My father the bagpiper – part 5

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Learney Hill.
James McHardy.

Continuing Edith Paterson’s (née McHardy) story of her father.

On one memorable night, my father stopped the band and made a speech pointing out the impossibility of proceeding unless the tumult could be reduced by half. I do not recall that there was any noticeable diminution thereafter. On rare occasions my father would have his pipes with him, and surely there could be few activities more exhilarating than a Strip the Willow or Eightsome Reel danced to my father playing The De’il Amang the Tailors and other lively measures on his pipes.

There happened along one day a photographer employed by Valentine’s of Dundee, makers of picture post cards. After some persuasion, father and son were prevailed on to pose just as they were in working garb for a picture of a piping session. I wonder how many perpetuations there have been of the ‘Tramp Pipers?’

In these days we were friendly with one, Innes, a performer on the penny whistle who lived at Tarland. We went with him one evening to pay homage at the memorial to Peter Milne, a well-known fiddler of that village. As we stood by it, Innes, bringing his whistle from the recesses of his costume, said, “What d’ye think? Will we play him a spring?” And he did there on the quiet roadside. Some unforgettable moments.

McHardy is on the right in this photo of a local social gthering taken in 1925 [Photo: Jim Talbot].

My brother stayed only two years with us on the farm. Perhaps the horrors of war had unsettled him. Toil on the small farm he found boring and unrewarding and he eventually set sail for Canada and a more spacious life-style. His departure brought to an end the writer’s dreams of a scholastic career. Instead of studying languages I learned to harrow and roll and hoe and generally be a farmer’s boy. Hay rape-making with a thraw-crook and guilding sheaves in a cart were interesting work: there is nothing so well-calculated to bring one down to earth as the exercise of plucking turnips from the frozen snow in a field where the winter sun never shines. Durance vile.

But there was always music — though father jibbed a bit at getting out his pipes at ten o’clock at night after a hard day’s work in the fields. We had a friend, Peter Brown, a gentleman farmer, who was wholly devoted to the pipes and who used to walk, as people did then, of an evening between his farm and ours hoping to have a tune. His importunity sometimes strained the friendship to breaking point, but he usually won. He used to walk with the handle of his staff hooked round his neck, his fingers playing mutely on the staff itself

Thinking of the unending toil of those days, I wonder how my father could stay the pace. To work all day on the farm and then play for dancing from 8:00p.m. to 2:00a.m. was no mean tackle. Added to that was the journeying to and from the halls on foot or by bicycle according to the distance from home. In the 1920s, our bicycles were furnished with gas-lamps with a compartment for water in the top. Too little water turned on gave too little light; too much water turned on drowned the gas. In high winds the lamps sometimes blew out; then we were in trouble indeed, for the wind that blew out the gas would also blow out the match that would re-light it. There was nothing opulent about our transport then.

One excursion comes to mind when our own legs were the only form of locomotion to cover the six miles between us and our engagement. It was the night of a Leap Year Dance at Millbank in Cluny. A blizzard of snow blew up during the day blocking roads and obliterating dykes. John Riddler failed to reach our starting-point and Frank Adam was cut off in Aberdeen. Father, then aged 61 years, and I, 16, believing that ‘having put our hand to the plough’ we should not disappoint the sponsors of the dance, determined to adventure forth. Fighting every inch of the way against the bitter wind, we crossed the hill between home and Gates of Birselawsie hoping for quieter and easier conditions on the lower ground. It was a vain hope. We hadn’t gone far when my father’s fiddle, slung across his back, was blown right over his head. Not that the blizzard was behind us. It was thrusting and swirling on all sides. Indeed, when we at last reached the hall and began to peel off our battered outer coverings, my father found snow in his waist-coat pocket — inside two coats — and snow in his fiddle-box in spite of the ridge all round inside the lid. Attendance at the dance was understandingly sparse, the piano and one fiddle being adequate for sound. We played it through and, approaching 2a.m. set out again on the six-mile tramp home.

It was heavy going, but the wind had gone down and we reached Drumlassie sometime after 04:00a.m. “To bed! To bed!” we thought, but before 06:00a.m. my mother was shouting that the sheep were lost. They had been driven before the wind from their accustomed pasture and who would say where they might have gone? Father was soon on his feet again and out with old Bess, and, daylight coming presently, the sheep were located in a corner of another sheltered field.

