Academic and Scotland's oldest rugby internationalist

Born: October 25, 1919;

Died: February 18, 2019

GEORGE Cawkwell, who has died aged 99, was a renowned academic and also Scotland's oldest former rugby international. He was a “kilted kiwi” more than 40 years before that description was coined, and, while he was also a member of that large group of former Scotland caps, “the one-cap wonders,” it would be fair to say that rugby was more than a youthful diversion in his long and distinguished life.

He was born in Auckland, New Zealand. His father was a New Zealander, his mother an immigrant from Scotland. He had an outstanding school record at Kings College in Auckland: two years in the first rugby XV, three in the first cricket XI, company sergeant major of the cadet corps, and head boy.

He enrolled at Auckland University in 1938 and after obtaining BA and MA degrees in history, he went into the New Zealand Army, seeing active service with the Fijian Infantry in the Solomon Islands.

He married a fellow student Pat Clarke in 1945, then won a Rhodes scholarship to Christ Church College in Oxford, arriving there on the day his elder son Simon was born. He won the first of his two varsity blues with the victorious Oxford team in the 1946 varsity match, at Twickenham, playing sufficiently well to win his Scotland cap, against France, at Stade Colombes, on January 1, 1947.

This was the first post-war games for which full caps were awarded, so, while several of his team mates had played for Scotland in unofficial war time and “victory” internationals, all 15 were technically new caps. Scotland lost 8-3 and Cawkwell was one of those, all Anglo-Scots, who paid the price for failure – his Scotland career was over after just one match.

In later life he said: “I suppose, I was a moderately good player, but the truth is that my heart was never really in it and I can remember reciting Greek verbs as I jogged around the field.” What he would really have liked was to excel in cricket: “I hit some big sixes,” he said.

If he continued to have an interest in rugby and cricket for the remaining 72 years of his life, he had other, more important fish to fry.

He was awarded a first in Greats in 1948 and he and Pat decided to remain at Oxford, where he became a fellow of University College in 1949. There he decided to specialise in Greek history. It was the start of a long and happy association.

He filled many posts at University College: he was successively senior treasurer, librarian, dean of graduates, senior tutor, dean of degrees, and eventually vice-master, prior to his official retirement, and elevation to Emeritus Fellow, when he retired after 38 years, in 1987.

He played a significant role in fund-raising to celebrate University College's 750th anniversary in 1999, and his service to the college is marked by The George Cawkwell Fellowship in Ancient History. A boat in the University College Boat Club is also named after him. The college also commissioned his portrait, painted by the artist Daphne Todd.

He was widely published, and was viewed as the authority on many aspects of Greek history. His best-known works were Philip of Macedon, published in 1978; Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, published in 1997; and The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia, published in 2005. Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War won the Runciman Prize .

He and Pat, who pre-deceased him in 2008, earned a reputation as being among the best hosts in Oxford - their dinner parties at their home, Kybald House, were legendary. He was a keen attender at the various Oxford dining clubs and at High Table.

Also, as a former Rhodes scholar himself, Cawkwell made it his business to offer the hand of friendship and support to overseas students, particularly mature students who, perhaps like him, arrived there with a wife and children in tow. One of the Rhodes scholars he looked after was the future president Bill Clinton, who arrived in 1968.

George Cawkwell is survived by his children, Simon, Sarah and Tim. The University College website says of him: “George’s 69 years are not a large fraction of University College’s 750 and more, but they are not a small fraction either, and it is hard to think that any fellow in that history has been remembered with such affection by so many.”