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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 people—except that the women knitted, which is a way of being indolent in the Islands—and 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 limb—not 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 sergeant-major.

"Your pipes might be a widow, she's so seldom seen or heard since you came home," said one of the fishermen.

"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 soldier.

"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! 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 spade-farmer."

"Did'st see 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 thing—there is a people yonder, over in France, that play the bagpipe—they call them Brettanach—the 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 someway—some time—far 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 fashion—many 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.

"You 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 Weeping.'

"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 mention—the Bretannach—and 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 Sandy—so 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 gallant.

"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 dom—cagla 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 conversation.

"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 ourselves—soft-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 Herself—the piob mhor—was 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 seashore—John his name—a mariner to his trade— with a wife and seven children himself the son of a cooper.

"I am 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 this—that 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!'

"Before 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 spells!

"'The Good Being be about me! 'cried he, and his eyes like flambeaux, 'what time is that?'

"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 again—not 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.

"When I was done, he did a droll thing then, the red fellow—put his arms about my shoulders and kissed me on the face! And the beard of him like a flaming whin.

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 east.

'If ever you were in trouble,' I said to him—though 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 net-pole sighed.

"'Twas 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!

"The 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 larochs—heaps 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.

Five 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 the living.'

"Not one 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 Dancers.

"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 shades.

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 us.

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.'

"Vain tales Vain tales " groaned the Catechist, and his face like a skate.

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