The Piper of Peebles is a poem in Scots by "The Lamb-Leader", William Anderson, a schoolmaster of Kirriemuir, dated 26 November 1793, which survives in four chapbook copies in the National Library of Scotland, dating from 1794 to 1869. At 15 pages of octosyllabic couplets, it's too long to print here in full, but it's a colourful and well-written story, albeit a little short in musical information.

It's set in the distant past

Fan common fouk had scrimper skill,
An' Gentles scarce had wealth at will;
Twa hunder year, or mair sin' syne-
Fan fashions werna near sae fine.

which gives Anderson an opportunity to take off into a two-page discussion of old Scots costume, spinning and weaving before starting the story (in later editions he's described as a "weaver in Kirrymuir"; he knew his textiles, for sure). The hero of the tale is then introduced:

About thae times, besouth Kinghorn,
A country Laird became forlorn
Wi' bags o' debt- a birden fair
For ony honest mind to bear.
But daily dogg'd, an' dunn'd, an' deav'd,
Wi' creditors, that clam'ring crav'd,
He tint the heart, an' cudna eat
Wi' melancholy, half his meat.
He dream'd of gloomy prisons grim,
An' dreary dungeons dark an' dim,
With iron doors, padlocks, an' bars,
(As stark as mith out-wear the stars,)
Where he was trail'd to lie on strae;
An' starting waken'd- sobbing wae!

This being a Scottish yarn, we know who's going to appear next:

A man came riding, mighty bra',
Upon a beast as black's a craw;
Clear siller bells in bunches hang
At his horse mane, an' sweetly rang:
An' yet for a' his princely pride,
He had nae servant for a guide.

and what sort of offer he's going to make:

I understand, wi' debt ye're drown'd;
An' I hae hail ten thousand pound,
That nane alive kens ought about,
An' I intend to lay it out.-
Tomorrow night, if ye incline
I'se bring the bag, an' bond to sign,
At twal o'clock- Be sure let nane
Be i' the room, but you your lane
An' if I never come again,
The siller, Sir, is a' your ain:
Wha wadna write their name wi' blude,
For sic a lusty lift, an' gude?

Twelve o'clock, of course, is

That hour foul hags broomsticks bestride,
An' thro' the air exulting ride,
To their nocturnal revels rude,
An' actions damn'd, debauch'd, an' lewd
With Satan's self, their hellish head!

But the visitor is pressed for time when he arrives:

Upon a table large an' stout,
He toom'd the yellow metal out,
An' said he hadna' time to bide
Till it was counted- he boot ride
Within an hour- The Laird might trust,
The sum was there, exact an' just.
He then drew out the bond an' read,
An' i' the tail, it plainly said,
That after fifteen years, in fine,
The Laird sud be his servant syne.

The laird's response makes him a uniquely Scottish Faustus:

The article, forever mair,
Of servitude, displeas'd him sair.
To write wi' blude, he wadna' fash,
An' yet he fain wad keep the cash.
He bang'd his arms about it round,
An' sternly on the stranger frown'd,
Exclaim'd, "Thou subtle source of sin,
The Earth's the LORD's, and all therein.
Hence, Satan! to your black abode,
In name of my Almighty God!"

whereupon the Adversary vanishes through a portal into Namelessly Other Dimensions with a flash, a bang and a smell of brimstone, leaving the laird in possession of the money.

Now, the reader should realize that an 18th century Prince of Darkness was almost as persistent as a modern-day poll tax or Child Support Agency collector and somewhat more ingenious. So, after living in comfort for fifteen years, the laird is at a wedding when:

A vast o' fouk a' round about
Came to the feast, they din'd thereout,
Twa pair o' Pipers playing gade,
About the table, as they fed:
Mirth spread her mantle o'er them a',
But sorrow was na' far awa'.

While suppin' at the sav'ry skink,
An' takin' whiles a waught o' drink,
A gentleman in decent dress,
Came riding up, as on express,
An' order'd an' o' them that faird
The company, to tell the Laird
To speak a word- he came in haste;
The Gentleman upo' the beast
Held down his head, to hark, or speer
Some secrets, ithers sudna hear.
As seemingly, they thus consort
A pistol loot a loud report,
An' at the Laird's feet, frae his horse
The stranger fell a blacken'd corse.

So the Laird is hauled off to Edinburgh and charged with murder, protesting his innocence. In his defence he asks to have surgeons inspect the corpse for bullet wounds:

Some Doctors came to seek the hole
That thro' his body sent the soul;
But fan they loos'd his breast, they swore
He had been dead ten days afore-
They cudna touch him for a stink,
An' kendna' what to say or think.
With odours, an' the lyke, belyve,
They drown'd the dreadfu' smelling dyve,
Syne gribbled him, but gat nae wound,
His hyde they said, was heal an' sound.

The town thereupon leaves the perfumed corpse on display for a week in the hope that somebody might be able to identify him. No luck, until:

That day, there had come in a crew
Of Cairds, wha drank till they were fou,
An' on the street, the strolling gang
Fell out, an' faught, an' grat, an' sang.
Amo' the rest, a muckle wife,
To save her skin, forsook the strife,
Observ'd the dead man- gade to see,
Wi' twa three mae, what he might be.
But fan his visage she survey'd-
"Preserv's!" in sad surprise she pray'd!
"That's the Piper of Peebles! Wha
Has buskit him, fan dead sae brae?
I saw him yerdit, I can swear-
Frae his lang hame fou came he there?
The living may repent wi' speed,
Fan fouk are flitting frae the dead!"
She blest hersel, an' brought the crew,
To prove her testimony true.
They lookt his face, an' syne his hands,
Ane felt his sark, it hadna bands;
An' positively a' protest,
It was the Piper, better drest,
Than fan he liv'd, for he was poor,
An' loo'd a drink, an' whiles a wh-re.

His identifying marks are obvious even though he's been dead a fortnight:

A carl, as crooked as a creel,
Said, "twenty year I kend him weel,
In Peebles Piper- pawkie lown,
He has a clunker in his crown,
Like half an erracks egg- an' youn
Undoubtedly is Duncan Drone".
Anither wife too made remark,
She sauld his wife the burial sark;
She kend it brawly by the sleeve,
An' on the breast, they might believe,
There was a cross of oowen thread,
Of twa ply twisted, blue an' red.

and the laird is released to live into a peaceful old age.

As I see it, there are several morals to be drawn from this tale:

  1. Any decent wedding gig needs no less than four pipers. Standard union terms. Been that way since the 18th century, guv.
  2. Never try to finalize a contract when you're in a devil of a hurry.
  3. When burying a piper, always put a stake through his heart. Woollen crosses don't cut it.
  4. When faced with malignant beings trying to claim their dues, try phoning the Lord as well as Tommy Sheridan.
  5. A piper's best friends are usually dissolute gamblers.
  6. "Gribble" is a word crying out for revival.
  7. The only place you'll see a well-dressed Border piper is on an undertaker's slab.

The above was first published in Common Stock, the journal of the Lowland and Border Pipers' Society, in 2000.

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