June 23, 2023 15 min read
We are delighted to announce our newest Meander Ambassador, John Barclay, former Scotland Rugby captain! We talked about the highs of his former career and his life after rugby. John loves being able to travel as a product of his recent involvement in the world of whiskey, talks of his love for dog walking and sea-dipping, his kids getting into Rugby and his continual involvement with the My Name’5 Doddiefoundation.
You were born and raised in Hong Kong before coming back to Scotland, Can you tell us a bit more about growing up there and how that was?
When you're young you don't really consider it. You don't consider where you've grown up, just whatever is in front of you is just where you live and where your parents take you is where you go.
Looking back now, I loved it. And going back and taking my kids there now is great. Especially since we were there in the late 80s and 90s, probably when Hong Kong was arguably at its most fun and I know my parents had a lot of fun living there.
But we lived in the Far East, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Shanghai. We lived all over. We were pretty nomadic. We kind of did a couple of years in each place and then moved on. So that was why we went to boarding school, but I loved it.
When you consider when we lived in Malaysia, our holidays were amazing. It was an hour flight and you were in Thailand. It was the equivalent of going to Dublin for the weekend from here.
We just grew up in the sun, so we were outdoors all the time, at the beach all the time, swimming all the time. Our love of sport, me and my brother, stemmed from that because we were just outside all the time.
Were you into different sports as a kid and when did rugby become a thing that you got into?
I think I played everything as a kid and it probably depends on where we lived. Being in Hong Kong where the Hong Kong Sevens is massive, that's one of the first things I ever remember being at. Whether that subconsciously planted that seed, possibly. My dad was one of the coaches at the local rugby team, so I played a bit of rugby there. But then when we moved to Malaysia and beyond, there was not much rugby. So I was just one of those kids that just did everything. I wanted to try tennis and golf. There was a lot of athletics and basketball. I wasn't necessarily great at any of them but I just played sports, that's all I did. It was obviously the generation before iPads and growing up in places like Kuala Lumpur, there wasn't much TV to watch in the 90s.
As soon as I went to boarding school it was rugby, rugby, rugby!
I went to boarding school at Dollar from 8, which seems quite young now but I still did everything because I didn’t really know rugby was what I was going to be good at. It was a real rugby school, but again, I was the kid that got up and swam and I did athletics and cricket and I played tennis. Just anything with a ball really, I wanted to play. And being in a boarding house was one of the best things about it, it was like you had forty guys to play sports with all the time. Even table tennis, whatever it was, there was always something going on.
Do you recall that transition from living over in Hong Kong and all the nice exotic places to moving back to the UK?
It's kind of a blur when you're a kid, it all blurs into one. But I do remember how my family’s all from Glasgow and Stirling, so we spent a lot of summers there. I do remember the first winter in Dollar was one of the coldest ever. It was like, 2 feet of snow and I had not really seen snow before. I'd come from 30 degree heat, you know, with bright blonde hair, having to wear shorts in winter so yeah, that was a bit of a shock.
I do look at my kids, who are 10, 7 and 5 now. I don't know, maybe I was just that child, or maybe it was just a different time. But I just went to boarding school, went in and was like, ‘OK, see you later Mum and dad. I’ll speak to you in three of four months.’
You can’t speak to your parents. It was kind of weird, really. There was one boarding house phone, but it just got left off the hook the whole time because no one wanted to answer it. It just rang and annoyed people when they were watching Neighbours. So yeah, maybe I spoke to them every couple of weeks for a couple of minutes and that was kind of it for until the holidays.
When was it that rugby became more of a thing for you and when did you realise that it could be a career and that you would play professionally?
It’s interesting actually because my son's 10 and he's already like, ‘I wanna be a professional rugby player’. I’m like, OK, let’s pump the brakes a bit.
Because for me, it wasn't even on my horizon. I just played rugby because I really liked it, obviously, and all my mates played it and that became my social circle. And back then, I didn't even think I was very good to be honest. I got to 16 and then I got picked for the Scot under 18s and even then, I was just playing rugby. I was signed up to go to university and study medicine.
