James Soutter


1912 AAA’a Half Mile: James Soutter

James Soutter (22) in the 1912 AAA’s half-mile

Leading runner may be the German, Hans Braun

Picture from Alex Wilson

James Tindal Soutter was born in the Church of Scotland Manse in Echt, Aberdeen, on 1st January, 1885.    He was a pupil at Aberdeen Grammar School who went on to become an apprentice engineer.    Deciding after four years that he wanted to become a minister he went to Aberdeen University where he enrolled in 1897 and graduated MA in 1910.   It was at this point that he decided to take his athletics seriously – and with tremendous effect.

Although he had done some running before 1910, that was his first  year of taking the sport seriously.  He was 25 years old at the time and he won the Scottish Universities 880 yards championship on 18th June in 2:02.4.    Exactly a week later, on 25th June, he was second to Robert Burton, also born in Aberdeen, in the SAAA Championship in half-mile.   His early season running had won Soutter a selection for the International match against Ireland on 9th July at Ibrox, Burton and Soutter were first and second in the 880y Burton in 1:58.8 and Soutter in 1:59.4 with Scots winning by 9 events to 2.   This was notable for Soutter because it was his first run under the magic 2 minutes.   On 5th August, again at Ibrox, this time in the Rangers Sports he equalled Burton’s Scottish record with 1:58.4

Soutter’s second year in the sport (1911),  was spent partly in London running for Blackheath Harriers in order to develop his athletics.  There are not many records of Soutter running in the Mile or 1500 metres but Alex Wilson has provided a cutting from the Scotsman of 19th June, 1911, with a report of the annual Scottish Universities championship.    It was held ay Anniesland and on a rainy day Soutter won both half and mile events: the half in 2:00.2 after leading all the way, and the Mile in 4:36 after making all the running.   He had a very good day at the AAA championships that year which was reported in the ‘Glasgow Herald’ as follows.   “JT Soutter, of Aberdeen University AC, went South after the Scottish championships, and had a week’s training in London.   He ran a punishing heat in the quarter, which he did not win; in the half-mile he ran the race of his life so far,  was hard luck that he was not the winner of his heat.   Soutter erred in not confining himself to one event.   The quarter mile effort must have prejudiced his chances  in the half mile to some extent, and in view of the fact that he was only beaten by a foot in 1:57, one regrets that he did not leave the quarter-mile alone.   While the half-mile final was a memorable race in some respects, it was a little disappointing in others.    It did not produce great time, although possibly that would have materialised had Braun, the German, been subjected to a keener finish.”   Soutter howeverran 1:57.4 in Heat – second to Canadian Mel Brook after coming through 440 yards in 54.2 seconds.    He was a member of the Blackheath team that won the AAA’s medley relay in 1911 and was second in 1912.   Running the lead off leg, he is credited with a 1:56.4 split in 1911.   The week before the AAA’s, he had won the SAAA championship ahead of Burton in 2:00.2 and was ahead of him again in the Irish International at Hampden in 1:59.4.    He was also part of another Scottish 1-2 in the international when he was second to DF McNicol in the Mile.

In 1912 on  18th May in the Scottish Olympic Trials at Celtic Park, he won the 400 metres in 52.0.   The Olympic Trials were held at various venues to assist the selectors in choosing the team for Stockholm.   The trouble with that notion is that weather conditions vary from one venue to the other.   Trials were held on this particular date in Glasgow, at a meeting organised by the West of Scotland club, and at Stamford Bridge.    The weather at Parkhead was described as being very windy to the point of making the meeting a farce as far as fast times were concerned.   There were Olympic trials for 100m,  200m,  400, 800m and marathon.   Soutter was entered in both 400m and 800m and won the 400 from George Dallas of Maryhill – “Though Soutter was on the outside, he early got into position, and maintaining the lead, won by three yards.”   In the 800m he was second to Burton who won in 1:59.6 – “There were only two out of six who finished, and the race in consequence was a little disappointing.   George Dallas who was running well at the time, had the misfortune to get badly spiked, thus ruining any chance he had, whilst WM Crathie and KE MacDougall could not stand up against the breeze.   Soutter made the pace at the end of the first quarter, Unkles leading up to that point.   Burton was close behind the Aberdonian, and on entering the finishing stretch both made their effort, the Berwick man excelling every step and winning hands down in 1:59.6.”     The equivalent times at Stamford Bridge were 49.2 and 1:57.6.

In June, at St Andrews in the Inter-Varsity sports he won the 220 yards (22.8), 440 yards (53.6) and 880 yards (2:03.6) – a remarkable treble which showed some of the form he was in at the time.  Later in June, on the 15th, at the SAAA Championships he won the 440 yards (51.8) and 880 yards (2:01.8).   “Another double winner in the flat events was Soutter of Aberdeen University AAA.    He had the better of R Burton for once in tactics in the half-mile, while in the quarter-mile he ran the most “brainy” race that stands to his credit.   Burton it appears had been off-colour all week, and it is just possible on that account Soutter had an easier task than he would otherwise have had.   All the same, the Aberdonian had two very popular victories.”   That “brainy” quarter-mile?   Lindsay and Soutter, although occupying outer positions, soon got to the front at at halfway it was obvious that the fight would be confined to the two of them.   Lindsay in the straight made a brave effort to retain the championship, but Soutter who displayed excellent judgment all the way, drew to the front and won by a yard and a half, Dallas being three yards behind Lindsay.”   

