The Pipes of War The Oldest Air in the World. By Neil Munro
COL MACLEAN, on two sticks, and
with tartan trousers on, came down between the whins to the poles where
the nets were drying, and joined the Trosdale folk in the nets' shade.
'Twas the Saturday afternoon they were frankly idling, the township
peopleexcept that the women knitted, which is a way of being indolent
in the Islandsand had been listening for an hour to an heroic tale of
the old sea-robber days from Patrick Macneill, the most gifted liar in
the parish. A little fire of green wood burned to keep the midges off,
and it was hissing like a gander.
"Take your share of the smoke and let down your
weariness, darling," said one of the elder women, pushing towards the
piper a herring firken. Nobody looked at his sticks nor his dragging
limbnot even the children had he not been a Gael himself Maclean might
have fancied his lameness was unperceived. He bitterly knew better, but
pushed his sticks behind the nets as he seated himself, and seated, with
his crutches absent, he was a fellow to charm the eye of maid or
"Your pipes might be a widow,
she's so seldom seen or heard since you came home," said one of the
"And that's the true
word," answered Col Maclean. "A widow indeed, without her man ! Never in
all my life played Piob mhor but on my feet and they jaunty! I'll never
put a breath again in sheep-skin. If they had only blinded me!"
There was in the company, Margaret, daughter of
the bailie; she had been a toddling white-haired child when Col went to
France, and had to be lifted to his knees; now she got up on them
herself at a jump, and put her arms round his neck, tickling him with
her fingers till he laughed.
"Oh bold one! Let Col be! " her mother commanded ;
"thou wilt spoil his beautiful tartan trews."
"It is Col must tell a story now," said the little
one, thinking of the many he used to tell her before he became a
"It is not the
time for wee folks stories," said the mother; "but maybe he will tell us
something not too bloody for Sunday's eve about the Wars.
Col Maclean, for the first time, there and then,
gave his tale of The Oldest Air in the World.
* * * * * * * *
"I was thinking to myself," said he, "as I was
coming through the whins there, that even now, in creeks of the sea like
this, beside their nets adrying, there must be crofter folk in France,
and they at ceilidh like yourselves, telling of tales and putting to
each other riddles."
ubh! It is certain there are no crofters in France, whatever," said
William-the-Elder. "It is wine they drink in France, as I heard tell
from the time I was the height of a Lorne shoe, and who ever heard of
crofters drinking wine?"
"Wherever are country people and the sea beside them to snatch a meal
from, you will find the croft," insisted Col the piper. "They have the
croft in France, though they have a different name for it from ours, and
I wager the bulk of the land they labour is as bare as a bore's snout,
for that is what sheep and deer have left in Europe for the small
the crofting lands out yonder?" asked Margaret's mother.
"No," said the piper; "but plenty I saw of the men
they breed there I ate with them, and marched with them, and battled at
their side, for we were not always playing the pipes, we music-fellows."
"And that puts me in mind of a thingthere is a
people yonder, over in France, that play the bagpipethey call them
Brettanachthe Bretons. They are the same folk as ourselves though kind
of Frenchmen too, wine-drinking, dark and Papist. Race, as the old-word
says, goes down to the rock, and you could tell at the first glance of a
Brettariach that he was kin to us though a kilt was never on his loins,
and not one word in his head of the Gaelic language. 'Tis history
somewaysome timefar back they were sundered from us, the Brettanach,
and now have their habitation far enough from Albyn of the mountains,
glens and heroes. Followers of the sea, fishermen or farmers
God-fearing, good hard drinkers, in their fashionmany a time I looked
at one and said to myself, 'There goes a man of Skye or Lewis."
"And the girls of them?" said Ranald Gorm, with a
twinkle of the eyes.
have me there!" said Col. "I never saw woman-kind of the Brettanach the
war never went into their country, and the Bretons I saw were in
regiments of the army, far enough from home like myself, in the
champagne shires where they make the wine.
