The chap that launched a thousand races

Professional games starter Alan laidlaw who retired from the cicuit at the end of the 2011 season.
Professional games starter Alan laidlaw who retired from the cicuit at the end of the 2011 season.

HE stands dressed in a long white coat with a hat perched on his head.

Gun in his hand, he says a few words and then fires the pistol into the air.

From the immediate sound of the gunshot and the simultaneous puff of smoke, there is great activity. A race is on and Alan Laidlaw has done his job – one he has been doing for the past 25 years.

For Alan is ‘Mr Starter’ at Border Games meetings and further afield.

A man who, through the squeeze of a trigger, can start a race or, with a second squeeze, bring it to a halt.

Kelso man Alan – who now stays in Coldstream – was first involved in the world of athletics on the other side of the gun.

He told TheSouthern: “I belonged to a great Kelso running school, which included the likes of Wull Lauder, John Lauder, Bert Taylor, George Swanston and John Dawson, who ran under the name of John Franklin.

“It was a really good school and I learned a lot being trained and training with men like this, especially John Dawson who sure could run, as well as being a real character.

“The first handicap I ever won was the Selkirk Games youths’ sprint from scratch when I was 16.

“I then went on to be a senior and in 1966 reached the cross-ties of the New Year Sprint at the Powderhall Stadium.

“However, I was beaten by a rugby league player from Barrow called Mike Murray who went on to win the final. Billy Edgar of Hawick, who is now a well-known coach, came in third.”

Due to work commitments, Alan departed from the running scene for a while. “I was a printer with the Kelso Chronicle newspaper, and the works moved from Kelso to Berwick and I began working shifts,” he said. “This put paid to training so I reluctantly decided to pack it in.”

However, Alan’s love of athletics was to lure him back to competitive running and in 1976 he won the Langholm Games sprint as well as the Grassmere Games 200m handicap.

He soon decided to hang up his spikes for good, but Alan was far from finished with his chosen sport, as he made the switch to a different running lane.

Putting his vast knowledge to full use, he became a coach and, along with others, formed the Tweedside Athletic Club.

Alan also got involved as an official in the amateur athletic scene as a steward, a timekeeper and, occasionally, as a starter.

He bore no thoughts whatsoever about regularly being the man who fired the gun at the beginning of a race.

Yet, the hand of fate was to make his new role permanent.

Alan said: “It was Kelso Games and Wilf Tallentire from Penrith, who was the starter at all of the Border Games, couldn’t make it for some reason.

“John Dawson, who was running the Kelso Games then, asked me if I would be the starter. I thought ‘Why not?’ and I decided to give it a go, but it was going to be a one-off.”

A one-off it was certainly not. The following season he was approached to be the starter at Jedburgh Games.

“I felt this was something of an honour as the Jed Games was the biggest on the circuit,” said Alan, “so I jumped at the chance.

“I thought I might get the sack at the end of the games, though, as I pulled up well-known Jedburgh athlete John Steede twice that day for false starts in his races. But the Jed Games committee must have felt I did okay as they invited me back.”

When Will Tallentire retired, the circuit needed a regular starter. Alan was offered the position and the rest is history.

Alan has witnessed many changes on the games circuit throughout the years, including the guns he has used.

He told us: “The first guns were hand-downs. They were absolutely huge and I am sure they must have come from the First World War.

“I declared them to the police and it was discovered they were not licensed, so there was a bit of a carry-on about that.

“Nowadays it’s a lot better, though, the guns are much more sophisticated and are properly licensed.”

Regularly accompanied at track meetings by his wife Mary, who enjoys a day at the games as much as her husband does, Alan has had his share of mishaps.

“I was set to start a sprint at Jedburgh Games and was standing on the banking at Riverside Park, attempting to get a better view of the runners,” Alan recalled.

“I took a step backwards and ended up falling on my back. I had the trigger ready to be pulled back and fortunately the gun didn’t go off. It was a scary moment, though.

“On another occasion at Hawick Games I had a lot of misfires because the hammer in the gun was broken.

“This was very frustrating for me to say the least, but it delighted a certain Southern Reporter photographer who covers most of the games, but shall remain nameless.

“He had a smile on his face all day and every time he walked passed he kept saying the word ‘pop’.”

Despite enjoying his association with open athletics, Alan has now decided to call it a day as a starter.

“It’s a decision I have given a lot of thought to,” he said. “One of the main reasons is that my gun license has expired and I am not going to renew it.

“Another is that I have always said that no matter what your connection with sport is, that you know yourself when the time is right to stop, and I think that time has arrived for me. But I intend still to go to the games.”

Apart from firing the gun, Alan has been the quiet man of the games, but through his highly-efficient ways has been a big noise in his own right.