More than 60 Scottish rugby internationals have come from the Hawick club in the borders of Scotland but few have been more beloved than Walter “Wattie” Sutherland who was killed by a stray enemy shell in the village of Hulluch in France on 4th October 1918 aged twenty seven.
Walter Riddle Sutherland was born in the close-knit town of Hawick on 19th November 1890. Educated locally at Teviot Grove Academy, his innate athletic skill combined with genuine speed and a natural swerve soon secured his place in the Hawick XV for the 1908/09 season after leaving school. The club was unbeaten in his first season until Christmas and by the end of the season, he had appeared in 17 matches, scored 10 tries and become an automatic first choice for Hawick as a winger or in the centre. He played 106 times for the club before the outbreak of the First World War during which he scored 317 points including 82 tries. One of the greatest Sevens exponents of his generation, he played in 17 winning Hawick Sevens teams on the Scottish Sevens circuit between 1909 and 1914.
His outstanding natural ability did not go unnoticed for long and the 1909/10 season saw the first of his eight appearances for the South of Scotland. After appearing in two national trials he won his first cap on the right wing against Wales as a late replacement for the Glasgow Academicals winger Jimmy Dobson at Cardiff Arms Park on 5th February 1910. Dropped after Scotland’s 0-14 defeat he returned to play against England in March, this time on the left wing after Jimmy Dobson had to withdraw again after selection.
His play against England at Inverleith in a losing cause was impressive. The Scottish Referee regretted that “he wasn’t given more to do” and summed up his performance in prophetically glowing terms: “Sutherland gave a really clever exhibition, and is certain to be the recipient of more International honours”.
His form and potential had also been noticed further afield than his native country, and the British Isles selectors chose him as one of five Scottish players to join the British team to tour South Africa that summer. The invitation was a considerable honour but Sutherland had to turn it down as he could not afford to be away from home and work for so many months.
He played twice for Scotland during the 1910/11 season although he was dropped after Scotland’s historic 15-16 defeat in Paris in January. He returned to the Scotland side on the right wing for the final match of the Championship at Twickenham in March and scored a memorable try against England in the seventh minute. Once again, the Scottish Referee was highly impressed:
“…Sutherland was the best of the lot (three-quarters), and proved himself well worthy of his selection. His try was a great effort, for he had only a yard or two to work upon, and squeezed through with difficulty. But this was not his only effort, for he played well from start to finish, and was equally good in defence as in attack.”
In addition to this try against England in March 1911, he scored two tries against France at Inverleith in January 1912 in a 31-3 rout of the French, and one try against England in a winning cause at Inverleith in March 1912.
It wasn’t just his rugby that caught the public’s attention. His athletic prowess earned him an international call-up when he came second in the 220 yards for Scotland against Ireland in July 1911. A second appearance against Ireland two years later saw him win the 220 yards in a time of 22.35 seconds, a second faster than his time two years earlier. A finely balanced and determined runner, he won eight Border titles and a national championship and his athletic achievements stand comparison with that of another great Scottish rugby wing a decade later, Eric Liddell.
Strong in both attack and defence, one of Sutherland’s finest performances was in opposition to the legendary English centre Ronald Poulton at Twickenham in March 1913. Scotland lost by a single try to nil scored just before half-time and had been reduced to 14 fit men following a serious knee injury to Eric Loudoun-Shand in the first half. Sutherland moved from the wing to centre to mark Poulton and he marshalled the Scottish defence in a heroic second-half stand against a very powerful English side that was winning the first of two consecutive Grand Slams.
The years leading up to the First World War did not represent a vintage period for Scottish international rugby. In an era when borders rugby was strong but its players not often favoured by the Scottish selectors, Sutherland won the last seven of his thirteen caps consecutively but he was on the winning side in only four of his internationals. A serious ankle injury sustained in the first half against Wales in February 1914 when playing in the centre turned out to be the final match of his international career and, as events turned out, his career in first-class rugby.
At the outset of war, Sutherland joined up alongside many of his Hawick friends in the Lothian and Border Horse and then transferred to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in July 1915. He did not see active service in France until June 1916 and, after surviving a very serious attack of dysentery in January 1917, was sent back to England to recuperate. Gazetted as a second lieutenant in the Seaforth Highlanders on 27th March 1918 after undergoing officer training, he returned to France where he again saw action before his unlucky death from that stray enemy shell on 4th October, just five weeks before the Armistice.
The reaction in Hawick and the borders to news of his death was profound and Kenneth R Bogle’s moving biography of Walter Sutherland contains many of the heart-felt tributes penned by the Scottish papers. The Scottish international referee, Adam Turnbull, had known “Wattie” most of his life and summed up his essential character in the Hawick News and Border Chronicle:
“He was beloved by all, friend and foe, and admired as much for his just play as his fine play… never daunted, always on the alert, keen as keen could be, he many a time pulled his side through by one of those meteoric flashes over the line or through the tape, when there seemed no hope of a win.”
- Fifty Years’ Football in Hawick 1873-1923 (James Edgar, Hawick 1923)
- Into Touch – Nigel McCrery (Pen & Sword Military)
- The History of Scottish Rugby – Sandy Thorburn (Johnston & Bacon – 1980)
- The Rugby Football Internationals Roll of Honour – EHD Sewell (TC & EC Jack – 1919)
- The Story of Scottish Rugby – RJ Phillips (TN Foulis Limited, Edinburgh – 1925)
- Walter Sutherland – Kenneth R Bogle (Tempus 2005)
About the Author – A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has had a life-long love of sport. He has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005.