The Lost Pibroch was serialised across the March, April and May 2009 editions of the Piping Times. The story was written by Neil Munro (1863-1930), the Scottish journalist, author and literary critic. We reproduce part 1 here along with the introduction written at the time by Dr Peter McCalister. Part 2 and 3 will follow.

The Lost Pibroch — Neil Munro’s unsentimental piping allegory
Dr Peter McCalister

The Lost Pibroch is a short story written in 1896 by Neil Munro. Most people have heard of his Para Handy Tales, but his, literary and historical works are less well known. In these stories Munro, a native of Inveraray, was seeking to break away from the sentimental Lowland Scottish writing of the time, and present a realistic account of the Highlands and its people. To do so, he does three interesting things. Firstly he writes in a Gaelic. English mix, which uses Gaelic words, but also reconstructs the way Gaelic would be literally spoken (in English). For example his phrase ‘the mouth of the night’ literally translates as ‘beul na h-oidhche’ and means ‘twilight’. His mother and grandmother were both native Gaelic speakers, and it was from them that the young Neil received his knowledge of the old language and culture. He also includes a wide range of Scots words that would have infiltrated the Highland speech of Inveraray long before standard English.

Secondly, the story’s unsentimental accounts of the Highlands and Highlanders, and pierced with bitter irony — for example the Lost Pibroch story itself may be allegorical. It tells of a piping competition in Half Town between two travelling pipers and Paruig Dall. Eventually, Paruig plays the mysterious tune, The Lost Pibroch and its haunting music has a tremendously unsettling effect — first on the two pipers, and then on the men of Half Town, then on Paruig himself. All grow restless and depart, and the women and children are left behind to fend for themselves in a derelict economy.

Neil Munro.

It is a difficult story to interpret. It is possible to see it as an allegory of the history of the Highlands depicting the dereliction of the Highland way of life after Culloden. Munro was also hinting that the break-up of the old Highland way of life was inevitable — this is a theme that recurs through some of his other works.

The third thing that strikes you is the accuracy of his interpretation of life in a Highland village, the hospitality, which is legendary (but now rare), and the knowledge of piping and piobaireachd that underlies the story. The tale goes on to see the pipers play the piobaireachds Tulloch Ard, The Massacre of Glencoe, A Kiss o’ the Kings Hand, Raasay’s Lament [sic], and of course the mysterious Lost Pibroch, Munro must have known piobaireachd, though there is no mention of him being a piper.

There are lots of nice wee touches — like recognising that the visitors are pipers, when they start practising their fingerwork on a spoon (now, name me the piper who doesn’t do something like that!). Pipers will also note that the three pipers immediately begin disagreeing about the setting of the tunes (in this case MacCrimmon settings versus MacArthur).

The Lost Pibroch
By Neil Munro

To make of a piper go seven years of his own learning and seven generations before. If it is in, it will out, as the Gaelic old-word says; if not, let him take to the net and sword. At the end of his seven years one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and leaning a fond ear to the drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs. Playing the tune of the Fairy Harp, he can hear his forfolks, plaided in skins, towsy-headed and terrible, grunting at the oars and snoring in the caves; he has his whittle and club in the Desperate Battle (my own tune, my darling!), where the white-haired sea rovers are on the shore, and a stain’s on the edge of the tide; or, trying his art on Laments, he can stand by the cairn of kings, ken the colour of Fingal’ hair, and see the moon-glint on the hook of the Druids.

Today, there are but three pipers in the wide world, for the Sound of the Sleat to the Wall of France. Who they are, and what their tartan, it is not for one to tell who has no heed for a thousand dirks in his doublet, but they may be known by the lucky ones that hear them. Namely players tickle the chanter and take out but the sound; the three give a tune the charm that I mention — a long thought and a bard’s thought, and they bring the notes from the deeps of time, and the tale from the heart of the man who made it.

But not of the three best in Albainn today is my story, for they have not the Lost Pibroch. It is of the three best, who were not bad, in a place I ken — Half Town that stands in the wood.

