‘The grey day crawled on the white hills and the black roofs smoked below’
By Neil Munro.
The three men sat them down on three stools on the clay floor, and the blind man’s pipes passed between them. “First,” said Paruig (being the man of the house, and to get the vein of his own pipes) – “first I’ll put them on The Vaunting.” He stood to his shanks, a lean old man and straight, and the big drone came nigh on the black rafters. He filled the bag at a breath and swung a lover’s arm round about it. To those who do not know the pipes, the feel of the bag in the oxter is a gaiety lost. The sweet round curve is like a girl’s waist; it is friendly and warm in the crook of the elbow and against a man’s side, and to press it is to bring laughing or tears. The bothy roared with the tuning, and then the air came melting and sweet from the chanter. Eight steps up, four to the turn, and eight down went Paruig, and the piobaireachd rolled to his fingers like a man’s rhyming. The two men sat on the stools, with their elbows on their knees, and listened.
He played but the urlar, and the crunluadh to save time, and he played them well.
“Good indeed! Splendid, my old fellow!” cried the two; and said Gilian,
“You have a way of it in the crunluadh not my way, but as good as ever I heard.”
“It is the way of Padruig Òg,” said Rory. “Well, I know it! There as tunes and tunes, and The Vaunting is not bad in its way, but give me The Macraes’ March.”
He jumped to his feet and took the pipes from the old man’s hands, and overhis shoulder with the drones.
“Stand back, lad!” he cried to Gilian, and Gilian went nearer the door.
The march came fast to the chanter — the old tune, the fine tune that Kintail has heard before, when the wild men in their red tartan came over hill and moor; the tune with the river in it, the fast river and the courageous river that kens not stop nor tarry, that runs round rock and over fall with a good humour, yet no mood for anything but the way before it. The tune of the heroes, the tune of the pinelands and the broad straths, the tune that the eagles of Loch Duich crack their beaks together when they hear, and the crows of that country-side would as soon listen to as the squeal of their babies.
“Well! Mighty well!” said Paruig Dall. “You have the tartan of the clan in it.”
“Not bad, I’ll allow,” said Gilian. “Let me try.”
He put his fingers on the holes, and his heart took a leap back over two generations, and yonder was Glencoe. The grey day crawled on the white hills and the black roofs smoked below. Snow choked the pass, eas and corri filled with drift and flatted to the brae-face; the wind tossed quirky and cruel in the little bushes and among the smooring lintels and joists; the blood of old and young lappered on the hearthstone, and the bairn, with a knifed throat, had an icy lip on a frozen teat. Out of the place went the tramped path of the Campbell butchers — far on their way to Glenlyon and the towns of paper and ink and liars – “Muinntir a’ ghlinne so, muinntir a’ ghlinne so! — People, people, people of this glen, this glen, this glen!”
“Dogs! dogs! O God or grace — dogs and cowards!” cried Rory. “I could be dirking a Diarmaid or two by luck if they were near me.”
“It is piping that is to be here,” said Paruig, “and it is not piping for an hour nor piping for an evening, but the piping of Dunvegan that stops for sleep nor supper.”
So the three stayed in the bothy and played tune about while time went by the door. The birds flew home to the branches, the long-necked beasts flapped off to the shore to spear their flat fish; the rutting deers bellowed with loud throats in the deeps of the wood that stands round Half Town, and the scents of the moist night came gusty round the door. Over the back of Auchnabreac the sun trailed his plaid of red and yellow, and the loch stretched salt and dark from Cairn Dubh to Creaggans,
In from the hill the men and woman came, weary-legged, and the bairns nodded at their heels. Sleepiness was on the land, but the pipers, piping in the bothy kept the world awake.
“We will go to bed in good time,” said the folks; eating their suppers at their doors; “in good time when this tune is ended.” But tune came on tune, and every tune was better than its neighbour, and they waited.
A cruisie-light was set alowe in the blind man’s bothy, and the three men played old tunes and new tunes — salute and lament and brisk dances and marches that coax tired brogues on long roads.
“Here’s Tulloch Ard for you, and tell me who made it,’ said Rory.
“Who kens that? Here’s Raasay’s Lament; the best port Padruig Mòr ever put together.”
“Tunes and tunes. I’m for A Kiss o’ the King’s Hand.”
