2005. With the announcement of Vern Cotter as his long-term successor as head coach, a whole new controversy ignited when Cotter’s employers, Clermont Auvergne (who had been unaware of the SRU’s advances), blew a gasket and insisted that Cotter see out his contract to the summer of 2014. So Johnson remained in charge for the 2013 summer tournament in South Africa with the host nation, Samoa and Italy, the autumn Tests against Japan, South Africa and Australia and the 2014 Six Nations before handing over the reins to Cotter for the summer tour to north and south America and South Africa – and the road to the 2015 World Cup in England. Clearly, for a team that had struggled to string a series of victories together in the professional era, the foundations on which the team was trying to build consistency were manifestly unstable. But the players simply had to accept the coaching merry-go-round and get on with things.

Despite this instability and sense of uncertainty in the coaching structure, some of the attacking play during the 2013 Six Nations was exceptional. Against England in the opening game, Sean Maitland marked his debut with a try down the blind-side wing after some wonderfully ambitious attacking play, before a turnover on the Scotland line by Kelly Brown unleashed a counter-attack normally only seen by the classic French teams of the ’80s and ’90s. The ball went from Brown to Stuart Hogg to Ruaridh Jackson to Matt Scott, whose quick hands unleashed David Denton – and all this done behind the five metre line. Denton carried the ball just beyond the twenty-two and very nearly ended the move when he ignored supporting runners. But as he was felled by Mike Brown he popped the ball from the floor to Jackson, who showed the same dexterity as Scott had done just moments before to slip the pass wide to Maitland. Maitland found himself in space but was aware of the covering defence tracking across to close him down; he was also aware that he had Hogg to take his side into the lead with just four minutes remaining on the clock on his inside, so carried the ball up field to the ten metre line and stabbed a grubber into space for his fullback to chase. Hogg put on the afterburners, showed fabulous footballing skills to hack the ball on and then beat the despairing cover of Toby Flood to score in the corner. It was to be voted try of the tournament.

The attacking intent was wonderful, but the defence was often stretched and the set-piece creaked under pressure from a dominant England eight. In the end, those were the margins that decided the fate of the match and England won 38-18, a scoreline that was more than a disservice to the Scottish efforts.

Mike Blair: I decided to retire shortly before the 2013 Six Nations. It was a hard decision to make, but it’s one that I felt lucky that I was able to do. Every time I pulled on the Scotland jersey it was an incredible honour and a privilege.

There’s a plaque in each players’ cubicle in the Murrayfeild changing-room which bears the name of greats from the past who have previously worn the shirt. Seeing those great names, I was always reminded of something that Jim Telfer once said: that the jersey is never really yours; it belongs to the nation and to the history of the team . . . you are only ever borrowing it for a time.

I used to recreate David Sole’s slow march of 1990 in my garden, used to hear Bill McLaren’s voice commentating as I ran around with the ball. I think that when any player pulls on their international jersey, they wear it for their friends and family, for all the fans that support them around the world, for the great players that have worn it before them, for their school teachers and for their club coaches and so on; but they also wear it for that boy inside of them who has played a thousand games in his head, and for those who even now run around their gardens with a dream that they might one day wear that same jersey. For me, that was what playing for Scotland was all about. Forget all the lows. It was an amazing ten years; I lived a dream.

Jim Hamilton (Scotland 2006-2015, 63 Caps): After the England loss Dean Ryan dished out a pretty brutal analysis. There was no crisis meeting but he spoke to every forward and asked us to tell him what we felt our primary role was as an international player. None of us did our job properly against England so we had to strip it back and sort it out. Rugby is a simple game and if you don’t do the basics right you won’t win the game; there’s no point looking pretty, running around and offloading if you don’t get the win.

Against England, we were a bit off our game and they were very, very good – they played a completely different game to what we had trained for and what we expected. You have to give them credit, though: they won the contact area so well that we had to go away and have a good long look at ourselves.

The backs had impressed at Twickenham and they continued where they left off when Italy came to Murrayfield, tearing the Italian defence to shreds as they scored tries through Tim Visser, Matt Scott, Stuart Hogg and Sean Lamont in a 34-10 shellacking.

