Francis Oliver Turnbull

Scotland rugby internationalist

Born: June 3, 1919, in Eildon, Melrose

Died: February 19, 2009, at Hiltonshill Farm, St Boswells

OLIVER Turnbull was a well-kent face in and around Kelso and the Borders farming community, but the messages of condolence that have been sent to the area from all over the UK since his passing have provided an indication of the high regard in which he was held further afield.

This is largely due to the fact that not only did he play for Scotland, but Turnbull was one of the country’s oldest debutants, pulling on the navy jersey for the first time aged 32, against France, having already left his mark on many rugby fields.

The Kelso centre never spoke of being disappointed at the lateness of his call-up; a modest, down-to-earth character, he felt hugely honoured to have been selected for Scotland at any time.

He even managed to acquire two caps – internationalists are usually only given one after their debut irrespective of how many games they play – having lost the original and then rediscovered it more recently.

But, talk at his funeral in Kelso last week recalled the feeling at the time among many of his peers that the SRU selectors had missed a trick during a tough post-war period by waiting to cap Turnbull.

He was unlucky. He was one of nine new caps to face France in the Stade Colombes in 1951 – the venerable Scotsman rugby writer Norman Mair being another – but after being narrowly beaten 14-12 in Paris, his Jed-Forest friend David Rose scoring two tries, he was injured for the next game, against Wales.

Scotland recorded an emphatic 19-0 win, described as “the most famous David and Goliath act in international rugby”, Wales having won the Grand Slam the year before.

Turnbull was named on the bench for the next two games without getting on, and when he did return to the starting line-up, it was for the now infamous November 1951 Test with South Africa. He hardly glimpsed the ball as Scotland went down 44-0.

Like several players from that fateful game, he was never given another chance, and having captained Kelso that year – he had also played his part in the championship season of 1947-48, where Kelso shared the Scottish title with Aberdeen Grammar FPs – he retired from rugby in 1952.

He had also played for the Barbarians, against Newport, Cardiff and East Midlands, captained the Co-optimists and been a stalwart of the South of Scotland teams for more than a decade.

One of five children, Turnbull attended Kelso High School and, after a year with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, he returned to his father’s wood production and sawmill business in Kelso.

He married Sheila Cameron in Kelso in the late 1950s and they had two children, Karen and Cameron, but he lost Sheila only a few years later.

A good family man, he remarried, to Joyce Plenderleith in 1967, and became step-father to Christopher and Wendy. Joyce passed away just five years ago.

His son Cameron recalled him as seeming strict to some on the outside, but being “a big softie really”, who loved all of his and Joyce’s children, and had great fun with them.

After rugby he moved into farming at Hiltonshill near St Boswells and turned his hand to golf, with some aplomb. Becoming a popular figure at Kelso, as well as the Northumberland links course of Goswick, his handicap fell as low as four at one stage.

Kelso Rugby Club and Kelso Golf Club remained close to his heart, and though his knees made lengthy walks more difficult in recent times his fitness was such that it came as a great shock to many when he suffered a heart attack last month.

The presence of great Scotland players of the past, such as Arthur Dorward and Ken Smith, at a big funeral just a drop-kick from Poynder Park underlined the affection in which he was held and which garnered a large collection for the Wooden Spoon Society, a UK-wide rugby charity.

He is survived by his sister, May, children Karen and Cameron, and step-children Christopher and Wendy.

DF