And then, when it was still quite young professional rugby, they just said ‘do you wanna come and be an apprentice in Glasgow?’
I remember specifically having a conversation with my brother and he said ‘John, you could be a doctor, it’s a good career and you've worked hard to get these grades, blah, blah, blah. So what do you think the outcome is going to be? You know you're not gonna play for Scotland’ and you know, all this kind of stuff. It just seems so far away though as a kid. I know we've got social media now so the kids feel much more connected to, or closer, potentially, to the game. But professional rugby was a million miles away from what I ever thought I would ever do until I was 18 and I got this contract and that was it. And I just kind of went into it thinking that, ‘I'll give this a go for a year or two’... and then 16 years later I stopped.
You became the captain for Scotland. How did it feel to become the captain and represent your country as Captain?
I never really wanted to be captain either. I think as a kid, you always want to be captain. You put kids into a room, into a five side football team or rugby team or hockey, and ask ‘who wants to be captain?’ They all want to be captain.
It was always something that had been touted around with my name for a little bit. I had captained the teams I played for but I kind of thought I'd missed the jump on that a little bit and just maybe that it wasn't gonna come. So when it came, it was amazing. Despite the fact I never sought it out, it was probably two or three of the best years of my career, along with club rugby as well. It just happened that when I was captain of Scotland, I was probably playing my best rugby and the Scotland team was doing really well. When I look back, it's one of the proudest things I've ever done. Running out at Murrayfield for the first time as captain, you know, your family are there and there's lots of special little things that go along with it. You kind of realise when you stop just how lucky you are to do it. Because when you're in it, you're just in it and when you're just in the chaos of life, it kind of sweeps you along. But it’s definitely something you look back on and it's probably defined my career a little bit. Those couple of years of being Scotland captain and playing against England, beating England and having some big wins as captain were a big part. I suppose in a 16 year career, those 2-3 years of being Scotland captain were massive.
Would you say that there are any standout moments of your rugby career?
Yeah, I think certainly the first Caps is the obvious one, first time as captain, and the Calcutta Cup game where we won in 2018. Probably more than any others, I played for the Scarlets down in Wales and we won the league, there was something quite beautiful about that. Around, a group of guys that had been together for three or four years and we weren't the kind of,
I guess, the Galacticos in terms of destination. But we had this amazing team. Some of my best memories were down there. So yeah, I mean there's lots of amazing days. I wish there’d be more of them of course, playing World Cups and stuff.
But I think probably being at Murrayfield as Scotland captain. It never got boring, it never wore off. The emotion of it never wore off. I'm not a very emotional guy, I’m pretty level-headed, even keeled, but I always found it incredibly emotional and hard to keep my emotions in check when I was doing that.
In terms of leadership in rugby, are there certain qualities that you think make a brilliant leader both on the field and off the field?
Yes, it's probably what I get asked the most and I suppose it’s something I only really gave consideration to when I was asked to be captain. I always place a lot of value in the sort of qualities and behaviours that require no skill. And maybe I wasn't, you know, a superstar player, but I think I was probably quite industrious, hard working, durable, and I think quite tough. I always place a lot of value in those characteristics as a captain.
I wanted guys that could kind of get on with it, even when things weren't going well and guys who would really step up when things were going wrong. So that was something I tried to do as captain, but you don't always get it right. And I think the thing about captaincy as well is the consistency of having to do your own behaviour. When you're not captain, you can have a bad day or you just can't be arsed, to be honest, you can have a lazy day.
You realise when you're captain that people just look to you all the time. The young guys especially look to you, even when you’re not speaking, they're looking at you for answers or looking at you for direction and that's the bit that's hard. The really hard bit is when you realise you're the guy that people are looking to for solutions and answers and behaviours and so, you're kind of always on. So that's what I always tried to get right, but it's a 24/7 thing. It's definitely got ups and downs and you get things wrong, but then you’ve just got to be front up and be honest about it because if you’re not, you lose your respect quite quickly.
