(after Thomas Pennant Visiting Scotland 1769)
Departing my lodgings perched on a steep grassy hillside overlooking the Rivers Tilt and Garry in the verdant valley or glen known as the Tom of Lude, I followed the cart path until it meandered to the stone gates of Blair Castle, ancestral home of the Dukes of Atholl.
In a clearing among ancient pines of gigantic stature I gazed upon the whitewashed walls and towers with crenelated defences and crow-stepped gables in the Scottish vernacular style.
The appearance was of the architecture of mythology and legend rather than the brute battlements of a battle-hardened protective keep such as that I encountered at Castle Tioram overlooking the waters of Loch Shiel on the peninsula of Ardnamurchan.
The edifice at Blair, it occured to me, had seen more battle over the dining table than in combat, nothwithstanding its occupation during the Jacobite upheavals.
Upon entry, I discovered a lavishly accoutred arsenal of flintlocks, bayonets and daggers exhibited as for amusement as opposed to any martial utility. Among the staircases and halls were personal belongings and portraits of Atholl antecedents and their honoured guests and poignant fragments of a nation’s historical turmoil such as the animal skin gloves and clay pipe of the one known as the Bonnie Prince, albeit without accredited proof of their provenance.
It seemed to me this brash display had as its design the seduction of the visitor so as to leave him in thrall, not to the history and story of Scotland, but rather to the glorification of the generations of Atholl family members who, despite every insurgency and rebellion, had nevertheless contrived to retain their own dynastic interests over the centuries up to including the castle itself.
I was called away by the sound of the traditional instrument known as the bagpipe whose horn flutes are fingered as a bag of air is pumped by the arm and whose doleful and lingering drones are said to reach deep into the soul of every Scotchman.
At the front door I came across the Duke’s own piper, swathed in the tartan plaid known as Murray of Atholl, trussed in leather and silver, a feather upon his headgear and a purse known as the sporran, stitched from badger pelt, hung from his waist. He struck an heroic figure, his bearing and distinctive musical airs, combining to represent in my mind everything that was noble and eternal about the ancient nation of the Scots.
Some yards distant a gentleman, simply dressed in the garb of a gardener or journeyman, was watching closely, a lugubrious mien betraying some melancholy.
On approaching him, I asked what could be troubling him when the very organs of his nation’s pride were being pressed with majestic flourish only yards away?
“Aye. It’s a grand sound the air makes”, he ventured. “But tis only air. The real nation of Scotland has the trappings of any country and the beating of most but has none of the rights to be truly the land yon piper is regaling.”
He informed me there had in recent times been a great national plebiscite in which the people had been invited to make a democratic choice of having their own sovereign government or of remaining under the rule of the government in London and had, to his despair, declared for the latter. He had in consequence discovered that his attachment to the rituals associated with nationhood had become discordant in his mind. He could no longer listen to the pipes he had loved without hearing voices jeer at him and the lament sound as if for the burial of a Scotland he loved as family. He said it had all come to an end, ignominious and disowned and no amount of Highland flummery could disguise the shame he felt. He was the saddest Scotsman I met on my journey.
As he bemoaned his lot, the words that struck me deepest from this forlorn but honest son of the estate were these: “Part of me has died, gone like the wife I knew for thirty and more years, and left but a memory, no tangible aspect to remain…”
I watched as he turned and walked solemnly away disappearing into the woods and no doubt to some artisan task, his shoulders bent forward under the weight of his burden. As I turned round, I noted to my surprise that the piper too had gone, vanished from his post and I was alone before the castle, my ears deafened by the sudden silence…by