Great Scots

The flying Scot: Interview with Jackie Stewart

Away from the roar of F1, motor racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart talks about the country he loves

Words by Bernard Bale

Where are your roots?

I suppose I should say, “wherever I park my car” but in reality I was born in Dumbuck, which is now known as Milton and I have been lucky enough to travel the world and have homes in Switzerland and near London. My roots always have been and always will be in Dunbartonshire, though.

Did you go to a village school?

I did but it was a bit of a disaster area as nobody knew until I was in my 40s that I was dyslexic. It meant that when I went to Hartfield Primary School I was in a class of 54 and considered to be among the dunces. Dunces are not popular, so I didn’t have many friends there. I supposed that everyone was right and I was just a dummy, whereas the truth was that I just could not read what was in front of me because of my dyslexia.

How did you cope?

Much better for being in a village in Scotland. I don’t know how kids in cities cope, but for me I just accepted that I was no good at education and compensated by getting into sport. I played a lot of football and was pretty good. Then I got into shooting and fishing and doing odd jobs with my dad who had raced cars and sold them too. 

Dumbarton Castle overlooks the River Clyde. Credit: Oksana Perkins/Shutterstock

Did you have ambitions to travel the world?

Not really. I was quite happy living in a Scottish village, surrounded by the most amazing countryside, but I think I was a bit unhappy with the way school turned out and looking back I wanted to prove something. I didn’t have ambitions to be a professional sports person but I did want to be good at something. I didn’t have a desire to
get out of Scotland, far from it. 

Is it true that you represented Scotland at shooting?

Actually, that is true. With my grandfather being a gamekeeper for Lord Weir on his estate at Eaglesham, I was introduced to shooting and fishing from a very early age. My grandfather, father and brother were all good shots so it may have simply been in the genes. I won the major award at my first shooting competition and after that I was encouraged to take it further. I ended up shooting for Great Britain and Scotland at many major competitions and we were quite successful, actually.

What did it mean to you to wear the Scottish badge?

I was just so proud and I knew it meant a lot to my family. I had been useless at school and to be good at something and have the great honour of representing Scotland was just amazing to me. I was still a young guy and there was probably more to come, but I had to change direction. To have your name attached to your country though is something you cannot describe, it’s something you feel.

What made you walk away from it?

Shooting for my country and for Great Britain was exciting but it was still an amateur sport and something happened that made me realise I had to think about it as, ‘it was great while it lasted’. My life changed when I got engaged and I certainly see that as one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Sir Jackie Stewart and his wife Lady Helen, after the former Formula One racing champion received a knighthood from the Prince of Wales. Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Archive/PA Images

Your wife, Lady Helen, is also from Scotland, isn’t she?

Yes, Helen and I met, by accident, at the legendary Dino’s Radio Cafe in Helensburgh. It was an ice cream parlour and I was on a blind date. My date turned up and took one look at me. That wasn’t Helen. The girl I was supposed to meet ran away so there I was, none too happy with myself. Helen and I got talking and that was it. I think I was about 17 but I knew that she was the girl for me and she has been, right to this very day. We saved up and got married in 1962. We have shared everything since then. Marrying a Scottish girl was perfect for me.

Are you especially proud of the Stewart tartan?

Very much so, I still wear it as much as possible and it helps to identify the clan, as well as promote Scotland. I am proud of it, that is why I used to have the tartan colours painted on my crash helmet when I was racing. I wanted everyone to know who I was and where I came from. It created a lot of interest and still does. I am Stewart by name and Royal Stewart by heritage.

Sir Jackie Stewart wore a helmet painted with his clan’s tartan colours. Credit: GP Library Limited/Alamy

How did you come to live at the ‘Scottish Embassy’ in London?

That was a joke. When my dear friend Jim Clark – the greatest driver I ever raced against – was also in London, we shared a house. It was early in our careers. We jokingly called it the Scottish Embassy as neither of us really wanted to be away from Scotland.

You are a legend of motor racing having won World Championships and countless other titles, do you have any outstanding memories?

All of them really, but a few things spring to mind. Every driver wants to win the Monaco Grand Prix and I did that four times. It is not only a great race but afterwards you were a chief guest at an amazing dinner and in my day you sat next to Princess Grace. Racing at Indianapolis was an amazing experience too. I raced in my first Indy 500 in 1966 and I was ahead with eight laps to go. The engine failed and I actually pushed it part of the way home. I ended up sixth but they gave me a Rookie Award anyway. Then there was the time I was in a bad crash in the Belgian Grand Prix. I was injured and soaked in fuel so my clothes were removed. For a while I was naked in the back of a trailer full of straw. Some nuns came along, took pity on me and got me dressed! An outstanding memory.

Do you get to recommend Scotland on your travels?

All the time and I always have done. When you are proud of your country you want as many people as possible to see it and enjoy it. I tell people about Scottish history and culture and recommend different parts of Scotland that they must see. The real joy is that you know they will love it. I often talk about visiting Fife, travelling through and up to the Cairngorms National Park, seeing the lochs and the coastline. I love it and I want people to see what I am so proud of.

Read the full feature in the September/October 2020 issue of Scotland, out on 21st August.

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