Willie Baxter

Born: February 28, 1935

Died: June 20, 2023

Willie Baxter, who has died aged 88, was relatively short in stature but was a towering figure in the world of amateur wrestling in Scotland, Europe and beyond over the last six or so decades. He played an outstanding and hugely influential role in the sport as wrestler, referee, coach and official and was a tireless advocate for traditional wrestling, especially backhold style, known in England as Cumberland and Westmoreland.

Traditional wrestling is a world apart from the televised professional variety with which Willie held no truck, describing it in an interview with The Scotsman in 1987 as “a load of garbage practised by clowns with Equity cards.” An amiable straight-talking gent, his infectious enthusiasm, technical knowledge and innate ability to engage with his charges led to success for many youngsters who remained highly appreciative of his input and life lessons imparted along the way.

While wrestling dominated, he had many interests. His funeral card described him as “wrestler, photographer, piper, writer, historian, adventurer and custodian of Scottish culture,” a man of many pairts indeed. He was an unmistakeable figure in wrestling arenas at Highland Games the length and breadth of the country in his trademark Culloden tartan kilt and highland dress, occasionally finding time to share a dram.

A multiple Scottish and British champion in different styles, he was coach to the Scotland wrestling team at several Commonwealth Games, manager of the Great Britain team at the 1972 Olympics and held various positions with the Scottish Amateur Wrestling Association and Scottish Wrestling Bond. In 2005 he won the Glasgow Sports Personality of the Year award, after being nominated by others.

He was also president of FILC, the International Federation of Celtic Wrestling, was integral to the establishment and a valued member of AEJeSt, the European Association of Traditional Games and Sports, helped set up ISCA, the International Sport and Culture Association in Denmark and created FISSG, the Federation of Indigenous Scottish Sports and Games.

Steeped in the history and traditions of wrestling about which he had encyclopaedic knowledge, he wrote regularly and informatively on the subject. One excellent example was a 26-page erudite exposition on the sport’s history going back to classical times and narrating details of some 90 styles of traditional European wrestling, both active and defunct. This appeared in a publication Popular Games –Eclipse and Revival, under the aegis of AEJeST, who lauded him as “a defender of Universal Cultural Heritage Values.”

Willie had his first taste of wrestling in 1947 on the Isle of Skye, probably at Portree Games. He attended Douglas Academy in Milngavie where he would spend most of his life.

Serious training began at the LMS Rovers Boxing and Wrestling Club in the south side of Glasgow which entailed a lengthy journey, often exacerbated by having to carry his own heavy wrestling mat with him.

Foreshadowing his strength of purpose at a young age, he set up his own wrestling club in Milngavie by about 1953 where he began training in “catch as catch can” style, which became known as Olympic freestyle, as well as backhold in which he later specialised.

At the same time he also tried Greco-Roman, another Olympic discipline, and dabbled in other formats.

In “catch” he won the Scottish championship seven times and was third twice in British Championships, which were a qualifier for Olympic selection. In 1960 he was favourite for the title and consequently an Olympic place but according to himself, committed the basic error of “losing his temper”, leading to disqualification.

In backhold, which involves clasping arms behind the opponent’s back before throwing or tripping him to the ground, between 1960 and 1967 he won 11 Scottish titles at different weights, on occasion conceding two stones, seven British titles and was the recipient of six Usher Vaux awards for sporting excellence, sponsored by the brewers.

His first Commonwealth Games as coach was in Jamaica 1966 where Scottish light heavyweight Wallace Booth won a silver medal, and was unfortunate not to win gold. Thereafter he was coach in the 1970 Games in Edinburgh and 1974 in New Zealand.

Prior to the 1970 Games he made several study trips to Turkey, a wrestling stronghold, and helped persuade leading Turkish coach Adnan Yurdaer to assist Scottish preparations. Initially Willie was optimistic of winning several bronze medals but the draw against strong Indian and Pakistani opponents meant only one bronze gained. In 1974 Scotland fared slightly better with two bronzes.

The 1972 Olympics in Munich, marred by the murder of the Israeli athletes, did not enthuse Willie who was not enamoured by the intrusion of “politics and drugs,” as he was quoted.

In 1992 he was founding president and prime driving force of the Scottish Wrestling Bond specialising in backhold competition in which he took teams to European tournaments in Iceland, Brittany, the Canary Islands and elsewhere.

Highlights included being coach of the Scottish team that won the European Celtic Wrestling Championships in Leon, northern Spain in 1997.

An engineer by profession, Willie worked mostly in the leisure industry. He was manager of Shakespeare Street Youth Club in Maryhill and Bellahouston Sports Centre before becoming area manager for Glasgow Parks and Recreation Department. In March 1966 in Milngavie, he married Mary McGill with whom he enjoyed a happy marriage and had daughters Ciorstan and Seylan.

Warm hearted, entertaining and stimulating company, he was held in considerable affection by many and is survived by his wife and children.