Father had tremendous physical stamina. At 75 years of age and shortly before his passing from this world, he could still walk long distances with the swinging step oa 30-year-old. He seemed never to grow old, either physically or mentally. Maybe this was partly due to his continual contact with Nature that is ever being renewed. Then there was his companionship with his dogs. A strict disciplinarian, he secured instant obedience from his four-footed assistants — except sometimes when old Bess could find nothing wrong with the sheep or cattle she was being sent to round up, and refused to go. This happened rarely, but when it did and she aroused my father’s instant wrath, I would hear a tremendous scuffle as she hid behind the window-seat in the living-room. She was the heroine of several exploits that cannot find a place in this saga. Her initiative and knowledgeable approach to her work were quite outstanding.

Looking back on Drumlassie days, it seems extraordinary that when father and I went on our musical safaris, mother went to bed with the door unlocked against our return. Our house was beside a main road and our milkhouse, outwith the main house, was also never locked yet never an egg nor a bowl of cream went amissing. Halcyon days!! I remember a night in summer when we all went to bed and left the door wide open — unintentionally.

Map of Donside and Deeside showing were many of the places associated with James McHardy's life are located.
Map of Donside and Deeside showing were many of the places associated with James McHardy’s life are located. Drumlassie is very near to Tornaveen.

Not all of our music was made “furth the hoose.” There were often songs and other music to be rehearsed for concerts and we had occasionally a party which would end up in dancing an Eightsome Reel, a Polka and, maybe, a Reel O’ Tulloch; the knotty, old kitchen floor did not lend itself to the waltz or other such more dignified gyration. Father would get as far as possible into a corner with just enough room to work his bow, and like Auld Nick in Burns’ Tam o’ Shanter make the sparks fly and put mettle in our heels!

Coming in from stooking in the harvest-field his fingers would have a generous quota of “stobs” but, to enquiries about the pain of pressing the fiddle-strings, he used to say that the stobs made his fingers “lift quicker!” giving more sprightly music. My mother liked to sing but could play no instrument: her part in these orgies was the purveying and clearing away of a meal. She used to say that the only music she could make was when dusting the piano-keys.

We were a self-contained team for most jobs except the thrashing of corn; for that we needed someone to take away the straw while mother ‘lowsed’ the sheaves in the loft, father fed the mill and I attended the corn and shillocks. The mill-dam was quite a distance from the steading and father had to go there and pull the ‘cluice’ then run back to catch the water-flow as it reached the driving-wheel. He needed to be fit to do that and mount the barn-stair into motion.

The rocky ground made ploughing a hazardous operation and must have been trying on the tempers of both horses and man. When the plough stuck suddenly on a big obstacle, the horses were irritated at being suddenly held up and, sometimes, the stilts were whipped completely out of my father’s hands. One day, the stilts shot up and sent his tobacco-pipe, his daily companion, spinning high in the air; another time, he suffered a heavy blow on the chest that all but knocked him out.

At one stage, we were much troubled with stray cattle coming over the Learney Hill [the mountain summit between the Dee and Don region] and causing ours to break out and wander on the hill. There was an evening when some neighbours went to help father to return them to their proper pasture. The tale was often told afterwards of how my father, fuming at other folk’s negligence, stormed his way down the face of the hill among the undergrowth in pursuit of some of the beasts. An over-hanging branch snatched off his bonnet but he was too angry to stop to reclaim it. A year or so later, one of the young men of the area said with glee: “I saw the Gaffer’s bonnet still hangin’ on the tree!”

Learney Hill.

Father never found time to go to a barber – the nearest being at least four cycling miles away – and mother habitually kept his hair trimmed. But she was home in Orkney once for a short holiday leaving me to have a go. We established ourselves at the house-end beside the big stone cheese-press built on to the wall. Never very adventurous, I snipped and snipped and snipped until the allotted time had gone and I had cropped only one side of his head. Shades of John’s Fair so long-time back! We had to have another session the next day. Conceit was never our besetting sin.

One year, father invested in a straw hat for summer-day work. It was a becoming hat but seemed to have been ill-wished at birth, for, whenever father brought it out to wear, the weather broke and we’d have lots of rain. Over the years, he tried many times to use it but its re-appearance became an ill omen and the hat survived to grace, in much later years, the head of “Mains” in Gavin Greig’s Mains’ Wooin.

(to be continued)

• First published in the Piping Times of April 1996.

• Part 1
• Part 2
• Part 3
• Part 4