Stuart Hogg (Scotland 2012-2015, 38 Caps): I really enjoyed my try against Italy because it was another length of the field effort and had been a bit of a gamble. Italy had broken through and they had a two-on-one against me – and I decided to go for the intercept. It was a pretty big call and I could have made a complete mess of it if Luciano Orquera had thrown a dummy. It was a fourteen-pointer, as they say, because if it didn’t come off then they would have scored under the sticks. Orquera had broken into space and I was set up pretty square against him, so it made sense for him to try and keep me fixed and then give the scoring pass to Tommaso Benvenuti. I had the option to either try and tackle Orquera man-and-ball to try and stop his pass, to slide onto Benvenuti but risk Orquera dummying and scoring himself, or to go for the intercept. Luckily it came off and eighty metres later I’d scored at the other end. It’s a great moment when you back your instincts and your skills and things like that work out for you.

Greig Laidlaw: We played Ireland next and with the way we were playing we felt really good about our prospects. We wanted to win and we wanted to win the respect of the Irish boys as well. We’d probably not given them much reason to respect us in the recent past, so we wanted to change that. Unless you beat them you can’t expect respect from them. It was a bit of a scrappy game; they went ahead after we let in a pretty soft try from Craig Gilroy, but we kept in amongst them and kept chipping away at the scoreboard. We showed some decent dog that day and hung in there and we managed to get our noses in front near the end and stayed there.

Jim Hamilton: It was a strange game, I think they had seventy-five per cent possession and I think we stole ten out of fourteen of their lineouts, which was obviously a huge base for them. Ireland are always very structured in what they do and rely on their ser-piece a lot. But if you can counter that you set yourself on the road to beating them and that’s exactly what happened in 2013.

Although the team continued to play in an expansive fashion in the next two fixtures, against Wales at Murrayfield and France in Paris, the defence was porous and small errors on the part of the Scots were ruthlessly taken advantage of by their opponents as Grieg Laidlaw’s team lost both Test matches 28-18 and 23-16 respectively.

In the summer, the team travelled to South Africa for a quadrangular tournament featuring the Springboks, Samoa and Italy. The opening match was against Samoa in Durban, where preparations were hampered slightly – albeit in a positive way – when prop Ryan Grant received a call up to the Lions tour in Australia. The late change in the front-row could not be blamed for the result that followed, however, as the big-hitting South Sea Islanders overpowered the Scots to win 27-17. The bruised squad then had to try to pick themselves up to face the might of the tournament hosts at Nelspruit, but they had picked up a number of key injuries in the squad and Kelly Brown, Pat McArthur and Geoff Cross were all forced to return home. The South African 372 media had written off the challenge of Scott Johnson’s side, but the match wasn’t nearly as one-sided as it had been predicted, with Scotland sparkling in attack to score some sensational tries through Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar. The injury woes continued, however, as Scotland lost not one but two stand-offs during the course of the match, with Ruaridh Jackson and Peter Horne both sustaining serious knee injuries, and in the end the greater power and experience of the Springboks told as they secured a 30-17 victory to meet Samoa in the tournament title decider.

Matt Scott (Scotland 2012-2016, 33 Caps): The South Africa game in the summer of 2013 was a big turning point for me. Scott Johnson had given me a hard time all week after we lost to Samoa, and one day he took me to one side and said, ‘Look, you’ve got thirteen caps now, you’re not new any more. If you don’t start growing up and acting like a player with thirteen caps, one who can boss the game and start believing that you are good enough to be here, then we’re going to pick someone else.’

It was a huge kick up the arse, but he was right; subconsciously I was still immature, still not being loud or assertive enough. Against Samoa I’d been too chilled, but before the South Africa game I wrote loads of notes and distilled them into five or six key points which I kept reading over and over. In the warm up I was very focused and animated, much louder and more vocal than usual.

I was so motivated and pumped – although getting up for that game was easy as the South African media spent the week speculating on whether we could keep the margin of victory to less than 50 points – and I had a very good game against Jean de Villiers, one of the best centres in the world. The way I played gave me a big confidence boost; I felt a genuine change inside of me, and I often reference that game in my own mind.

You can read more about the history of the team with your own copy of Behind the Thistle: Playing Rugby for Scotland, available here, and in all good bookshops.

Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire by John McKendrick, an extract

John McKendrick’s new book, Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire is a combination of compelling narrative history and gripping travelogue. His journey to uncover Caledonia, the short-lived Scottish colony in Darien, began when his legal career took him to the international ports of Panama. In his search for traces of the enterprise he became entangled by many of the same difficulties encountered by the seventeenth-century Scots: an inhospitable climate; a suspicious indigenous population with its own local conflicts; and dense jungle. A machete-wielding history, the journey becomes a personal pilgrimage as McKendrick uncovers vestiges of Darien not just at the place still known as Punta Escocés but in the places to which the colonists scattered. This extract finds him in the southern United States –

Darien A Journey in Search of EmpireAlthough it was October the land was steamy, swampy almost and the air was humid and heavy. I drove with the windows down and the hot air tangled my hair into knots. The radio played a selection of lachrymose Country songs. I passed a large church which announced ‘A crossless life is a pointless life’. A sentiment the Reverend Archibald Stobo would very much have agreed with. Stobo is perhaps less well-known than his fellow Darien minister Francis Borland, because he did not keep a record of his time in Caledonia. But he was fit enough to go ashore and preach at Charleston in 1700, and this devotion saved his life. I had come to the Carolinas and Georgia to find out more about Caledonia’s most successful survivor and his descendants, who did more to fulfil William Paterson’s dream than any other. In Savannah I hoped to see where those descendants had lived, and from there I would go to Charleston to see where the Reverend Stobo founded around five churches. Stobo was the most successful of the survivors of Caledonia. First and most importantly his connection with Theodore Roosevelt provides an extraordinary link across 200 years from the vision of Paterson to the achievement of Panama as a vital hinge in the world economy. But Stobo had other great offspring. His grandson, Archibald Bulloch (1730–1777) who was born in South Carolina, was a great Revolutionary leader who fought against the British and was Georgia’s representative at the Continental Congress.

In Charleston, the South Carolina Historical Society was housed in the oddly named Fireproof Building at 100 Meeting Street. The building was attractive, in the Palladian style with Doric porticos, but more interestingly it claimed to be the first fireproof building built in the United States for the preservation of public records, the ideal location for a history society. I was not sure what I expected to find in the Society’s library but felt sure it was worth asking what records or documents they had which dealt with the Reverend Stobo. Inside the cool reception to the library a pretty young librarian helped me and we chatted for a while over what I was interested in. She asked me to temporarily register and then carried out a search of the records. A few documents appeared on the computer screen on the system and the librarian sought them out for me. When they arrived they were of little help and revealed very little about Stobo’s life in Charlestown. After a little over an hour I was about to leave when the librarian asked me if I would like to see the ‘Stobo bible’. I asked what it was and she was not very sure but asked me to don a pair of white gloves and she disappeared to the fireproof vaults to find it. I sat with eager anticipation. Could this really be the Reverend Stobo’s own bible? Could it have been preserved all this time?

Darien - In Search of Empire - 8pp cmyk plateThe librarian came back with a large buff-coloured manila folder tied closed with string, which she laid carefully on the table before me then said ‘enjoy’ and left me to it. I sat for a moment, overcome with excitement and emotion: this truly could be a wonderful find. The bible used by Stobo over 300 years ago; the bible he would have held and touched with his own hands in New Edinburgh, and now I would be able to hold it too. It made me feel closer to the Caledonians, even closer perhaps than visiting the site of the colony. I gingerly pulled back the string, struggling a little with the uncomfortable white gloves on my fingers. The manila paper sprang open to reveal a small brown leather-covered bible, with a leather catch which had become damaged. I carefully turned it over and inspected the leather covering, which was a little spoiled and damaged in places but essentially complete. I opened the bible to reveal page after page of perfectly preserved gospel, printed in tiny print, but clearly legible and well laid out. The whole book was remarkable and I felt thrilled to hold Stobo’s bible in my hand, waves of history pouring out from its fragile, dry pages.

