Raising the Barr
The month of August will always have special resonance for Ian Barr.
Thirteen years ago, a project which Barr championed over many years came to glorious fruition as Lasswade Rugby Club unveiled their new facilities at Hawthornden: two international size grass and floodlit pitches complemented by a 350-seater stand containing spacious changing rooms and an air-conditioned fitness room. All rounded off by a car park, landscaped surrounds and a fully re-furbished clubhouse.
The club, under Barr’s guidance, had forged a partnership with Midlothian Council, sold off one of their pitches to enable council housing to be built and the £1.8 million they netted from the sale of the pitch was the trigger for a home that is the lifeblood of the community.
This August, 57-year-old Barr, has a further reason to celebrate. He becomes Scottish Rugby’s 128th President and the first to hail from Lasswade Rugby Club.
“It’s an absolutely great honour. I feel proud for my family and for Lasswade. I’m very humbled by the appointment and also very excited.
“I never expected to be captain of any of my teams where I played; I never really expected to be President at Lasswade – there was never really any desire or ambition to become President at the club, it just happened!” he said.
But from leading teams from his school days, to becoming involved as club President, a role he fulfilled for 15 years, Barr encouraged Lasswade to think more about their place in the Scottish Rugby firmament; they attended forums and meetings and spoke to other clubs.
He was first elected to the Scottish Rugby Council in 2012 and, on his first stint, served for five years, including a period on the Scottish Rugby Board.
Two years ago – in August – he was elected as vice-president and this year he steps up to succeed Dee Bradbury as President.
All quite an epic journey for the Bonnyrigg farmer.
Ask him about his earliest rugby memory and he chortles.
“That was winning Helensburgh 7s in, I think, 1973 as part of Lasswade’s mini-rugby team. We were the Esk Valley Bantams and we played at the King George V Park in Bonnyrigg. I’ve still got the medal somewhere.”
His other abiding memory of the Bantams: the “warm tomato soup” that was provided at the end of each training session.
As a farmer’s son, it always seemed likely that Barr would play rugby. “Rugby and farming almost go hand in hand. They seem compulsory or obligatory. My dad, Duncan, played rugby and all the farmers in the area played too and the only time I ever really saw my mum Margaret get agitated was watching Scotland play rugby on the telly!” he recalled.
Growing up, the family farm was a mix between arable and livestock. As a youngster, the farm had pedigree Suffolk sheep; another what Barr describes as 1,000 “commercial sheep” and 350 beef cattle.
The family had moved to the farm from Ayrshire originally and now Barr is the fourth generation in charge, albeit these days it’s ”just” an arable farm and Barr also finds time to work as a gym and cycling spin instructor with Midlothian Council.
He stresses that without the support of his wife Tracy and children Duncan, Kellyanne and twins Andrew and Hayley he would not have been able to devote so much time to rugby.
His first appearance for Lasswade’s first XV came against Dalkeith – something of a local derby! – in a midweek Dalkeith Shield match.
“I was 14 ½ going on 15 and I was a hooker then. As a young boy [and in the days before regulation prevented most youngsters playing adult rugby] nobody was allowed to do anything bad to me; the code was ‘you’re no’ allowed to touch the bairn.’
“I played hooker for the first few years until I was about 16 or 17 then moved to scrum-half,” he recalled.
Later in his playing career – where he also played club rugby for Musselburgh, the East of Scotland College of Agriculture, Oatridge College, Southside Police and Selkirk – Barr operated at blindside flanker. “I’d always been a scrum-half who liked to take on the forwards anyway,” he said.
As his playing career came to an end, Barr saw the potential for the Lasswade club to secure their future and, ignoring early knockbacks, piloted the redevelopment project through to an inspiring conclusion.
“If I think something’s a good idea then I will be 100% committed to it. A lot of people don’t know how to take me. They see me as a sort of rebellious character, stubborn and determined. But I like things to be done properly and meticulously, so I am determined,” he reasoned.
A key part of Lasswade’s development on the field – rising from the regional leagues to now National League Division 2 – has been the partnership approach that Barr espouses.
The creation of a School of Rugby at Lasswade High School – with active support from senior staff at the school and the club’s own development officer, initially, Mark Billingham, have led to a regular influx of youngsters at the club.
Barr noted: “I think it’s vitally important that you have a tie-in between a rugby club and schools. Both must be the heart and souls of their community. Without that, clubs in any sport, will find it very, very difficult.
“Rugby clubs need young people to sustain them. It’s not rocket science but, where do you find young people? They are in schools!
“I see many young men and young women who have the potential to become rugby players and the school of rugby model works where you have a rugby club, local authority, school staff and Scottish Rugby all encouraging young people into our sport. It can be done, and I would encourage all clubs to embrace just how important the relationship is with their local schools.”
In addition to seeking to bolster playing numbers, Barr believes that rugby will face challenges in the season ahead.
“We’ve really got to make sure we can work our way through the continuing challenges surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’d call on clubs not to be selfish about their expectations for the coming season. We must continue to put the safety of our players, volunteers and their families first, continue to adhere to government guidance and not over concentrate on teams competing on a pitch on a Saturday or Sunday,” he said.
He also acknowledges that the “thorny issue of governance” will be part of his Presidential in-tray.
“For too long, people have been getting caught up on governance and it’s led to too much animosity. We need to get to a position where everybody trusts everybody else. We are all in rugby to do our best, to promote our sport
“There are a lot of expectations on me and we’ve had a bit of rollercoaster ride on governance these last few years.
“We have to have a governance model that works for everybody and it’s vitally important we get that done as quickly as possible.
“We are a very complex business because we are a national governing body of sport and we have the executive that runs the PLC side of it. We need to clarify ‘what is Scottish rugby?’
“For me, it’s about allowing Scottish Rugby, like any organised business, to operate efficiently and transparently and we have to look objectively at this.”
On his first stint on the Scottish Rugby Council, Barr served as ambassador to the national under-20 team, which nurtured such talent as Darcy Graham, Adam Hastings, the Fagerson brothers Zander and Matt, Jamie Ritchie and Magnus Bradbury.
He was also immensely proud that Lasswade was the home venue for the Scotland Women’s team in the early 2010s.
“In Scotland we generally punch above our weight and although we might never have the playing numbers of other countries, just in terms of population, we have to continue to bring through our best young talent via the clubs, the academies, the pro-clubs and our age-grade national teams.
“It all just flows right through and to see the likes of Darcy and Adam winning for Scotland shows it can be done.”
In addition to Ian Barr’s ratification as Scottish Rugby President other business concluded in the online AGM included the election of Vice-President which was won by Colin Rigby (Stewart’s-Melville).
He received 112 votes to the 97 registered for the other candidate, Keith Wallace (Haddington).
The meeting also elected Malcolm Offord (London Scottish) as Scottish Exiles representative, confirmed Gerry Tosh (Dundee HSFP) as National 1 representative, Eric Hugh (GHK) as National 2 representative and Bobby Frazer (Murrayfield Wanderers) as National 3 representative, plus Jim O’Neill (Irvine) as Glasgow South regional representative, all on the Scottish Rugby Council. In addition Royal High Rugby’s admission to full membership of the Union was approved.
Part 2 of the AGM will take place once further easing of coronavirus restrictions on the size of gatherings is introduced by the Scottish Government.