Was there somebody that you looked up to and that you admired in your career?
Yeah, I mean there were guys I played with who were captains, guys when I played for Scotland like Jason White, Greg Laidlaw, guys who would, again, just got on with their jobs and did it to a really high level. You can always do your job to a high level for a day or two, or a week or two, but actually, there are guys that just kept at it regardless of what was going on around them. So those were two that I always looked up to and always found, whether I modelled myself on them is maybe not the right phrase, but I certainly looked to them for how they behaved and how they carried themselves.
You retired from rugby in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. How was thetransition from being an active rugby player into your current lifestyle?
Yeah, it was probably the bit that I was always aware of was going to come to an end.That sounds obvious, that you have to retire at some point. During COVID wasn't the best or most glamorous way to go out, but I was always brought up that I knew there were very few rugby players that, when they stopped they got to just sit back on their wages and do nothing. That's just the finances of the sport and the economics and it doesn't stack up. So I always knew I was going to do something and do I wish it ended slightly differently? Probably a bit. But I played for so long. I played for 16 years. I was ready to do something different, not because I'd fallen out of love with the sport, but just because my body was starting to take its toll and I needed to realise that it was time to move on. So I was ready, definitely ready, and to move on to do something different, a different challenge. And I was really lucky that I found one that I really enjoyed being part of. The hardest thing to leave is the team environment, where you're with your mates all day for 16 years and it's not really like a job, it’s like a hobby that you get paid to do. And then you're in an office. It's very, very different.
You now work in premium, aged whiskey and travel around the world with your job. Are you a whiskey lover yourself? Do you love what you do now?
I always have been. And yes, my job is essentially project management for private clients who sell and who want to buy really premium, rare, and aged whiskey. So again, I fell into an industry which is a really thriving one and it's going, you know, pretty bananas. So you're in an industry where there's lots of exciting things going on and I've always liked whiskey but my job's kind of surrounded me in it which I really love. A lot of people who have joined the whiskey industry don't leave. The spirits industry is a really fun business to be in, and you meet a lot of people. The travelling, again, is great, but it can be quite tiring. But I try not to complain because you get to travel to some of the places that people would save and save toward for years, and I get to go with work, so I've always been very conscious of that.
Do you get time to enjoy the places when you go with work or?
Yeah, we try to, I think it’s important when you’re there to try and see a bit of it and enjoy the local culture. And it takes me back to where I grew up; Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong. I’ve got kind of core, childhood memories from there and it’s nice to go back and see how they’ve changed.
Meander co-founder Steve is a big whiskey lover! Are there anything, any favourites that you love that we should know about?
If I put on my Dalmore hat, and I don't just have to say this, I think the whisky we produce is fantastic. I've got it all over the house and I don't get bored of drinking it. So, I’d say the Dalmore 18 or the Dalmore 21, you can’t go wrong with either. It’s a nice one to drink socially as well, It’s not going to blow your head off and it's not smoky, so I'll need to bring a bottle for Steve, I didn't know he was a whiskey drinker.
I also wanted to ask you about the mental health side of things. I think that's something that's a bit more spoken about in recent years on the field and off the field. Can you tell me a bit more about the importance of mental well-being and also what you do to look after your mental health?
Yeah, I had a lot of friends who retired before me and my kind of peer group were always a bit older than me. So I've kind of got experience, a lot of my really close friends struggled when they stopped playing and struggled with mental health.
I think there's still a lot of work to be done there. The fact that we have a Mental Health Awareness Day suggests that we're not quite there yet. It's obviously great that we're more open to speaking about it and we speak more about it than we probably ever have done, but there's still a stigma attached to it. Especially men and not talking about things and the problems that go with it, you don’t have to look too far into it. So yeah, I think we just can't talk about it enough. Like I said before, I'm super relaxed and I consider myself very lucky to not have struggled too much with it. Again, I'm not naive enough to think that it maybe won't happen.
