Remembering ‘Auld Acquaintance’

W.D. Kinnear, one of the great scullers of the Edwardian Age, was present both in spirit and also in this representation at a dinner recently held in his memory.
W.D. Kinnear, one of the great scullers of the Edwardian Age, was present both in spirit and also in this representation at a dinner recently held in his memory.

27 June 2016

Tim Koch writes:

Scotland has given many great things to the world but there are two in particular that are appreciated from Aberdeen to Auckland and many points in-between. The beloved pair are Scotch whisky (the ‘Water of Life’) and a Robert Burns poem set to a traditional tune, the ever popular, “Auld Lang Syne”. The song’s opening line, ‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?’, poses a rhetorical question close to the heart of Hear The Boat Sing (HTBS) and anyone else also interested in history. It asks whether it is right that old times be forgotten? Not surprisingly, HTBS says that it is most defiantly not right. One person who I know will agree with us is Jim Brown from the village of Fettercairn in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

At 71, Jim is one of those people who seem to have more hours in the day than the rest of us. A keen athlete in his youth, he served as chairman of the Scottish Highland Games Association for many years and is now honorary life president. He also has cultural as well as sporting interests and is President of the Fettercairn Burns Club and chairman of a centre devoted to the work and memory of local writer, Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Local newspaper reports often preface Jim’s name with the epithet ‘well-known wit and raconteur’ and he is a popular participant in the after dinner speaking circuit where he has raised large sums for charity. Good causes have also benefited through his work in the Laurencekirk & District Rotary Club, of which he is a past (and future) president. Jim was made an MBE in 2008 for his services to the Highland Games and also to charity. In 2012, he was chosen to be one of the torchbearers that carried the Olympic flame through Montrose. This led him to discover a fact almost forgotten in the area, that a local man won Gold in the Olympic Games held exactly 100 years previously. He was a sculler named William Duthie Kinnear.

Jim Brown carries the Olympic flame on 12 June 2012. Picture: itv.com
Jim Brown carries the Olympic flame on 12 June 2012. Picture: itv.com

Regular readers will know that W.D. ‘Wally’ Kinnear, the finest British amateur sculler in the years 1910 to 1912, has a special place in the affections of both myself and the HTBS editor-in-chief, Göran Buckhorn. ‘W.D.’ was a lifelong member of my club, now called Auriol Kensington but which was simply ‘Kensington’ until its amalgamation with Auriol RC in 1981. Kinnear won his greatest victory in the 1912 Olympic Sculls and Göran has a particular interest in these 5th Games as they were held in Stockholm in his native Sweden. I am the author of the only biography of the great sculler and the work is, according to the Journal of Olympic History, ‘a pleasing if slim volume’. It is available online as a free pdf. Kinnear’s other notable wins were Henley’s Diamond Sculls in 1910 and 1911, The Wingfield Sculls and also the Metropolitan Regatta’s London Cup in 1910, 11 and 12, and the Coupe des Nations d’Aviron in Paris in 1912 and 1913.

Wally Kinnear practicing in Stockholm, 1912. This picture is from his personal album, courtesy of his son, Donald.
Wally Kinnear practicing in Stockholm, 1912. This picture is from his personal album, courtesy of his son, Donald.

Jim and fellow members of the local Rotary Club, together with the Howe o’ the Mearns Heritage Club, decided that it would be appropriate for Kinnear’s home village of Laurencekirk to honour and to perpetuate the memory of their greatest athlete by placing a plaque on the cottage where he spent his childhood and also to have a dinner in the community hall on the before day the 2012 Olympic Flame was carried through the village.

A quick aside for those unfamiliar with Scottish geography. The Howe o’ the Mearns is a wide fertile valley on the coast of northeast Scotland in Aberdeenshire (in Kinnear’s time the county was known as Kincardineshire). Laurencekirk, 30 miles south of Aberdeen, was the main market town and although the livestock market has closed, it remains at the heart of the area. Today, Laurencekirk has a population of 3,500.

