The Curse of Donald MacCrimmon

Rob Woutat


You never know when your own flesh and blood is going to turn on you.

We thought we’d given him a good education, sound values, discipline, love—everything he’d 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 us?

“How about a quieter instrument?” I asked. “How about the flute or guitar?” He didn’t hear me; he was already on his way out the door to look for a teacher.

How could we understand this cruel turn of events? Had he been seized by some weird bagpipers’ cult? We groped for answers.

Within a few days he found a teacher and had borrowed a chanter, the reed-sounded pipe that produces the melody.

“When I’ve mastered the chanter,” he said, “I’ll move on to the goose.”

Before I 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.

A foretaste of purgatory, I thought to myself.

He mastered 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 seal’s 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 “MacPerson’s Lament.”

Whether skin of sheep or bladder of cow, it was more beneficial when put to its original use.

One evening when I was trying to talk on the phone, he was in the next room working over a tune called “The Muckin’ O’ Geordie’s Byre.”

“Sorry,” he said later. “When I’m 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?”

I started toward the door.

“It 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.”

He puffed up the goose and charged fearlessly into “Squinting Peter’s Flame of Wrath,” and I slipped quickly out of the house for a walk.

Maybe he’d 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 world’s music,” he wrote, “the pipe is a broken down outfit, offensive to the multitude, sending forth its slaver through its rotten bag—a most disgusting, filthy deluge.”

Even from 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 civilization.

But from inside my head I could hear my son’s 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 there’s no inhabited continent where they’ve not been played.

So there we are, like Job, smitten, sorely afflicted, not with boils and blight but with the squeal of the pipes and the curse of Donald MacCrimmon.

We gird up our loins and behold the ravages of our days. Forgive us our iniquities.

TheScreamOnline regular Rob Woutat has contributed a wide variety of pieces to newspapers and magazines and to the National Public Radio affiliate in Seattle/Tacoma. He has written two family histories and a memoir and is now working on a novel. Please check the Talent Index to see his other work.
He can be reached at rwoutat[AT]
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