So I think from my own sort of personal mental health, I know that I'm a much better version of myself when I exercise. My kind of release is a physical thing and I'm much less stressed when I go outside. Just being outside, you know. When we had the dog, we were going for long walks all the time. Even just training or being outside, and then just spending time with friends. That's the one thing, I work from home now by myself. People point out, I used to be in a team of 30 guys or 40 guys, surrounded all the time with people.
And it’svery different to get used to that. But I make a real point of getting out of the house and I can feel myself getting irritable if I'm in the house too long. I don't apologise for it, I say I have to almost be a bit selfish to look after myself a bit better. I think life is so busy now that you can get swept along and not actually look after yourself enough, so it takes you being a bit selfish sometimes to do it. But my one thing is definitely physical activity in any way, go out and get moving.
Have you got any favourite parts of Scotland that you love to go out and explore?
Yeah, from where we live the view from our window is literally the Pentlands, so we spend a lot of time in the Pentlands and used to take the dog up there a lot as well. When we first met, my wife and I used to go walking and just really spent all our weekends out and walking. We used to go to Harris and Lewis and Skye. I love going up north up to Dorna, there’s some great golf courses up there as well. But I just think being up there, and being away from your own environment is quite nice as well. I think the islands are some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. We went pre-kids and me and my wife, who comes from a farming background, were just amazed by it.
I think one of my favourite places, to answer your question, has to be East Lothian. I love spending time there. We used to go to Hayley's dad's house every second weekend and just go hillwalking, take the dogs out, go to Sea Cliffs and walk along the beaches. I love that kind of coast, it’s just beautiful out there.
I actually quite like sea swimming, I mean I call it sea swimming, it's maybe more like sea floating. I just like to get in the water. I liked when we were in Elie in the summer and we'd go and swim for 20 minutes in the morning. I don't know what the science behind it is but I just love that feeling of being in the water and just being by the sea as well. We lived right by the coast in Wales and being by the water was something we really missed.
We’re delighted to have you on board as a Meander Ambasador. Is there anything in particular that attracted you to our Scottish brand?
Again, I think as you hopefully get a bit older and a bit wiser, you have a bit more of a concept of you know your social responsibility. So I've just become increasingly aware of what I'm doing around how I recycle, sustainability, looking at where I’m getting things from like my clothes, and more things I previously didn't consider. I feel my lifestyle lends itself to that kind of outdoors approach to life. Like I said earlier, I just want to be outside, I barely watch TV. There’s always stuff to do with three kids, to be fair. But I love any sort of brand that is associated with the outdoors and that has a responsible way of approaching it. It’s really something that attracted me… and the clothes are really nice too!
What’s next for you? Have you got any big challenges or anything coming up that you're excited about?
I almost did the Great Adventure Race with you guys at Gleneagles which I missed out on (John was commentating on TV that day), but maybe next year. Time is my most precious resource but obviously the kids are bigger now so we were talking about whether we're going to maybe do some of the North Coast 500 cycling. A lot of my friends are really into it and have bagged a load of Munros because they've not had the kids and they've managed to keep doing it. So I'd like to get back into doing some more of that. I would love to do more of that stuff and especially since we do a lot with Doddie Weir's foundation as well.
There is a cycle walk from London to Paris and I've been asked to do a week of it. So you cycle 100 kilometres one day, and then you walk a marathon the next, and alternate that for five or six days. So I don't think I can do all of it, but I'm gonna go and do a couple of days of that.It’s for My Name's Doddie Foundation. I'm trying to do as much as I can for that foundation because I always feel like you can do more.
A massive thank you to John for taking the time to chat to us, we really enjoyed catching up and are super excited to have John onboard as one of our ambassadors helping us grow our Meander community. You can follow John on Instagram at @johnbarc
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