THEY came to Scotland with little more than the clothes upon their backs, refugees from a war which set the continent of Europe ablaze.

Yet when they finally left for home years later, they returned not as heroes of the battlefield but as the conquerors of the rugby pitch, taking a their knowledge of the game back to their native Serbia, where it has flourished.

Most gained their love for the oval ball during a stay at George Heriots School in Edinburgh, where they are fondly remembered.

But now, on the centenary of their greatest triumph, the story of the Serbian rugby boys of Glasgow has been brought to light by a historian of the game in their native country.


Serbia suffered greatly during World War One

In August 1916, 27 boys aged between 12 and 19 arrived in Scotland traumatised and bewildered after the tide of war swept over Serbia.

Their home country had held out bravely against the might of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, but had finally been defeated by the combined forces of Germany, Bulgaria and Imperial troops.

More than 100,000 people died fleeing across the Albanian mountains, and the boys were among the weary refugees who survived, arriving in Britain by boat from Corfu.

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Unable to speak a word in English, they were taken in by families and schools, with one group ending up at Heriots and another at Hillhead High School and other establishments in Glasgow.

The youngsters talent for the sport and athletics was quickly noticed, and soon they were introduced to rugby.

Within months, three were playing for the Heriot's highly regarded first team alongside future Scotland internationals, while in Glasgow 18 were quickly drafted into the teams in their schools.

Many of this group would go on to have substantial careers on the rugby field, according to Slavisa Milenkovic, Secretary of the Krusevac rugby club in Serbia, who has researched their time in Scotland.

He said: "The Serbian rugby team in Edinburgh was the largest, most organized and of the highest quality, but their story ended in June 1919 when they were left the city.

"But, the Serbs also played rugby in other Scottish cities they were located in during the First World War, and the best Serbian rugby players performed in Glasgow."

In 1918, the boys from Edinburgh and Glasgow formed the first Serbian national team, winning a match played in Edinburgh in front of a crowd of more than 8,000.

This was the first team to even play under the Serbian flag and is still held as the genesis of rugby for the Balkan country.

The same year a group also travelled to Ayr and beat a team from the local Academy, their arrival heralded in a newspaper report entitled "The Visit of the Serbian Boys".

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While researching this tale, Slavisa Milenkovic found the names of six Serbs listed among the rolls of Glasgow clubs - Slavoljub Djordjevic, Dragoljub Stojanovic, Svetolik Avramovic, Krsta Balic, Aleksandar Delini and Dusan Mitic. - and mentions of their exploits in the press.

The best-known of the Serbs was Slavoljub Djordjevic, who went on to play more than 100 games in Scottish competitions, first for Hillhead and later for Glasgow University Blues, where he studied to be a doctor.


Slavoljub Djordjevic/Stevan George

Djordjevic, a successful fullback, later married a Scottish woman and changed his name to Stevan George. He served as a ship's surgeon on troop transports during the Second World War and later worked as a doctor on board Cunard liners, eventually settling in the Bahamas.

Mr George, a father-of-three, was later awarded an OBE for his services to the Island communities, died in Nassau aged 67.

Another who enjoyed a long career was Dragoljub Stojanovic, who was a frequent turn-out for Hillhead between 1920 to 1926, playing at all levels.

In Edinburgh, Dimitrije Dulkanovic, who was known as the school's "flying wing three-quarter", also went on to train as a doctor, and set up the country's first rugby club in Belgrade.

Dr Dulkanovic died in 1995, aged 95, and was buried in his old school tie. He was one of five of the Serbian Herioters to attend the school's tercentenary in 1959, and continued to visit into the 1980s.

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Earlier this month the Serbian Rugby Union invited teams from Heriots to Belgrade to take part in a ceremony and tournament honouring the centenary of the founding of the first national side.

Colin McCallum, vice president of Heriot’s Rugby Club, who made the trip, said that the tale of the Serbians who came to Edinburgh was well remembered by his old school and .

However, the contribution of those who picked up the game in Glasgow has been largely lost to history.

Mr McCallum said: "The rugby played in Serbia is a direct descendant of the rugby they played in Scotland, particularly at Heriots, and they are very mindful of that.

"It's very touching. But we had not realised the contribution made by the Glasgow boys, and it's very interesting.

"There was no mention of Hillhead during the presentation, although Heriots was brought up a number of times."

Today, the link between Glasgow and Serbia remains, with the Skipper of the Serbian national team, flanker Milan Marinković, and hooker Istok Totic playing for Cartha Queens Park RFC.

Slavisa Milenkovic said: "Connections between Scottish and Serbian rugby are still strong."