Party time for oldest Scottish cap

THE feats of Ian Smith and GPS Macpherson were brought vividly to life yesterday on the 100th birthday of James McLaren Henderson, believed to be the oldest surviving Scotland internationalist.

Henderson, known to all as 'Mac', celebrated his centenary with his family in Henderson's Salad Table restaurant in Edinburgh's Hanover Street, which he and his late wife Janet founded 45 years ago.

He might have taken it in his stride back in 1933, when he was an ever-present member of the Scotland side who won the Triple Crown, but the presence of his seven children, 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren left Mac slightly bamboozled at yesterday's party. However, he could not be distracted when it came to recalling his playing days alongside Smith, Scotland's joint leading try-scorer with Tony Stanger, and skilful centre Macpherson.

"Ian Smith was very, very fast," he said of the winger who scored 24 tries. "But you know that he didn't know rugby. He was a soccer player before going to Oxford University and it was there that GPS Macpherson spoke to him and persuaded him to try rugby.

"He was great, of course, 'The Flying Scotsman', but when he was our captain in the 1933 Triple Crown success, we never had team talks before the game. He would just tell us to get on with it; no great plans or anything, because he didn't know much about the game. But, by jove, he could run and score tries.

"GPS was quite different; a great player. He was very forward-thinking and did quite a bit for Scottish rugby. He was very intelligent and a thinker; very clever. But he was almost retired by the time I played for Scotland, so I didn't get the chance to play with him very much."

Mac's own international career lasted only a short time. The farmer was born in Angus, but brought up in farms in East Lothian, going to Elphinstone School in Tranent then Edinburgh Academy, where he started a long association with Edinburgh Academicals.

After two years in an accountant's office, playing wing-forward for Dunbar and then Accies, he left on a trip many Scots have since followed, to New Zealand. In 1928, it took six weeks in a boat - he arrived in New Zealand as the Sydney Harbour Bridge was being built - but he loved the country and spent nearly three years working at various sheep stations.

"I went to New Zealand because I had an uncle there," Mac explained, "though I had been planning to go to the Argentine, where I had another uncle, and work with horses and cattle. I'd even been studying Spanish. But my uncle came home and went to the first world war and we never saw him again.

"So, I went to Hawke's Bay, worked on sheep stations and played rugby for Waipukurau, before I had to move on to another station. The rugby was quite different, I remember. Back then forwards in Scotland didn't tend to pass the ball; we dribbled it about the field.

But when I went to New Zealand, the climate made it different. It was warmer and dryer, and the pitches harder, and forwards passed the ball a lot more."

Mac won every game with Waipukurau in his one season with them, and he enjoyed a similarly successful rise on his return to Scotland where he was reunited with his talented rugby-playing brothers.

Mac believes Ronnie - who went on to play cricket for Scotland - was the best player of the three of them, but while he won three caps the youngest Ian, a prop, was capped on 14 occasions between 1939 and 1948. Mac played for Edinburgh Accies from 1931-33, was picked for Scotland in 1933 and won all three games he played, against Wales, Ireland and England. France were not involved in the championship at that point due to arguments over the payment of players. "I was always very disappointed that I didn't get the chance to play against France; it was a shame," he says. "My view is that professional rugby has not done the game any good, then or now."

Mac also played for the Barbarians and it was in the famous black-and-white hoops that his career was abruptly brought to an end.

He suffered serious knee ligament damage making a tackle in the game with Cardiff after the Home Nations Championship - "it wouldn't have been so bad, but the boy I was tackling was the smallest player on the pitch!"

The injury was not unlike Jason White's current problem, but then it was enough to end a player's career and so Mac concentrated on life on the farm before branching out into the health food business with Henderson's shop in 1962, one of the first outlets for natural and organic food.

The business has blossomed with the shop above and bistro next door, while Mac's son Nick runs the popular Whighams Wine Cellars in the West End, who continue the family links with Edinburgh Accies by sponsoring the club. Mac admitted that he would have loved to attend this weekend's Scottish Cup Final at Murrayfield where Accies face Glasgow Hawks, but he has another party at the same time in North Berwick. However, along with his telegram from the Queen, read to him yesterday by Garth Morrison, the Lord Lieutenant of East Lothian, was a congratulatory letter from Andy Irvine, the SRU president. The SRU is to host Mac and his family at Murrayfield with a presentation to the oldest living international and, it is believed, the first to reach 100.

Unsurprisingly, Mac's recollections could fill a series of books. With great-grandchildren on his knee, he laughed: "It's very strange being 100 but I'm enjoying myself."