The Piper Of Duntrune




Present Day Argyll and Bute Gregor Lambert sat hunched over his glass of whiskey at the rapidly emptying bar. It was late, but he had no desire to go back home. The coins jiggling in his pocket were the last bit of his nonexistent wealth. Something reckless raised its head in his heart, and he decided to go all out.  "Another round of the same!" He yelled at the bartender. The bartender twisted his features in a grimace. Unlike Gregor, he wanted to be home with his family. He could almost feel the wood crackling in the fire his wife would have stoked up for him on this cold autumn night when it was his wont to sit on his worn wingback chair after a hard day's work and be served for a change.  He took away the empty glass and put a refilled one in front of Gregor, who seemed wasted enough to pass out on the high table.  "Hey buddy, do me a favour and don't crash here. Can't say I envy you much, though. I get to go back to the living, and you have only the dead to keep you company." Gregor looked up at him, anger flaring up like a flame, warmed by the fire of the spirit. But then he stopped. The poor bartender didn't know that the dead could be generous when they wanted. Instead, he flashed a mysterious smile at the bartender and said, "Aye! Can't say the dead have been unkind to me. Something you can hardly say about the living, who wait with words as sharp as a sword, willing to draw blood at the flimsiest of excuses." The bartender flushed crimson at the veiled insult but didn't want to instigate a fight with Gregor, whose bulky frame packed with an abundance of muscles, a side effect of his grave-digging exertions, was deterrent enough. Not to say anything of his temper, evident from the colour of his hair, as red as that of burning coals and as volatile. It could be fanned into dangerous flames at a moment's notice with misplaced glances and unintended words and caused fires that didn't discern who or what it was burning. It left ashes and regrets in its wake on both sides. Regret was something the Highlanders knew intimately yet it didn't stop them from lighting fires. When the bell over the door tinkled to announce the arrival of a new customer, the atmosphere inside was thick enough with tension that one could cut it with a sharp thread. However, the newcomer ignored the simmering situation and spoke directly to Gregor, who was busy sipping the final drops of his last whiskey.  "The Laird wishes to speak to you, Lambert. See to it that you present yourself before him on the morrow before noon. And make sure you don't carry your hangover with you." "Yea... Yea... As the Laird commands, so shall it be done. I'll be there," Gregor replied, putting the empty glass on the counter along with the coins for the drink, and left the pub.  The chill wind blowing in from Loch Crinan evaporated all the effects of the whiskey he had consumed earlier. Or was it the summons to the Laird of the Castle Duntrune?  Why has the Laird called me? Has he somehow become aware of what I have been up to? No, it can't be. I have taken every care and left no trace whatsoever. That night Gregor went to bed with his heart all aflutter and his mind full of questions. It was no wonder he tossed and turned the whole night. The wind screaming like a banshee through the eaves did nothing to ease his slumbers.  He woke up tired and irritable, with the vista of an unpleasant interview looming in front of him. A simple and hearty meal of porridge and strong coffee helped him settle some of his nerves. Once he was done, he shifted his sturdy oak bed meant for two but, which now had only him sleeping, and removed the loose flagstone under the top left foot. It came off with practiced ease and revealed a small cavity underneath, dark and full of dried grass, leaves, and stones. Gregor put his hands into the mess and, after moving his fingers a little, pulled out a small wooden chest, the kind small kids like to pretend is a pirate's treasure chest. It was not a treasure chest, but it indeed held treasure.  Gregor opened the chest, and all lethargy left his body. The anxiety in his eyes was replaced with a possessive gleam as he lifted and examined each object inside the box with pride; a couple of golden teeth pulled out of the mouth of a ninety-year-old lady, a signet ring belonging to one of the lords of the numerous castles who had fallen on bad days and sold everything except the ring, a brooch shaped like a clover which had emeralds embedded in it to achieve the colour, a pocket watch plated in gold and still working. Human beings were so sentimental. They buried their dead with such valuable trinkets, even though the dead had no use for them. They couldn't enjoy the jewellery or finery but Gregor could. And did. So what if he had to open a few coffins for the same? The dead didn't mind, did they? There were many other things that were so valuable he would be a rich man if he sold them. But these beautiful, shiny, sparkly things were not for sale. They were for his enjoyment. When he held them in his hands,  calloused from long hours of digging the earth, and ran his rough fingers over their smooth finish, he would feel like a king himself, taking pleasure in a beloved belonging. And this he hoarded his macabre collection which he had collected over the years by robbing the dead in their graves.  