"We came on first in a town called Corbie, with a
chinch so grand and spacious a priest might bellow his head off and
never be heard by the poor in the seats behind. 'Twas on a week-day, a
Mass was making; that was the first and last time ever I played pipes in
the House of God, and faith! that not by my own desiring. 'Twas some
fancy of the priests, connived between them and the Cornal. Fifteen of
us marched the flagstones of yon kirk of Corbie playing 'Fingal's
"A good brave
tune!" remarked the bailie.
"A brave tune, and a bonny! I'll warrant yon one
made the rafters shiver. The kirk was filled with a corps of the tribe I
mentionthe Bretannachand they at their Papist worshipping; like
ourselves, just country folk that would sooner be at the fishing or the
croft than making warfare.
"My eye fell, in particular, on a fellow that was
a sergeant, most desperate like my uncle Sandyso like I could have
cried across the kirk to him 'Oh uncle what do ye do so far from Salon?'
The French, for ordinary, are black as sloes, but he was red, red, a
noble head on like a bullock, an eagle nose, and a beard cut square and
"When the kirk
spilled out its folk, they hung awhile about the burial-yard as we do
ourselves in Trosdale, spelling the names on the head-stones, gossiping,
and by-and-bye slipped out, I doubt not, to a change-house for a dram,
and all the pipers with them except myself."
"God bless me!" cried Ronald Gorm.
"Believe it or not, but I hung back and sought my
friend the red one. He was sitting all his lone on a slab in the
strangers' portion of the graveyard, under yews, eating bread and onion
and sipping wine from his flask of war. Now the droll thing is that
though I knew he had not one word of Christian Gaelic in his cheek,
'twas the Gaelic I must speak to him.
'Just man,' says I to him. 'Health to you and a
hunter's hunger I was looking at you yonder in the kirk, and a gentleman
more like my clansman Sandy Ruadh of Salen is surely not within the four
brown borders of the world nor on the deeps of ocean. Your father must
have come from the Western Isles, or the mother of you been wandering.'
Of all I said to him he knew but the one word that
means the same thing, as they tell me, in all Celt domcagla is. To his
feet got the Frenchman, stretched out to me his bread and wine, with a
half-laugh on him most desperate like Uncle Sandy, and said caglais too,
with a flourish of the heel of his loaf at the kirk behind him to show
he understood that, anyway. We sat on the slab, the pair of us, my pipes
stretched out between us, and there I assure, folk, was the hour of
"But if you
could not speak each other's tongue? "said a girl.
Tacit! two men of the breed with a set of pipes
between them can always follow one another. 'Tis my belief if I stood
his words on end and could follow them backwards they would be good
Gaelic of Erin. The better half of our speech was with our hands; he had
not even got the English and most of the time we talked pipe-music, as
any man can do that's fit to pucker his lips and whistle. The Breton
people canntarach tunes too, like ourselvessoft-warbling them to fix
them in the memory, and blyth that morning was our warbling; he could
charm, my man, the very thrush from trees But Herselfthe piob mhorwas
an instrument beyond his fingering; the pipes he used at home he called
biornieu, fashioned differently from ours. Yet the same wind blows
through reeds in France or Scotland, and everywhere they sing of old and
simple things; you are deaf indeed if you cannot understand.
"He was from the seashoreJohn
his namea mariner to his trade with a wife and seven children himself
the son of a cooper.
a good hand at the talking myself, as little Margaret here will tell
you, but his talk was like a stream in spate, and the arms of him went
flourishing like drum-sticks. Keep mind of thisthat the two of us, by
now, were all alone in the kirk-yard, on a little hillock with the great
big cliff of a kirk above us, and the town below all humming with the
soldiers, like a byke of bees.