“Thug mi pog ‘us pog ‘us pog,
Thug mi pog do lamh an righ,
Cha do chuir gaoth an craicionn caorach,
Fear a fhuair an fhaoilt ach mi!”
Then a quietness came on Half Town, for the piping stopped, and the people at their doors heard but their blood thumping and the night-hags in the dark of the firwood.
“A little longer and maybe there will be more,” they said to each other, and they waited; but no more music came from the drones and they went in to bed.
There was a quiet over half town, for the three pipers talked about the Lost Tune.
“A man my father knew,” said Gilian, “heard a bit of it once in Moideart. A terrible fine tune he said it was, but sore on the mind.”
“It would be the tripling,” said the Macnaghton, stroking a reed with a fond hand.
“Maybe. Tripling is ill enough but what is tripling? There is more in piping than brisk fingers. Am I not right, Paruig?”
“Right, oh! right. The Lost Piobaireachd asks for skilly tripling, but Macruimen himself could not get at the core of it for all his art.”
“You have heard it then!” cried Gilian.
The blind man stood up and filled out his breast. “Heard it!” he said; “I heard it, and I play it — on the feadan, but not on the full set. To play the tune I mention on the full set is what I have not done since I came to Half Town.”
“I have ten round pieces in my sporran, and a bonnet-brooch it would take much to part me from; but they’re there for the man who’ll play me the Lost Piobaireachd,” said Gilian, with the words tripping each other to the tip of his tongue.
“And here’s a Macnaghton’s fortune on the top of the round pieces,” cried Rory, emptying his purse on the table.
The old man’s face got hot and angry. “I am not,” he said, “a tinker’s minstrel, to give my tuning for bawbees and a quaich of ale. The king himself could not buy the tune I ken if he had but a whim for it. But when pipers ask it they can have it, and it’s yours without a fee. Still if you think to learn the tune by my piping once, poor’s the delusion. It is not a port to be picked up like a cockle on the sand, for it takes the schooling of years and blindness forbye.”
“Blindness indeed. The thought of it is only for the dark eye.”
“If we could hear it on the full set!”
“Come out, then, on the grass, you’ll hear it, if Half Town should sleep no sleep this night.”
They went out of the bothy to the wet grass. Ragged mists shook o’er Cowal, and on Ben Ime sat a horned moon like a galley of Lorn.
“I heard this tune from the Moideart man — the last in Albainn who knew it then, and he’s in the clods,” said the blind fellow.
He had the mouthpiece at his lip, and his hand coaxing the bag, when a bairn’s cry came from a house in the Half Town — a suckling’s whimper, that, heard in the night, sets a man’s mind busy on the sorrows that folks are born to. The drones clattered together on the piper’s elbow and stayed.
“I have a notion,” he said to the two men. “I did not tell you that the Lost Piobaireachd is the piobaireachd of good-byes. It is the tune of broken clans, that sets the men on the foray and makes cold hearth-stones. It was played in Glenshira when Gilleasbuig Gruamach could stretch stout swordsmen from Boshang to Ben Bhuidhe, and where are the folks of Glenshira this day? I saw a cheery night in Carnus that’s over Lochow, and song and story busy about the fire, and the Moideart man played it for a wager. In the morning the weans were without fathers, and Carnus men were scattered about the wide world.”
“It must be the magic tune, sure enough,” said Gillian.
“Magic indeed, laochain! It is the tune that puts men on the open road, that makes restless lads and seeking women. Here’s a Half Town of dreamers and men fattening for want of men’ work, They forget the world is wide and round about their fir-trees, and I can make them crave for something they cannot name.”
“Good of bad, out with it,” said Rory, “if you know it all.”
“Maybe no’, maybe no’. I am old and done. Perhaps I have lost the right skill of the tune, for it’s long since I put it on the great pipe. There’s in me the strong notion to try it whatever may come of it, and here’s for it.”
He put up his pipe again, filled the bag at a breath, brought the booming to the drones, and then the chanter-reed cried sharp and high.
“He’s on it,” said Rory in Gillian’s ear. The groundwork of the tune was a drumming on the deep notes where the sorrows lie —“Come, come, come, my children, rain on the brae and the wind blowing.”
“It is a salute,” said Rory.
“It’s the strange tube anyway,” said Gillian; “listen to the time of yon!”