Through the wonders of the Internet, Jim found out that I had researched Wally’s life and contacted me in early 2012. I was happy to be able to tell him that Kinnear’s son, Donald, was alive and well and living outside Leicester. The mathematics of a man born in 1880 having offspring alive in 2012 are that Donald was born in 1924 when his father was 44 and so was ‘only’ 88 at the time. Thus Donald Kinnear, accompanied by his wife and daughter, was able to unveil the plaque and attend the dinner on 11 June 2012. The meal in celebration of WD Kinnear was so successful that it was decided to hold one in every Olympic year. Thus, 2016 saw ‘The 2nd Quadrennial W.D. Kinnear Dinner’ and I was honoured to be asked as the guest speaker.

Prior to the 2016 Kinnear Dinner, a group from the Laurencekirk & District Rotary Club and I visited Wally’s childhood home and drank a toast under the commemorative plaque. Second from the left is Jim Brown and at the end on the right is Allan Smith, President of the local Rotary and Chairman of the Kinnear Dinner and who gave me a wonderful tour of the Howe o’ the Mearnes and of the city of Aberdeen.
Prior to the 2016 Kinnear Dinner, a group from the Laurencekirk & District Rotary Club and I visited Wally’s childhood home and drank a toast under the commemorative plaque. Second from the left is Jim Brown and at the end on the right is Allan Smith, President of the local Rotary and Chairman of the Kinnear Dinner and who gave me a wonderful tour of the Howe o’ the Mearnes and of the city of Aberdeen.
The Kinnear plaque, unveiled in 2012.
The Kinnear plaque, unveiled in 2012.

At the Dinner, grace was a splendid piece of doggerel by Rotarian Peter Myles who is well known locally for such efforts. His work perhaps owes something to the influence of his countryman, William McGonagall. Two Scots words are used in Peter’s piece; ’howe’ means valley (as in ‘Howe o’ the Mearns’) and ‘mait’ is food. For more on the language of the area, see the website, ‘Scots Language’.

O’ Lord we give thanks for Wally Kinnear
We give thanks for his rowing and his Olympic career,
We give thanks for the athletes here, gathered from the howe,
Their skills not recognised, well not until now 

Thank you for inventing sports
A great therapy to us all
Be it rowing, fishing, rugby
Boxing, tug o’ war or basketball

 Ploughing and  Highland Games
Stock  judging in its day
Volleyball and shooting
Be it rifle or the flying clay

And thanks for the mait we have here on the table,
So lets eat it all up as long as we’re able

The cover of the 2016 Dinner menu.
The cover of the 2016 Dinner menu.

My talk on Wally Kinnear to the seventy local people who attended the dinner had to be entertaining to those with no special interest in rowing history. Thus, some sort of chronological listing of Kinnear’s life was not the thing to do. Instead, I decided to concentrate on two main themes. One was the social context in which the former apprentice blacksmith from Laurencekirk had to operate in, both on and off the water, and the other was the importance of his wife, Lillian, in enabling him to achieve what he did. Below are some extracts from my talk on the first of these.

In 1899, the 19 year old Wally Kinnear, like many of his countrymen, before and since, made the long geographical journey from Laurencekirk to London. But there was another, much more remarkable  journey made by the man who styled himself ‘a country boy from the North’. This journey started near here in 1880 when Wally was born to a farmer’s daughter and a railway worker, himself the son of a shepherd. At that time, it would be reasonable to expect that, like most of his contemporaries, he would live, work and die within a few miles of his place of birth. If he did well in life, he could perhaps go up one or two runs of the very long Victorian social ladder, possibly becoming a clerk who ended each working day with inky fingers rather than calloused hands. As it happens, Wally did ‘better himself’, though he did this many hundreds of miles from his birthplace.

