We conclude our three-part serial of Neil Munro’s famous short story.
By Neil Munro
The tune searched through Half Town and into the gloomy pine-wood; it put an end to the whoop of the night-hag and rang to Ben Bhreac. Boatmen deep and far on the loch could hear it, and Half Town folks sat up to listen. Its story was the story that’s ill to tell — something of the heart’s longing and the curious chances of life. It bound up all the tales of all the clans, and made one tale of the Gaels’ past. Dirk nor sword against the tartan, but the tartan against all else, and the Gaels’ target fending the hill-land and the juicy straths from the pock-pitted little black men. The winters and the summers passing fast and furious, day and night roaring in the ears, and then again the clans at variance, and warders on every pass and on every pass and on every parish. Then the tune changed.
“Folks,” said the reeds, coaxing. “Wide’s the world and merry the road. Here’s but the old story and the women we kissed before. Come, come to the flat-lands full and rich, where the wonderful new things happen and the women’s lips are still to try!”
“Tomorrow,” said Gillian his friend’s ear — “tomorrow I will go jaunting to the North. It has been in my mind since Beltane.”
“One might be doing worse,” said Rory, “and I have the notion to try a trip with my cousin to the foreign wars.”
The blind piper put up his shoulders higher and rolled the air into the crunluadh breabach that comes prancing with variations. Pride stiffened him from heel to hip, and hip to head, and set his sinews like steel.
He was telling the gold to get for the searching and the bucks that may be had for the hunting. “What,” said the reeds, “are your poor crops, slashed by the constant rain and rotting, all for a scart in the bottom of a pot? What are your stots and heifers — black, dun and yellow — to milch-cows and horses? Here’s but the same for ever — toil and sleep, sleep and toil even on, no feud nor foray nor castles to harry — only the starved field and the sleeping moss. Let us to a brisker place! Over the yonder are the long straths and the deep rivers and townships strewn thick as your corn-rigs; over yonder’s the place of the packmen’s tales and the packmen’s wares: steep we the withies and go!”
The two men stood with heads full of bravery and dreaming — men in a carouse. “This,” said they, “is the notion we had, but had no words for. It’s a poor trade piping and eating and making amusement when one might be wandering up and down the world. We must be packing the haversacks.”
Then the crunluadh mach came fast and furious on the chanter, and Half Town shook with it. It buzzed in the ear like the flowers in the Honey Croft, and made commotion among the birds rocking on their eggs in the wood.
“So! So!” barked the iolair on Craig-an-es. “I have heard before it was an ill thing to be satisfied; in the morning I’ll try the kids on Maam-side, for the hares here are wersh and tough.” “Hearken, dear,” said the londubh. “I know now why my beak is gold; it is because I once ate richer berries than the whortle, and in season I’ll look for them on the braes of Glenfinne.” “Honk-unk,” said the fox, the cunning red fellow, “am not I the fool to be staying on this little brae when I know so many roads elsewhere?”
And the people sitting up in their beds in Half Town moaned for something new. “Paruig Dall is putting the strange tune on her there,” said they. “What the meaning of it is we must ask in the morning, but, ochanoch! it leaves one hungry at the heart.” And then gusty winds came snell from the north, and where the dark crept first, the day made his first showing, so that Ben Ime rose black against a grey sky.
“That’s the Lost Piobaireachd,” said Paruig Dall when the bag sunk on his arm.
And the two men looked at him in a daze.
Sometimes in the spring of the year the winds from Lorn have it their own way with the Highlands. They will come tearing furious over the hundred hills, spurred the faster by the prongs of Cruachan and Dunchuach, and the large woods of home toss before them like corn before the hook. Up come the poor roots and over on their broken arms go the tall trees, and in the morning deer will trot through new lanes cut in the forest.
A wind of that sort came on the full of the day when the two pipers were leaving Half Town.
“Stay till the storm is over,” said the kind folks; and “Your bed and board are here for the pipers 40 days,” said Paruig Dall. But “No” said the two; “we have business that you piobaireachd put us in mind of.”
“I’m hoping that I did not play yon with too much skill,” said the old man.
“Skill or no skill,” said Gillian, “the like of yon I never heard. You played a port that makes poor enough of all ports ever one listened to, and piping’s no more for us wanderers.”
“Blessings with thee!” said the folks all, and the two men went down into the black wood among the crackling trees.
Six lads looked after them, and one said, “It is an ill day for a body to take the world for his pillow, but what say you to following the pipers?”
“It might,” said one, “be the beginning of fortune. I am weary enough of this poor place, with nothing about it but wood and water and tufty grass. If we went now there might be gold and girls at the other end.”
They took crooks and bonnets and went after the two pipers. And when they were gone half a day, six women said to their men, “Where can the lads be?”
“We do not know that,” said the men, with hot faces, “but we might be looking.” They kissed their children and went, with cromags in their hands, and the road they took was the road the King of Errin rides, and that is the road to the end of days.
A weary season fell on Half Town, and the very bairns dwined at the breast for a change of fortune. The women lost their strength, and said, “Today my back is weak, tomorrow I will put things to right,” and they looked slack-mouthed and heedless- eyed at the sun wheeling round the trees. Every week a man or two would go to seek for something — a lost heifer or a wounded roe that was never brought back — and a new trade came to the place, the selling of herds. Far away in the low country, where the winds are warm and the poorest have money, black cattle are wanted, so the men in Half Town made up long drove and took them round Glen Beag and the Rest.
Wherever they went they stayed, or the clans at the roadside put them to steel, for Half Town saw them no more. A day came when all that was left in that fine place were but women and children and a blind piper.
“Am I the only man here?” asked Paruig Dall when it came to the bit, and they told him he was.
“Then here’s another for fortune!” said he, and he went down through the woods with his pipes in his oxter.