China - Scotland the Brave by Ralph Glazer (1985)

Tom Wilson of the British Airways Pipe Band was in Beijing to play his bagpipes at the Burns Night Supper in the British Embassy  Recreation Hall on January 25 to celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland’s National Poet, and Tom’s  moment had come.

The growling of Bagpipes tuning up came from the kitchen, and everyone stood as Tom, splendid in his kilt, sporran and bonnet, marched into the all, playing ‘Scotland the Brave’, followed by the cook, carrying the haggis on a silver salver. The procession made its way to the top table,  where the haggis was placed in front of the guest (an actor brought in for the occasion) who was to perform Burns’  ‘Address to a Haggis:


‘Fair fa’ your honest , sonsie face

Great chieftain o’ the pudding race…’


Midway through the address, the speaker, following the poet’s account of how a haggis is opened by ‘rustic Labour’, drew a dagger, plunged it into the haggis and cut it open from end to end, releasing its contents, savoury minced lamb, from the sheep’s stomach in which it had been enclosed, simmering for three hours. 

‘And then,  O what a glorious sight,

Warm-reekin, rich!’


The Address ended with a prayer:           

‘Ye Pow’rs wha mak

 mankind your care,

 And dish them out their bill o’ fare,

  If you wish her gratefu’ prayer

   Gie Scotland a haggis!’


After the address,  glasses were raised in a toast to The Haggis,  and, the guests clapping in time with the music, the haggis was piped back into the

kitchen, for serving with ‘tatties and neeps,’ (mashed potatoes and swedes,) taken with a generous splash of ‘gravy’ – Scotch Whisky.


Given its ingredients, many find haggis surprisingly delicious: Minced lamb, the heart, liver and lungs of a lamb, onion, beef suet, oatmeal, stock, salt, black pepper, dried coriander, cinnamon and nutmeg, all packed together in the stomach of a sheep, tightly sealed and sewn up with strong thread, and simmered for three hours. 


After more speeches, more toasts, more reciting of Burns’ poetry,

 a reading of Tam o’ Shanter, and  the performance of some of  Burns’ songs by a visiting singer, the supper came to a close as the guests rose unsteadily to their feet, and, linking hands, sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’,  accompanied by Tom’s bagpipes.                                                                                                                                             

Tom was kept busy after Burns Night.     He performed for the morning assembly at the International School,  and started to play his pipes in Tiananmen Square, until the Police stopped him after the first few bars of ‘Scotland the Brave’.  He  had hoped to play on the Great Wall of China, but the bitterly cold weather (minus 30 degrees, with a brisk northerly wind) was too much, even for Tom Wilson.


After his two hectic days in Bejing, Tom left for London on the BA flight via Hong Kong, and shortly after take-off, with the captain’s permission, provided his own in-flight entertainment, playing his pipes and marching the length of the First Class and Economy cabins. On his way back through First Class, a passenger told Tom that it was the birthday of his travelling companion, and could Tom help?  He was glad to help, and the cabin crew followed ‘Happy Birthday to You’ with a bottle of champagne, compliments of the captain. Such things were possible in First Class on British Airways in 1985.


Soon afterwards, I received a letter from  Birthday Boy’s wife:

‘My husband is hallucinating’, she wrote. ’He claims that on your flight last Thursday, which was his birthday, a Scots piper stood in the aisle beside his seat, and played ‘Happy Birthday to You’ on his bagpipes. Almost two weeks afterwards, he still insists that this happened.    

What did he have  to drink on your flight?’


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