A short distance from the birthplace of Scotland’s national bard and a stone’s throw from the Auld Brig O’ Doon, immortalised in Tam O’Shanter, is Millbrae, the picturesque home of Ayr RFC.
Millbrae became Ayr’s home in 1964, the club having moved from the original ground at Newton Park to Dam Park, then to the Old Racecourse and King George V playing fields before finally taking up residence in Alloway. Newton Park is now the venue of international bowls competitions, Dam Park is an athletics stadium and King George V is given over to soccer, although its claim to fame came from the time of a full Scottish trial was staged there in 1958, every other ground in Scotland being frost-bound.
Many past players will remember the Old Racecourse, its pitches having been used by Ayr Academy on Saturday mornings before the club played in the afternoon. Many an enthusiastic youngster turned out on the same pitch twice on the same day.
CONTRIBUTION OF AYR ACADEMY
Ayr Academy’s contribution to the club in terms of players has been inestimable (a role taken on in recent years by other local schools). Although never an FP club, any Ayr side until the late 1960s would contain around ten or eleven Ayr Academy FPs. This rich seam allowed Ayr to turn out six teams every Saturday in the sixties to mid-seventies. Instrumental in the flow of talent to the club were two legendary figures, rector J Douglas Cairns and PE master TB Watson. They produced a school team in 1958 which was, and ever will remain, unique in that it contained a future England captain in Mike Denness, a future Scottish soccer captain in Ian Ure, and a future Scottish rugby captain in Iain McLauchlan, the Lions’ ‘Mighty Mouse’ who earned forty-three caps.
As is the case with so many clubs, Ayr’s beginnings stemmed from the boys of a rugby school returning after university or spells abroad and looking to continue playing. So it was that in 1897 the club was born, with Andrew Gray, Angus and Norman Lindsay, Ralston Watt, W McLachlan, David Highet and James Templeton among the founding members who adopted the famous cerise and black colours. Sadly, only Highet returned from the Boer War.
The club flourished in the early years of the century, undertaking their first tour in 1906 with Irish fixtures against Landsdowne and Monkstown. Progress continued before and after the First World War and club stalwarts like Eddie Ecrepont, Hunter Cosh, Tim Wilson and Eddie Cassie are frequently mentioned in club annals, the last-named being the first man to fly a Spitfire out of Prestwick. Two particular names stand out as players, supporters and administrators – Dr Lawrence Young and Harold Tetley.
Ronnie Boon, who had twelve caps for Wales in the early 1930s and was lionised for masterminding Wales’ first victory at Twickenham, captained Ayr in 1936/37 during a stint as a teacher at Ayr Academy.
However, the outstanding club stalwart was the indefatigable Jock 'Stiffy' McClure who played for the club until just short of his sixtieth birthday but was robbed of international caps by the Second World War. He played for the British Empire side against France and for Scotland in Victory internationals against Ireland and England, yet no cap was awarded to this fine player who encouraged many to play rugby while teaching at Cumnock Academy and Ayr Academy.
THE MOVE TO MILLBRAE
During the 1950s the growth in paying membership and the development of the fixture list made the acquisition of club rooms a necessity and these were provided in the premises of the local ice rink, while Ayr United’s Somerset Park was made available for training. However, to have all facilities in one location the club purchased Millbrae, a former orchard, in late 1962. All legal and administrative matters were handled by local solicitor Alistair McMillan whose influence on the development of the club was immense, including twenty-one years as fixture secretary.
This was the beginning of the modern era of Ayr. On 4th September 1965, the inaugural match was played between an Ayr President’s XV and an International Select. The installation of floodlights (upgraded in 1990 and again in 2012) and the extension of both the social and changing facilities have made the club the envy of many, and with this progressive attitude came success on the field. In the year of its inception, Ayr reached the final of the Glasgow Cup, losing to Glasgow HSFP, but in 1967/68, the year of their acceptance into the unofficial championship, Ayr lifted the trophy after a thrilling final against West of Scotland at Auldhouse.
With the formation of the national leagues, Ayr was placed in Division 2 in 1973 where they remained before dropping to Division 3 for season 1981/82. The winning of Division 3 and 2 in successive seasons took the club to Division 1 and Ayr played in the top league for six out of the next seven seasons. Too many quality players from a successful team retired around the same time and it was not until 2003 that Ayr again achieved Premier Division status, a position that will not be given up easily.