Did the Laird somehow learn of this? Is this the last time I am running these precious items through my fingers?  He replaced the box in the opening with a heavy heart and returned the room to its earlier setting. Then he put on his boots, cardigan, and hat and left for his audience with Lord Malcolm, laird of Castle Duntrune, who had a reputation for being a hard but fair man.  *** The Castle of Duntrune stood dark and imposing atop a rugged mountain and by the time Gregor crossed the threshold he was feeling more than a bit subdued. The chill from the stone walls pierced his woolen wear as if they were a cotton shift. The twin stone stags heralding the gates with their unseeing eyes had chilled his heart far deeper than the wind, his body. He stood shivering in the great hall, cursing the residents for not even lighting a fire, when a cheerful voice speared his somber mood.  "A hearty welcome to ye, Gregor Lambert! I must say you look in sore need of a warm drink."  Robin Malcolm, a sturdy Highlander with the ruddy healthy looks of a person bred on the fresh air of the rolling grasslands, had arrived. He clapped Gregor on his back heartily and yelled loudly for some ale to be brought. Gregor disliked the over-cheerfulness but kept his opinion to himself. He mumbled the proper greetings and stood waiting with apprehension when a server arrived with drinks.  Well, they can't offer me ale and then punish me the next moment for whatever sins I might have committed. He felt a bit relaxed but the next words of Lord Malcolm again put his hackles up.  "Drink up! You'll need your nerves to be stable and not all aflutter like a lass, to hear what I'm going to tell you next." As Gregor sipped on the ale, the laird went on.  "We have been carrying out renovations in the sleeping quarters of this old castle. You know, who doesn't like hot running water? Some plumbing never hurt anybody. Well to make a long tale short, while breaking a wall to install some pipes, the workers chanced upon a little alcove that had been walled up right behind. Within that alcove, we found some bones. Not exactly some bones… mostly a whole skeleton."  Gregor felt a shiver run down his spine. He had heard stories as a child about the castle. "Imagine, a whole person walled up here right next to our noses and we were none the wiser. Anyway, I have decided to have the remains of the anonymous person interred in the hallowed church grounds. The priest from Kilmartin Churchyard was here to absolve the place and all arrangements have been made to transfer the bones there. You just need to supervise the transfer and bury them properly. This job is to be done immediately. You can well imagine the state of the servants and the workers. The workers, the ignorant lot, have refused to continue until the bones are removed and the servants are having fainting fits, imagining ghosts running through the corridors and tapping from behind every shuttered window." Gregor felt like smiling at the image the words conjured but the thought of the macabre discovery was enough to keep his facial features in a respectful grimace.  "I will now take you to the chamber so that you can estimate the scope of the job and time required. Begin immediately. You have all resources at your disposal." Thus saying he marched off without a backward glance. Gregor followed him through long stone corridors with shuttered windows to keep the cold without, and tastefully decorated chambers warm with blazing fires. Finally, they reached a small alcove where broken stones, rocks, and dirt lay scattered, a testament to it being the place where the gruesome discovery had been made. It had an abandoned look. No one strayed near.  "See, everyone has fled. I need this plumbing done before the temperatures drop further south. As it is I could hardly get them to come and work here because of that silly tale of the piper haunting the castle. I'm depending on you." With that, he left Gregor and was lost inside the vast interiors of the castle.  