A picture from the history section of the Laurencekirk community website. It shows a ‘smiddy house’ (blacksmith) in the village main street. This may just be wishful thinking on my part, but I really think that the tall, lanky teenage apprentice on the left could be Wally. Even if it is not, it is a scene not very different to what he would have experienced in his first workplace.
A picture from the history section of the Laurencekirk community website. It shows a ‘smiddy house’ (blacksmith) in the village main street. This may just be wishful thinking on my part, but I really think that the tall, lanky teenage apprentice on the left could be Wally. Even if it is not, it is a scene not very different to what he would have experienced in his first workplace.

When the former apprentice blacksmith got a job working as a travelling salesman for the drapery department of Debenhams in London, this produced some small improvement in his social standing. However, in another sense, Wally Kinnear rose to the very top of an elite group in Edwardian Society, that of the successful amateur sportsman. The stress here is on the word ‘amateur’. I need to explain why, as this sets the context of Kinnear’s sporting life.

The so-called ‘Corinthian Spirit’, that is sport done purely for pleasure, played strictly to the rules and with absolutely no financial reward was everything to Victorian and Edwardian middle and upper class gentlemen. They felt that sport played to their rules defined ‘Britishness’ and developed ‘manly characteristics’ …. A famous expression of this was the (alleged) remark of the Duke of Wellington, that ‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’ ………

While this seems harmless enough (even a good thing) it was the definition of, and the fanatical devotion to, ‘amateurism’ , the belief that there should be no financial reward for taking part in sport, that begat a long and unpleasant battle that lasted well into our time.

Initially, amateurism was part of a sensible attempt to keep sport fair. Money brings corruption – it did in the past, and it does now. Eventually however, amateurism in sport became almost a cult and got tied up with snobbery and with selfinerest…….. Rowing got itself in a particularly unpleasant muddle.

In the late 1870s, the Amateur Rowing Association decided that an amateur rower could clearly not row for money but also, in a famous quote, he could not be ‘a mechanic, artisan or labourer or….. engaged in any menial duty’.  This was the ‘manual labour clause’…… 

Where did this leave the former trainee blacksmith from Laurencekirk? Well, the trades that were, or were not, considered ‘amateur’ were randomly defined. When the Post Office established a rowing club, it was decided that those behind the counter were amateurs but that the postmen on the streets were not. Fortunately, someone decreed that Kinnear’s trade of drapery was one staffed, if not by gentlemen, then at least by amateurs.

What Wally thought of the manual labour rule, I do not know. I suspect he was rather pragmatic about the whole thing. Donald Kinnear, Wally’s son, has told me that his father was very proud of the fact that he was a ‘working laddie’ in a sport dominated by gentleman. It was though, a quiet and a dignified pride. Throughout his life, Wally was ‘his own man’, never denying his origins or who he was, but happy and apparently comfortable mixing with the wealthy and aristocratic men that predominated in amateur rowing.  He probably believed, like Rabbie Burns, that: ‘The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, the Man’s the gold for all that’.

 Thirty-five years after he gave up the blacksmith’s trade, the county boy from the north (standing in the middle) is looking relaxed in evening dress at the St James’s Square home of The Honourable Rupert Guinness, 2nd Earl of Iveagh, the heir to the Guinness brewing fortune. Perhaps Dr Johnson was correct when he said ‘Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young’.
Thirty-five years after he gave up the blacksmith’s trade, the county boy from the north (standing in the middle) is looking relaxed in evening dress at the St James’s Square home of The Honourable Rupert Guinness, 2nd Earl of Iveagh, the heir to the Guinness brewing fortune. Perhaps Dr Johnson was correct when he said ‘Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young’.

While Wally Kinnear was apparently passive about the manual labour clause, he was a very firm supporter of the basic principle of amateurism, that sport should not be a way of making money. He never made a single penny from his sculling abilities, even though the option to earn very serious money was most defiantly there.