A note in the manila envelope made clear this bible had belonged to the Reverend Archibald Stobo who founded several Presbyterian churches in the area. It appeared to lend support to the idea – given the date and place of publication, close to when he would have set sail from Glasgow – that this was the bible he may have used in New Edinburgh. It seems likely it was bought in Scotland before the second expedition sailed. This may even have been the bible he would have held when he gave sermons to the Caledonians, the bible he used when he prayed for salvation when the Spanish attacked, the bible he would have pressed against his hands aboard the Rising Sun when he feared the ship would not make it on its voyage from Jamaica to Scotland. It was an amazing and startling discovery and moved me intensely. I opened to the bible gently and read several passages. Flicking through the crackling pages I wondered what sustenance the Reverend Stobo would have taken from some of the passages as he read them: Joshua 1:6–9 ‘Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land’; Matthew 11:28–30 ‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’; Nehemiah 6:3 ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down’. What inspiration or solace did the he find in this book as he hoped, feared, repented and rejoiced in his travels from Glasgow to New Edinburgh to Jamaica to Charleston? Holding the bible in my hands made me feel closer to the Caledonians than at any other point in my journey following them. I gently closed the bible, kissed it and taking a last wistful look at it, placed it gently back in the manila folder. Back in the fireproof vaults, the bible was sure to survive for another 300 years.

Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire is published this month and is available here on our website and in all good bookshops.

Welcome to Darien


Candlemas – A New Series from Shirley McKay

Today is Candlemas, the festival of light that marks the official end of the Christian festive season. We at Polygon use today’s holiday to announce an exciting new series with one of our stellar historical crime authors, Shirley McKay. This innovative project will see Shirley release five brand new eBooks throughout the year using the Christian calendar as inspiration: Candlemas (February), Whitsunday (May), Lammas (August), Martinmas (November) and Yule (December). All five mystery novellas will then be collected into one beautiful gift hardback at the end of the year — a perfect Christmas gift. The series of books will be called, 1588: A Calendar of Crime and will follow everyone’s favourite St Andrew’s based hero Hew Cullan.

Candlemas for blogThe first in this series, Candlemas, takes place on Candlemas Eve. When a candlemaker,  John Blair, is found dead in his workshop, all the evidence points to the surgeon Sam Sturrock as the culprit. Enlisted by Sturrock’s desperate apprentice, Hew Cullan, together with his friend and physician Giles Locke, delves deeper into the life of the candlemaker and discovers a web of extortion and lies. It seems John Blair was a man with many enemies . . .

Shirley McKay was born in Tynemouth but now lives with her family in Fife. At the age of fifteen she won the Young Observer playwriting competition, her play being performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. She went on to study English and Linguistics at the University of St Andrews before attending Durham University for postgraduate study in Romantic and seventeenth century prose. She was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger and has wowed crime fiction fans since then with the Hew Cullen mysteries over five novels, Hue & Cry, Fate & Fortune, Time & Tide, Friend & Foe and Queen & Country. Her fantastic blend of page-turning whodunit with intriguing historical detail — often incorporating real life figures — continues to win her an army of fans.

Shirley McKay‘I’m hugely excited about the ebook publication of the first story, Candlemas: the ebook format suits the episodic nature of the whole, following the pattern of the quarter days. But I’m excited too about the print edition of the compilation – with a cover promising to be truly beautiful – later on this year. This is a new departure for me, and crafting five complete and self-contained short mysteries, loosely interlinked, is proving both a challenge and a joy. ‘ – Shirley McKay

What is Candlemas? Candlemas is a Christian holiday celebrated annually on the 2nd of February. It celebrates three occasions according to Christian belief: the presentation of the child Jesus; Jesus’ first entry into the temple; the Virgin Mary’s purification (mainly in Catholic churches).

What Do People Do?
 As befitting a festival of light, candles are blessed on this day and candle-lit processions often precede the mass. In some parts of Europe, it is traditional to eat crepes on Candlemas. Here, each family member prepares and cooks a crepe while holding a coin in hand. This is believed to assure wealth and happiness until the next Candlemas celebration.

Candlemas is also known as Candelaria in Spanish speaking countries. Whoever finds baby figures hidden inside the Rosca de Reyes (Kings Cake) on Epiphany (January 6) is obliged to bring food to the Candlemas gathering. Some Christians observe the practice of leaving Christmas decorations up until Candlemas.

The first book in the series will be released later on this month. Keep your eyes peeled!