An appreciation by Brian Wilson

GEORGE Mackie, who has died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 70, was a farmer and Scottish rugby internationalist for whom the term “gentle giant” might have been coined. Living for four decades in Essex never impinged upon the Mearns accent of his childhood.

His parents both came from long-established farming stock – the Mackies and Milnes. The Mackies, who farmed around Laurencekirk, were an intensely political family of varying hues. George’s father, John, joined the Labour Party as a young man when the prevalence of rickets in Glasgow convinced him of the need for a planned economy in which agriculture would play its part.

He was close to the leading Tribunite figures of the era and, in the run-up to the 1959 General Election, was tipped off about a vacancy for a candidate in Enfield. As they made the long trek south, his co-driver surveyed Farmers Weekly for the nearest available farm to the constituency.

John secured the nomination and next day took over the lease of Harold’s Park Farm in the village of Nazeing. Thus, George’s primary education began in Laurencekirk and concluded in Essex before he followed his brother to Battisborough School in Devon, a Gordonstoun-style establishment on which he looked back with little affection.

His father was MP for Enfield until 1974 when he became chairman of the Forestry Commission before going to the Lords after being unceremoniously sacked by Margaret Thatcher.

George went on to graduate from the North of Scotland College of Agriculture in Aberdeen, where he immersed himself in both left-wing politics and rugby. The veteran of innumerable marches and demonstrations, he used to say he was always given the banner to carry because, at six foot five, he was the tallest.

Years later, we discovered a shared experience from this period. When the apartheid South African rugby team played at Linksfield Stadium in 1968, the police tactic was to allow demonstrators to run onto the park before arresting us. The first 100, myself included, were charged and fined. The rest, George included, were bussed to the city limits.

The difference was that George was embarked on a promising rugby career and, to say the least, taking direct action against the sport’s establishment was unlikely to endear him to selectors. It was typical of George’s adherence to his principles that this would never have entered his head as a reason not to do what he thought was right.

While playing for Montrose in the early 1970s, he was persuaded by Nairn MacEwan to join Highland. Rugby was an amateur sport and George supported himself by taking whatever jobs were going. It was at this time he met Catherine MacLeod, who was then a journalist in Aberdeen and later became the Herald’s political editor at Westminster and special adviser to Alistair Darling when Chancellor.

Catherine recalls that when she told her father that George worked at Inverness High School, “he expected to meet the deputy rector or something like that”. In fact, George was the second janitor, having previously been employed as a gravedigger. These roles suited him well. He had a lifelong respect for manual work and a healthy disregard for anyone who looked down on it.

George was part of the great Highland side of the 1970s and the only player to gain Scotland caps while playing for the club. He won four caps as a back-row forward -– the 1975 victory over Australia at Murrayfield; against France and Wales in 1976, and France two years later. He also took part in the 1975 tour of New Zealand.

Colin Baillie, who coached him at Highland, paid tribute: “He was an extraordinary ball player – great with his hands, and he could run all day. He was one of the fittest boys I worked with. He led by example and was always there. On the pitch he would do any task and off the field he was the same”.

George and Catherine married in 1983. They moved to Nazeing and George took over the running of Harold’s Park Farm. It was not great land and he worked extremely hard to make it a viable business, trying everything and latterly operating it successfully as livery stables backed up by growing Christmas trees.

He was a firm believer in farmers being mere custodians of the land and every penny of profit was ploughed back into improvements to the farm. His generosity and kindness won great local respect while the hospitality extended to an endless stream of visitors remains legendary, with George never the loudest around the dinner table but usually the wisest.

George remained very political, committed to socialist and internationalist values. In his only run at elected office, he stood as Labour candidate – it would never have occurred to him to avoid the label – for the Bumble’s Green ward of Nazeing District Council and was elected in this true-blue territory. Catherine says: “I think it was the only Labour gain in England in 1987”.

He loved watching sport and also enjoyed a gamble. At one point, three of us – Donnie Munro and Kenny MacQuarrie owned the other legs – were persuaded to join him in the acquisition of a greyhound called Althea’s Delight, which ran at Walthamstow. It was an ill-fated venture which provided loads of laughs and that was reward enough for all of us. George had a keen sense of the ridiculous.

His family – both immediate and extended – were of central importance to him. He and Catherine complemented each other perfectly. They had two sons – Robert, who is now in the Treasury and married to Laura, and Hector, who is farming at Harold’s Park. They were all with him at the time of his death.

In due course, his innumerable friends will come together to remember a great human being who spoke ill of nobody and of whom nobody ever spoke ill.