never know when your own flesh and blood is going to turn on you.
wed given him a good education, sound values, discipline,
loveeverything hed need in the struggle through childhood
and adolescence. But just as he was about to emerge into young
manhood, almost old enough to vote, starting to show the promise
we knew was in him all along, our hopes unraveled before our very
eyes. Out of nowhere, and without warning, he decided to take
up the bagpipes.
He had shown
no signs of unbalance before. Why him? we wanted to know. Why
about a quieter instrument? I asked. How about the
flute or guitar? He didnt hear me; he was already
on his way out the door to look for a teacher.
we understand this cruel turn of events? Had he been seized by
some weird bagpipers cult? We groped for answers.
few days he found a teacher and had borrowed a chanter, the reed-sounded
pipe that produces the melody.
Ive mastered the chanter, he said, Ill
move on to the goose.
could object to the idea of geese in the house, he shut himself
up in his room and practiced for hours, devoting himself to the
pipes as he never had done with English or math.
of purgatory, I thought to myself.
the chanter with merciless speed, then one day brought home a
black, rectangular case from which he withdrew a large, dark sac
about the size of a seals stomach. This, he
said grandly, is the goose. I inflate it with the blowpipe
here, then force the air out through the chanter by pressure from
the elbow. The bag is usually made of sheepskin, he added.
In the old days, it was made from the bladder of a cow.
When he assembled
the parts, he huffed into the blowpipe, his face turning red as
the sac groaned into shape, then lunged into a ragged rendition
of MacPersons Lament.
of sheep or bladder of cow, it was more beneficial when put to
its original use.
when I was trying to talk on the phone, he was in the next room
working over a tune called The Muckin O Geordies
he said later. When Im embracing the heritage of Donald
MacCrimmon, hereditary piper of Clan MacLeod, I guess I get a
little carried away. Would you like to hear a piobaireachd?
toward the door.
begins with the urlar, he explained, which
is followed by the suibhal, the taorluath, and the
crumluath. There might be a few floriations in the form
of a taorluath a mach or a crumluath a mach,
but it always returns to the urlar in the end.
up the goose and charged fearlessly into Squinting Peters
Flame of Wrath, and I slipped quickly out of the house for
come to his senses if he could hear how it sounds, I said to myself,
or if he read the 17th-century Gaelic poet Nial McVernich who
likened the bagpipes to a diseased heron, full of spittle,
long-limbed and noisy, with an infected chest. Of all the worlds
music, he wrote, the pipe is a broken down outfit,
offensive to the multitude, sending forth its slaver through its
rotten baga most disgusting, filthy deluge.
the far side of the block I could hear A Fiery Revenge for
Angus MacKay, and I longed for those wonderful days in the
highlands of the 18th century when the pipes were banned as tools
of war, and quiet prevailed for 36 years. It was the apex of Scottish
inside my head I could hear my sons reply: Ah, he would
say, and just when it seemed the shining tradition would die,
the ban was lifted and the ancient glory was restored. Except
for that one sad era, the pipes have been heard for thousands
of years, and theres no inhabited continent where theyve
not been played.
we are, like Job, smitten, sorely afflicted, not with boils and
blight but with the squeal of the pipes and the curse of Donald
We gird up
our loins and behold the ravages of our days. Forgive us our iniquities.