Gregor looked inside the opening made in the wall and finding it to be big enough, gingerly stepped inside. It had only enough room for a person to stand or sit, and not much else. A pair of rusted manacles were clamped to the wall at his height. A cluster of bones was strewn at his feet. Something shiny glinted in a corner amidst the rubble in the light coming from the opening and caught his attention. He bent to retrieve the thing and found it to be the silver sleeve of a chanter, belonging to a bagpipe. He dropped the thing in fear. The stories he had heard in his childhood were true! *** Duntrune Castle 1644 Lady Patricia Campbell looked at the ragged and bloodied band of her knights with fierce pride in her eyes. Dawn was breaking over the Sounds of Jura and the new day had brought them hope and command of their castle Duntrune which had been seized by treachery by the blasted McDonald clan two days before.  Alistair Colkitto had attacked and captured the castle when half of her men were out on a rescue mission, leaving mostly women, children, and a few trusted braves behind for protection. The rescue team had returned victorious only to find their people slaughtered and their castle garrisoned. It was praise to the lord and the tracking skills of her knights, they hadn't walked into a trap.  Last night, they had planned and retaken their castle. The women and children had been hurt and hungry, but alive. The same could not be said of her brave knights that had stayed behind. She, along with her men, repaid the trespass in full. Even though the stone corridors were red with blood and gore, every instigator, save one, the clan piper, lay dead or dying, reaping the fruit for their cowardly attack. She felt exultant and found her emotions reflected in all the eyes looking up at her.  "What should we do about the clan piper?" asked Sir Lorias, one of her senior-most knights. "We have sent all the fighters to their maker, but killing a piper will bring upon us the wrath of God. He hasn't been part of this bloodshed for sure." "We will let the piper stay. He will play for our amusement on our special days, and not-so-special days, whenever we would like. To know that his music is being used to entertain the enemies of his master, should be punishment enough for his sensitive soul," Lady Patricia decreed.  "Now it is time for us to bury our dead, grieve our losses and gear up for a counter-offensive. Alistair McDonald would not let go of this castle so easily. He would return hoping to find this place garrisoned and not finding it so, would make another attempt to capture us. It is not a question of if, but when. We have to keep our defenses up and be ready for anything at a moment's notice." Everyone dispersed and soon the re-assembling of their lives began. However,  the men trained more, the women kept their kids close, and the lookouts on the battlements kept their eyes peeled for any signs of an impending attack. Their efforts weren't wasted. One dark night, when the moon played hide and seek with the clouds and fog lay thick over the waters of the Loch Crinan and the straits of Sounds of Jura, faint sounds of oars dipping in the water carried to the men on the ramparts. Instantly an alarm was raised inside the castle.  Lady Patricia arrived at the east tower from which the sounds had carried over. The fog swirled like layers of gossamer in the truant moonlight, but nothing was visible. She gave the order for the piper Anjerfarn McIntyre to be called.  "Piper, I have been good to you. You live, while your friends rot under the earth of our grounds. You have eaten at our tables and drunk our mead. We have listened to your haunting tunes and paid homage to your talent, however willingly or unwillingly. It is time to pay us back. Today you will play the welcome tune for Clan McDonald on your pipes for your returning friends. Guide them to us, that is all I ask of you. Do it if you value your life." The piper nodded in acquiescence. But his heart had other plans. He was a loyal man, and a life of bondage held little value to him. So he stood on the ramparts, lifted his pipes to his lips, and began playing into the night. The soulful haunting notes of the pipes pierced the fog like no rays could do. Everyone heard the tune and stopped what they were doing, held in a trance by the lilting music of the pipes. But unknown to the Campbells, Anjerfarn played the clan pibroch, a funerary tune, full of longing and melancholy instead of the peppier welcome they wanted.  The oars dipped into the water once more with vigour but now they were going in the opposite direction. The incoming troop heard the melancholic notes and deduced that something wasn't right at Castle Duntrune. The men on the ramparts heard the faint sounds getting fainter and knew they were not fighting that night.  "What shall we do with the piper? Sir Lorias once again asked. "I am sure he is somehow responsible for the McDonald's turning tail like the dogs they are."  "Speak up, Piper," Lady Patricia commanded. Anjerfarn smiled. "You may command my life, Lady Patricia, but not my loyalty. I could never look myself in the eye knowing I had led good men to their death. Thus I played a funeral song telling them they were walking into a trap. Thank the lord they could discern my message and avoid being caught and killed like pigs. I can now go to my death peacefully." Fury clouded the handsome features of the lady. She did not like being thwarted in her plans, especially when they were well deserved. The McDonalds were pigs and deserved a pig's death. She would make the piper's punishment an example for cheating herself out of her vengeance.  "I will not let you die so easily, Piper. It is your hands that hold and control the flow of the air when you play the pipes so beautifully. We will cut your hands to make sure that you never play the pipes again or warn anyone again." She ordered one of the knights to come over with an axe. The long nimble fingers and the sensitive hands were soon chopped off with a swift blow. The piper fainted out of pain and shock. When he came to, his hands had been cauterized. Looking around he found he had been sealed inside a small vault with nothing but his pipes for company. As promised by Lady Patricia, his death was not easy. *** Present day Argyll and Bute "I see you found the remains." The jovial voice of Robin Campbell jolted him out of his fearful reverie of childhood tales.  "Are these the remains of the piper?" Gregor asked tentatively.  "It would seem so. The blasted skeleton has no hands just like in the tale. I searched for them myself. I fear the rumors this discovery would give rise to. Already people swear they can hear the piper playing on dark, autumn nights. I just want to get this thing away from here. Do what you have to do." Gregor soon had the bones contained in a coffin he arranged from the undertakers. He slipped the piece of pipe he had found into his pocket. The filigree on the casing, as delicate as lace, and the shine of silver had made him covet the thing with desperation. No other sign of the pipes was left behind or could be found. Maybe the wood had disintegrated over the years.  After the priest had read the benediction over the remains, Gregor buried the remains. It had been hard and long work and he returned home late, tired and spent. It had been a cloudy night, the moon invisible for long periods. The wind had picked up and he was grateful to be within the confines of his home. Once he had finished supper, he shifted the bed and took out the box, meaning to put in the silver sleeve of the pipe's chanter inside.  As he opened the box, the wind swirled around wildly.  Had a window come open? It sure was getting windy and noisy! Was that music? Bagpipes?  He broke out into a sweat despite the chill wind. He was sure the wind carried faint notes of some lilting music, getting stronger by the second. But something was wrong. The notes jarred. As if the pipe being played was missing some vital piece or had lost its balance. He looked at the box and the filigreed silver piece lying next to it, shining despite the years gone by, the sleeve of the chanter, and the main windpipe of the bagpipe. The music from without reached a crescendo and stopped. Someone knocked on the door. Faint. Ghostly. A whisper… then the music began again. Inside. Gregor fell on his haunches and scrambled towards the foot of the bed on all fours. Something was coming towards him. Something that had no form, but was like the swirling fog that rolled over the highlands on nights the dew drops froze over. Why did it remind him of a human figure then? He could discern two sunken dents where the eyes should have been. However, he couldn't keep looking. The music was now loud and erratic, the pitch hurting his eardrums. He clenched his eyes and put his hands on his ears to stop the sound. It felt like the walls were reverberating with the force of the waves. Then silence reigned once again.  A voice spoke near his face, a voice which had no timbre but reminded him of the lapping of waves gently against the shore on a calm evening. "You are a coward. Why do you take things from those who are defenceless? Who can't tell you how much they miss the small little things that make them whole? You think they don't mind. They do. And sometimes they come back to claim what's theirs." Gregor found he was clutching the silver sleeve in his fingers. Trembling with fear, but still with his eyes shut, he threw the thing into the fog swirling around him, curling cold tendrils over his feet and extremities. There was no sound of the thing falling to the ground but a subtle change came over the environment inside the cottage. It quieted down, and the chill subsided. The piper had got what it had come for. Gregor could hear faint strains of high pitched pipe music fading in the distance. Gregor still buries the dead, but he doesn't steal from them anymore. The lilting notes of bagpipes which follow him on dark autumn evenings make sure he never strays anymore. *** Based on Scottish Folklore of Duntrune Castle.  https://theroseandthethistle.com/2019/09/29/the-ghost-piper-of-duntrune-castle2/   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!