 On 22nd June at the AAA’s he was running in the third heat of the 880 yards and the report read: “The Scottish champion ran very nicely and won by a couple of yards, easing up, in 1 min 59 1-5th.”   It was maybe a bit ominous that the first heat was won by Hans Braun – “The German merely toyed with the others and running with perfect movement won easily in 1 min 58 4-5th sec.”   The second heat was won by FE Mann of Polytechnic Harriers in 1 min 58 2-5th sec.   Into the final and “at half -way Braun was in the front, from which position he was never deposed.   He won by a couple of yards and Soutter beat Mann by a foot.   Time: 1 min 58 2-5th sec.    The Scotsman must have been doing equal to 1 min 58 and a half seconds, which is excellent travelling, and is just short of his best effort by a fraction.”   

Selection for the Olympics was well-deserved on his running but the actual events selected for was a mixed blessing – 400m, 800m and 4 x 400m.   These involved at least six races between July 6th and July 15th, at times with two races on the same day.   There were 28 nations competing and with no Olympic village (that idea was born with the Commonwealth Games and appropriated by the Olympic movement in the 1930’s), the British team stayed in a 2 star hotel on the outskirts of the city.   Soutter was first in action on 6th July in the 800m.   He was in the seventh of ten heats and won from a man that Glasgow crowds would know well – Mel Sheppard – in 2:00.4.   That was on the Saturday and the second round was the following day with the result that James Soutter refused to run – a stand similar to that taken twelve years later by Eric Liddell.   The Presbyterian divinity student still had two events to contest and in the morning of 12th July he stepped on to the track for the tenth of fifteen heats.   He was second to Edward Lindberg of America who won in 50.6 seconds.   The semi-finals were the same afternoon and the Scot could do no better than third in the fifth and last semi-final which was not good enough to see him through to the final.   There were five in the final – 4 Americans and Braun – Braun was second to Charles Reidpath who set a new Olympic record of 48.2 for the event.

Came the 4 x  400m on 14th July and the GB team won the first heat with a team of George Nicol, Ernest Henley, Soutter and Cyril Seedhouse in a new Olympic record of 3:19.0.   Things looked good for the final but unfortunately he had injured his ankle in the heat and could only limp pain fully round on the third stage in the final.   The GB team finished third in 3:23 while the winning American team set a new world record of 3:16.6.   Nevertheless Soutter, after only three years of concentrating on his athletics had won an Olympic medal. 

In 1913 he forsook the track for missionary work in Africa after an athletics career that won him three SAAA championships, one English championship, an Olympic medal and two Scottish records.   All in three years in the sport.

Immediately after the 1912 Olympics he had a short spell as assistant minister at St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen before going to Africa where he was the first minister in the Church of St Andrew in Nairobi.   In 1914 he was appointed chaplain to the British East African Expeditionary Force, which post he held until he returned to Scotland in 1916.   From 1917 he was serving as chaplain to the Royal Scots Greys in France  where his activities earned him the accolade of being Mentioned in Dispatches.     He was also involved in the Second War when he was part of a network intended to be Britain’s last line of defence  in the event of a German invasion.   They were based in underground bunkers – Soutter’s was in Smeaton House – they had been organised on the instructions of Winston Churchill no less.   His role was that of a ‘runner’ – making ‘dead letter drops’ leaving messages for other members of the network, for instance.

After the War he returned to Aberdeenshire where he was the minister at Advie until he retired to Edinburgh in 1956.   In 1940 he had married – for a second time – to Freda Pattinson.   Back in Edinburgh, however, his wife’s health began to deteriorate and by 1959 she was admitted to a nursing home.   Then a strange thing happened.   On 7 August 1959, Soutter left his home at 17 Howe Street to visit his wife. He had his passport in his jacket pocket.  He did not arrive at the nursing home, nor was he ever seen again.

An article in ‘The Scotsman’ in July 2012 reported that his photo and description were widely circulated.    A few days later, a lady in Cowie, Stonehaven, thought she had seen someone resembling him outside her house eating sandwiches but the sighting was never confirmed.   For some time previous to his disappearance Soutter had apparently been learning German. It was thought he may have been suffering from depression because of his wife’s condition. Despite extensive enquiries throughout the United Kingdom and Europe no light has since been shone on the mystery.   In 1967 after a statutory application to the Court of Session in Edinburgh James Soutter was formally declared dead, having been missing for over seven years.

James Soutter’s athletics career had been good enough to earn him a place in any Scottish athletics Hall of Fame – but how he ended his life is a mystery – and a tragedy.

[One of the sources for this profile was one in the excellent “The Past is a Foreign Country” by Arnold Black & Colin Shields – it’s an interesting article in a fascinating book.]