Before the 1914 – 18 War, there was a thriving professional single sculling scene in Britain which was dominated by tough, working class men. They were the Premier League footballers of their day, idolised by thousands who turned out to see them perform. They made small fortunes through prize money funded by gambling but it was against Kinnear’s principles to join them. During his sculling career, Wally’s job in the drapery trade earned him £3 a week – about £150 a year. At the same time, his great friend, the professional Ernie Barry, was doing rather better. In 1913, for example, Barry got £500 for winning the Sculling Championship of the World. He could buy a couple of houses in London with that. In the previous year, he had been given £2000 in sponsorship by the Daily Mail. If William Duthie Kinnear did have a price, then it seems that it was not the potential to win three years pay for twenty minutes work or to be given thirteen years wages in one lump sum. It was as if the Almighty had ordained who was, and who was not, ‘an amateur’ and to challenge this would be some form of blasphemy.

Left to right, Ernie Barry (World Professional Sculling Champion five times), Wally Kinnear (Olympic Sculls, 1912) and Harry Blackstaffe (Olympic Sculls, 1908). Barry was probably the fastest of the three but this could never be tested in open competition as he was a professional and the other two were amateurs.
Left to right, Ernie Barry (World Professional Sculling Champion five times), Wally Kinnear (Olympic Sculls, 1912) and Harry Blackstaffe (Olympic Sculls, 1908). Barry was probably the fastest of the three but this could never be tested in open competition as he was a professional and the other two were amateurs.

It had been decided that the 2016 dinner would honour not only Wally, but also ‘locals who have represented Scotland’, that is living sports internationals who were born in, or had moved to, the Howe o’ the Mearns. Jim Brown would give a short biography of each, some of whom were present. As the list from the back of the menu reproduced below shows, some of the sports covered were conventional (rugby, football, boxing, rowing etc) but some were, to most of us, more unusual and were ‘sports’ in the broadest sense of the word.

Pick a new sport. Attractively, many of these do not involve ergo tests.
Pick a new sport. Attractively, many of these do not involve ergo tests.

While some of those events listed are obscure, they all involve fierce competition against international opposition and are taken very seriously by participants and fans. For example, competitive livestock judging (which involves placing four animals, cattle or sheep, in order of merit and then explaining your reasons to a panel), can be fought out between representatives of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries. Tug o’ war has its own international federation (TWIF) and will be holding the 2016 World Outdoor Championships in Malmö, Sweden, in September. Unfortunately, this clashes with the the Society of Ploughmen’s World Ploughing Contest in Crockey Hill, Yorkshire. Highland Games are most famous for feats of strength such as the caber toss and the hammer throw but they also host many cultural events. Such Games are held not just in Scotland but also in countries including Australia, New Zealand, the US, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands and some of the best participants travel worldwide

Laurencekirk’s wonderful Dickson Hall is set up for the Kinnear Dinner. Remarkably, the delicious meal of largely local produce was cooked, served and washed up by volunteers. This was a good example of the real community spirit that seems to exist in the village.
Laurencekirk’s wonderful Dickson Hall is set up for the Kinnear Dinner. Remarkably, the delicious meal of largely local produce was cooked, served and washed up by volunteers. This was a good example of the real community spirit that seems to exist in the village.
Laurencekirk’s Dickson Hall.
Laurencekirk’s Dickson Hall.
The Auriol Kensington Rowing Club presented a picture of Wally Kinnear to be hung in the Dickson Hall. Left to right, back row: Jim Brown and Allan Smith. Front row: Tim Koch and Peter Myles.
The Auriol Kensington Rowing Club presented a picture of Wally Kinnear to be hung in the Dickson Hall. Left to right, back row: Jim Brown and Allan Smith. Front row: Tim Koch and Peter Myles.

Following the dinner, a group including myself, Jim Brown and a couple of large and very amusing gentlemen who were champions in various Highland Games ‘heavy’ athletic events, retired to the bar of my hotel. Before long, I began to suspect that they had all drunk strong alcohol before. While I was not exactly keeping up with them, I did drink much more than I would normally. To my surprise, the next morning I felt fine. Jim was in no doubt why – I had been drinking only the best malt whisky. Surely a lesson for life? Sláinte!

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