‘Best rugby writer of all’ Norman Mair has died

Norman Mair, the hugely admired Scottish rugby and golf writer, has died after a long illness. He was 86.

Norman Mair: "the best
Norman Mair: “the best of them all” Photo: Martin Hunter/The Scotsman

Stephen Jones, the Sunday Times‘s rugby correspondent, described Mair as his “favourite rugby writer of all time”. Sir Ian McGeechan, the former Scotland and Britain Lions coach, said that Mair was “the best rugby writer of them all, without question”.

Mair covered sport for The Scotsman for nearly 40 years, and comparisons were made yesterday between the impact on the game and its players of Mair’s writing and the television commentaries of Bill McLaren.

Mair began working for The Scotsman in the early 1960s, having won four caps for Scotland, making his debut against France in 1951.

Mair attended Edinburgh Academy and then Merchiston Castle school, before going on to study law at Edinburgh University. He began his career as a journalist on the Scotsport programme. He wrote for The Scotsman until 1998 and was inducted into the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame last year.

Mair played as a goal-kicking hooker for Edinburgh University and Edinburgh Wanderers, then one of Scotland’s top clubs. “He was a better rugby player than his caps suggested,” said Jim Telfer, the former Scotland and Lions coach.

In 1952, Mair became a double international after being selected to play for Scotland at cricket against Worcestershire. Such all-round abilities would transfer itself to Mair’s writing, where he also shone when a notable correspondent on golf and tennis.

Lewine Mair, the golf writer, was married to Norman for 47 years. She told The Scotsman how Norman, in the days of the old printing presses, would rush back from the Open Championship to his newspaper’s offices in Edinburgh on nightly basis. This, remember, when the final groups in the Championship would not have finished their rounds until well after 9pm.

“Let’s say it was Turnberry or Troon,” Lewine said, “he would drive back at night to check his copy and then drive back again that same evening. He was unbelievably conscientious.”

Norman Mair’s deep knowledge of rugby meant he was required reading, and also gave him ready access to the leading players and administrators.

“When Norman put his copy in, he was so particular, so precise,” recalled former Scotland full back Andy Irvine told The Scotsman. “That is why we had so much admiration for him. If Norman put down that you were not at your best, you had to swallow deeply and accept you had a poor game. There was no one else like that. Bill McLaren was also revered and although Bill also wrote columns, Norman was very much the writer the players respected, Bill the commentator.

“Most players didn’t like to acknowledge if they had a poor game or were off form. I used to take the view that if you really wanted to know how you played, read Norman. If Norman had you down for a bad game then you knew yourself it wasn’t the best.”

McGeechan revealed that Mair had had an influence on his coaching and selections of his teams: “When I was coaching Scotland, I used him as a sounding board. We talked about things and looked at things together, he would give me a heads-up. He would never compromise any confidentiality. If some of the Scottish Rugby Union selectors knew some of the conversations I had with him, they would have panicked.”

Ian Stewart, editorial director of The Scotsman Publications Ltd, said: “I was saddened to hear of the passing of Norman Mair. He was one of the most outstanding journalists of his generation, and his contribution to The Scotsman and to sports journalism in general was simply huge. His insightful views helped shape rugby in this country.”