"He bade me play on the pipes at last and I put
them in my oxter and gave him 'Lochiel's awa' to France.' A fine tune
but someway I felt I never reached him. I tried him then with bits of
'The Bugle Horn,' 'Take your gun to the Hill,' 'Bonnie Ann ' and 'The
Persevering Lover; ' he beat time with a foot to them, and clapped my
shoulder, but for all that they said to him I might as well be playing
on a fiddle.
"It was only
when I tried an old port-mor"The Spoil of the Lowlands now graze in the
Glen" that his whiskers bristled, and at that said I to myself 'I have
you Uncle Sandy!'
the light that flickered was gone from him I blew it up to a height
again with 'Come to me Kinsman' he was like a fellow that would be under
"'The Good Being
be about me! 'cried he, and his eyes like flambeaux, 'what time is
"You never, never,
never saw a man so much uplifted!
'They call it,' said I, 'Come to me Kinsman,'
Gibigibh a so a charaid!), and it has the name, in the small Isles of
the West, of the Oldest Air of the World. The very ravens know it; what
is it but the cry of men in trouble? It's older than the cairns of
Icolmkill, and cried the clans from out of the Isles to Harlaw. Listen
you well!' and I played it to him againnot all the MacCrimmons that
ever came from Skye could play it better! For grand was the day and
white with sun, and to-morrow we were marching. And many a lad of ours
was dead behind us.
I was done, he did a droll thing then, the red fellowput his arms about
my shoulders and kissed me on the face! And the beard of him like a
What must he
do but learn it? Over and over again I had to whistle it to him till he
had it to the very finish, and all the time the guns were going in the
'If ever you were in
trouble,' I said to himthough of course he could not understand me, and
you whistled but one blast of that air, it is Col Maclean would be at
your side though the world were staving in below your feet like one of
your father's barrels.
The day was done in Trosdale. Beyond the rim of
the sea the sun had slid to make a Sabbath morning further round the
world, and all the sky in the west was streaming fire. Over the flats of
Heisker the light began to wink on the the Monach islets. Ebbed tide
left bare sand round Kirkibost, and the sea-birds settled on them,
rising at times in flocks and eddying in the air as if they were leaves
and a wind had blow them. Curlews were piping bitterly.
Behind the creek where the folk were gathered on
the sea-pinks, talking, Trosdale clachan sent up the reek of evening
fires, and the bairns were being cried in from the fields.
The Catechist, sombre fellow, already into his
Sabbath, though 'twas only Saturday nine o' the clock, came through the
whins and cast about him a glance for bagpipes. He had seen Maclean's
arrival with misgiving. A worthy man, and a face on him like the
underside of a two-year skate-fish.
Col Maclean turned on him a visage tanned as if it
had been in the cauldron with the catechu of the barking nets.
"Take you a firken too, and rest you, Catechist,"
said he. "You see I have not my pipes to-night, but I'm at sgculachd."
But the Catechist sat not; and leaning against a
two years after that," said Col, again into the rapture of his story,
"when my regiment went to the land of wine, where we battled beside the
French. I assure you we did nobly! nobly! Nor, on the soul of me were
the Frenchmen slack!
French," ventured Patrick Macneill, "are renowned in story for all manly
parts. Oh King! 'tis they have suffered.
"'Tis myself, just man, that is
not denying it! We were yonder in a land like Keppoch desolate after the
red cock's crowing. The stars themselves, that are acquaint with grief,
and have seen great tribulation in the (lark of Time would sicken at the
sight of it Nothing left of the towns but larochsheaps of lime and
rubble where the rat made habitation, and not one chimney reekng in a
hundred miles. Little we ken of trees here in the Islands, but they were
yonder planted thick as bracken and cut down to the stump the way you
would be cutting winter kail. And the fields that the country folk had
laboured !were the Minch drained dry, the floor of it would seem no
likelier place for cropping barley or for pasturing goats.
"There was a day of days, out yonder, that we
mixed up with the French and cleared the breadth of a parish of ear
boclie, who was ill to shift. But the mouth of the night brought him
back on us most desperate altogether, and half we had gained by noon was
lost by gloaming.
score and ten of our men were missing at the roll-call.