You may rove for a thousand years on league-long brogues, or hurry on fairy wings from isle to isle and deep to deep, and find no equal to that same Half Town. It is not the splendour of it, nor the riches of its folk; it is not any great routh of field or sheep-fank, but the scented winds of it, and the comfort of the pine- trees round and about it on every hand. My mother used to be saying (when I had the notion of fairy tales), that once on a time, when the woods were young and thin, there was a road through them, and the pick of the children of the — country-side wandered among them into his place to play at sheilings. Up grew the trees, fast and tall, and shut out the little folks in so that the way out they could not get it they had the mind for it. But never an out they wished for. They grew with the firs and alders, a quiet clan in the heart of a big wood, clear of the world out-by.

But now and then wanderers would come to Half Town, through the gloomy coves, under the tall trees.There were packmen with tales of the out-world. There were broken men flying from rope or hatchet. And once on a day of days came two pipers — Gilian, of Clan Lachlan — or Strathlachlan, and Rory Ban, of the Macnaghtons of Dundarave. They had seen Half Town from the sea — smoking to the clear air on the hillside; and through the weary woods they came, and the dead quiet of them, and they stood on the edge of the fir-belt.

Before them was what might be a township in a dream, and to be seen at the one look, for it stood on the rising hill that goes back on Lochow.

The dogs barked, and out from the houses and in from the fields came the quiet clan to see who could be here. Biggest of all the men, one they named Coll, cried on the strangers to come forward; so out they went from the wood-edge, neither coy not crouse, but the equal of friend or foe, and they passed the word of day.

 “Hunting, they said, “in Easachosain, we found the roe come this way.”

“If this way she came, she’s at Duglas Water by now, so you may bide and eat. Few, indeed, come calling on us in Half Town; but whoever they are, here’s the open door, and the horn spoon, and the stool by the fire.”

He took them in and fed them, nor asked their names not calling, but when they had eaten well he said to Rory, “You have skill of the pipes; I know by the drum of your fingers on the horn spoon.”

“I have tried them, said Rory, with a laugh, ‘a bit — a bit. My friend here is a player.”

“You have the art?’ asked Coll.

“Well, not what you might call the whole art, said Gilian, ‘but I can play — oh yes! I can play two or three ports.”

“You can that!’ said Rory. ‘No better — than yourself, Rory.”

“Well, maybe not, but — anyway, not all tunes; I allow you do MacKay’s Banner in a pretty style.”

“Pipers,” said Coll, with a quick eye to a coming quarrel, “I. will take you to one of your own trade in this place — Paruig Dall, who is namely for music.”

“It’s a name that’s new to me,” said Rory, short and sharp, but up they rose and followed Big Coll.

He took them to a bothy behind the Half Town, a place with turf walls and never a window, where a blind man sat winding pirns for the weaverfolks.

“This,” said Coll, showing the strangers in at the door “is a piper of parts, or I’m no judge, and he has a rare stand of great pipes as ever my eyes sat on.”

“I have that same,” said the blind man, with his face to the door, “Your friends, Coll?”

“Two pipers of the neighbourhood,” Rory made answer. “It was for no piping we came here, but by the accident of a chase. Still and on, if pipes are here, piping there might be.”

“So be it,” cried Coll; “but I must go back to my cattle till night comes. Get you to the playing with Paruig Dall and I’ll find you here when I come back.” And with that he turned about and went off.

Paruig Dall put down the ale and cake before the two men, and “Welcome you are,” said he.

They ate the stranger’s bite, and lipped the stranger’s cup, and then, “Whistle The Macraes’ March my fair fellow,” said the blind man.

“How ken you that I’m fair?” asked Rory.

“Your tongue tells that. A fair man has aye a soft bit in his speech, like the lapping milk in a cogie; and a black  one, like your friend there, has a sharp ring of a thin burn in frost running in an iron pot. The Macraes’ March, laochain.”

Rory put a pucker on his mouth and played a little of the fine tune.

“So!” said the blind man, with his head to a side, “you had your lesson. And you, my Strathlachlan boy without beard, do you ken Muinntir a’Ghlinne so?”

“How do you ken ye I’m Strathlachlan and beardless?’ asked Gilian.

‘Strathlachlan by the smell of erring-scale from your side of the house (for they told me yesterday the gannets were flying down Strathlachlan way, and that means fishing), and you have no beard I know, but in what way I do not know.”

Gilian had the siubhal of the pibroch but begun when the blind man stopped him.

“You have it,” he said, “you have it in a way, the Macarthur’s way and that’s not my way. But, no matter, let us to our piping.”

Read Part Two Here