CAPS / REPRESENTATIVE HONOURS
Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Ayr produced players of quality. One who played and went on to be capped out of London Scottish was Alistair Boyle. Although supplying players to the Glasgow side (and Glasgow clubs) Ayr had to wait until 1977 for the first home-grown player to gain international honours. Winger David Ashton won his B cap against France and in the following year John Brown was in the B side at full back in the same fixture.
In 1980 Stephen Munro won the first of his ten full caps, against Ireland, the last coming in the Welsh match of the 1984 Grand Slam season. Probably Ayr’s finest hour in representative terms came in December 1984 when five players – skipper Alan Brown, half-backs George Nicolson and Grant Steel, and wing forwards David Brown and Colin McCallum – lined up for Glasgow against the touring Australians. The Brown brothers certainly made impact on rugby in Ayr.
Other Ayr players who gained international caps at other clubs were Gordon Strachan, Quintin Dunlop, Derek Stark and Derrick Lee. In 2013, hooker Pat MacArthur made his debut against the Springboks during Scotland's tour of South Africa. Prop Gordon Reid earned his first cap in 2014, as did centre Mark Bennett and stand-off Finn Russell, who have gone on to light up the Rugby World Cup in 2015.
Gordon Strachan left Ayr Academy and played for Ayr before going to Jordanhill College where he gained five caps while playing for the successful Jordanhill team. He returned to Ayr in the late seventies to play and captain the club. Gordon coached Ayr after he hung up his boots, leading them from the 3rd to the 1st Division and inspiring the club to some of its finest victories.
Quintin Dunlop captained Ayr in the late seventies after his one cap with West of Scotland.
Derek Stark, Ayr’s 'Rolls Royce' flying winger, gained B caps at Ayr, but the nine full caps came after he left the club as Ayr had been relegated to the 2nd Division. This man of many clubs won caps with Boroughmuir, Glasgow Hawks and Melrose.
Derrick Lee played for Ayr from the ages of 8 to 18, gaining Scotland representation at all junior age groups. Unfortunately, university in Edinburgh meant he chose a local club (Watsonians) and he gained his twelve caps during the last ten years playing for London Scottish and Edinburgh.
INTERNATIONAL TEAM AT MILLBRAE
To celebrate the opening of the stand on 28th April 1979, British Lion Gordon Brown and Ayr skipper Quintin Dunlop put together possibly the finest international side ever to face a club in a match of this kind. There were eleven British Lions and six players who had captained their country: A McKibben (Ire); L Dick (Scot); I McGeechan (Scot); J Spencer (Eng); M Slemen (Eng); P Bennet (Wal); A Lewis (Wal); I McLauchlan (Scot); R Windsor (Wal); F Cotton (Eng); G Brown (Scot); W McBride (Ire); N McEwan (Scot); R Uttley (Eng); J Squire (Wal).
All of the above is suitably embellished in a history of the club which was compiled to coincide with the club’s centenary celebrations by the club archivist Ian Hay. Copies of the Centenary Book are available from the Admin. Sec., Ayr RFC, Millbrae, Alloway, Ayr for £12.50 (inclusive of postage).
In 1981 the club undertook a tour to North America, where the foundations were laid for the successful sides of the 1980s.
The foundations for recent success were laid in the support of a youth system which boasts 250 players from 8 to 17 years of age and is providing quality 1st team players, allied with the acquisition of increasingly better Antipodean players who have returned Ayr to the Premier Division in Scottish rugby.
In 2008/2009 the 1st XV provided the success that so many had craved for so long in winning the Premier 1 Championship. The club followed this up with a very close run league in 2009/2010. They also were the most successful Scottish representatives in the inaugural British and Irish Cup and on a glorious day in April 2010 became the Scottish Cup holders for the first time, successfully defending the Cup the next season. Ayr again reached the Cup final in 2012, losing out to Gala, but it was the 2012/2013 season that was to be Ayr's most successful ever. They regained their place in the British and Irish Cup, became the first club to have their name on the Bill McLaren Shield and did a historic double of winning both the RBS Premier League and the RBS Scottish Cup.
Much has been achieved in the past, much has been done now; the challenge for coaches, players and club officials at all levels is to keep Ayr Rugby Football Club at the very top of Scottish Rugby.