The Cornal grunted. 'Every man of them out of
Lewis! ' says he 'they're either dead or wandered. Go you out Col
Maclean with your beautiful, lovely, splendid pipes, and gather at least
morsel of meat had I eaten for twenty hours, and the inside of me just
one hole full of hunger, but out went Col and his pipes to herding!
Oh King of the Elements but that was the night
most foul, with the kingdom of France a rag for wetness, and mire to the
hose-tops. Rain lashed ; a scourging wind whipped over the country, and
it was stinking like a brock from tatters that had been men. The German
guns were pelting it, the sound of them a bellow no more broken than the
roar on skerries at Martinmas, the flash of them in the sky like Merry
"I got in a while
to the length of a steading with a gable standing; tuned up piob mhor
and played the gathering. They heard me, the lads the living of them ;
two-over-twenty of them came up to me by the gable, with no more kenning
of what airt they were in than if a fog had found them midway on the
Long Ford of Uist. I led them back to King George's furrows where oar
folk were, and then, mo chreach! when we counted them, one was missing!
'It is not a good herd you are, Maclean,' said the
Cornal, 'you will just go back and find Duncan Ban; he's the only man in
the regiment I can trust to clean my boots.'
"So back went Col in search of Duncan."
"Oh lad! weren't you the gallant fellow!" cried
Margaret's mother, adoring.
"I was that, I assure you If it were not the pipes
were in my arm-pit like a girl, my feet would not keep up on me the way
I would be pelting any other road than the way I had to go. But my
grief! I never got my man, nor no man after ever found him. I went to
the very ditches where ant boche was lying, and 't was there that a
light went up that made the country round about as white-bright as the
day, and I in the midst of it with my pipes in hand. They threw at me
grey lead as if it had been gravel, and I fell."
"Och, a mheudail bhochd!Oh treasure!'' said the
women of Trosdale all together.
"I got to my knees in a bit and crawled, as it
might be for a lifetime, one ache from head to heel, till I came to a
hole as deep's a quarry where had been the crossing of roads, and there
my soul went out of me. When I came to myself I was playing pipes and
the day was on the land. The Good Being knows what I played, but who
should come out across the plain to me but a Frenchman!
"He moved as spindrift from spindrift, As a
furious winter wind So swiftly, sprucely, cheerily, Oh proudly, Through glens and high-tops,
And no stop made he Until he came To the city and court of
Maclean, Maclean of the torments, Playing his pipes."
The Catechist writhed the people of Trosdale
shivered; Patrick Macneill wept softly, for Col Maclean, the cunning
one, by the rhyming trick of the ancient sennachies, had flung them,
unexpected, into the giddiness of his own swound, and all of them,
wounded, dazed, saw the Frenchman come like a shadow into the world of
He flung himself
in the hole beside me, did the Frenchman, gave me a sup of spirits and
put soft linen to my sores, and all the time grey lead was snarling over
Make use of thy good
hale feet, lad,' said I to him, 'and get out of this dirty weather Heed
not the remnants of Col Maclean. What fetched thee hither?'
He put his hand on my pipes and whistled a stave
of the old tune. 'How learned ye that? ' I asked him.
"Although he was Brettanach he had a little of the
English. ' Red John our sergeant, peace be with him heard you playing it
all last night,' said he, 'took a craze at the time of you and went out
to find you, but never came back. Then another man, peace be with him a
cousin of John, heard your playing and went seeking you, but he came
back not either. I heard you first, myself, no more than an hour ago,
and had no sooner got your tune into my head than it quickened me like
drink, and here ant I, kinsman.
'Good lad ' I
cried, 'all the waters in the world will not wash out kinship, nor the
Gael be forsaken while there is love and song.'
tales Vain tales " groaned the Catechist, and his face like a skate.
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