Magazine | December 31, 2009, Issue

The Pipes, The Pipes

High, wavering. Cutting (it must be, to carry from such a distance). I am walking along a street that runs into Union Square in the early evening. Last-century office buildings stand and shrug, like men in cold, stationary jobs: selling Christmas trees, collecting coins for charity. The buildings muffle the sound, which seems to be coming from ahead and to the left, forcing it to turn a corner. Some construction-site generator? A car alarm, more likely; or maybe the NYPD/FDNY experimenting with a new siren.

I come to the corner myself, into the nighttime Union Square panorama (cold season). Naked trees; dark dead presidents; belated commuters, never-say-die skateboarders; and now explained, though still invisible, at the far end of the square, the source of the sound I have been noticing. A bagpipe.

The piper has taken up his position in the direction I am going anyway, but my steps quicken, as they always do when I hear a bagpipe. When I draw alongside him, I can’t see much. His legs are trousered (too cold for a kilt). If he has an open instrument case — immemorial stimulus fund of New York City street musicians — on the pavement in front of him, it is hidden in the shadows. He displays no sign (not that you could read one) and he is too busy blowing to make any pitch. So, within the limits of the urban cheek-by-jowl, he respects my privacy, and I do the same, hanging back to listen with the decorum and the thrill of a voyeur.

I have heard him a few times before, and I will hear him again after tonight, though when I have seen him in the light I realize he is multiple: one time he was a young man; on other occasions, he is pepper and salt, with a beard. Whatever his age, he plays a traditional Highland pipe. With the blowpipe in his mouth he fills the bag; the air he squeezes from the bag with his arm exits by four pipes, which make the music: three pipes above the bag like a marlin’s fin, two short (the tenor drones), one long (the bass drone); one pipe (the chanter) hanging from below, like an artificial teat. Fingers on the chanter pick out the melody; the drones produce the hypnotizing hum.

Bagpipe melodies have lots of tweedle-dee, imposed in part by the mechanism itself: Since the air leaves the bag in a steady stream, it is impossible to repeat a note without intervening grace notes. So even marches take on the swing of jigs. What stirs my innards is the drone. The drone turns a lone piper into an army. It adds distance to the sound, and therefore motion: We are coming. It also adds time, and therefore pathos: We have been here; you have heard us.

It is certainly no blood feeling that stirs me. I do not have a single Scottish ancestor that I know of. There are few enough in New York. Alexander Hamilton was the grandson of a laird. In one of his enemies-list jottings, Thomas Jefferson noted (January 24, 1800) that Hamilton had attended a St. Andrew’s Club dinner in New York. “The first toast was, ‘The President of the United States.’ It was drank without any particular approbation. The next was, ‘George the Third.’ Hamilton started up on his feet, and insisted on a bumper and three cheers.” There were other Scots after him: James Lenox, of the library; James Reston, of the New York Times. But as an ethnic group they are invisible. My ethnic atlas of the United States, based on the 1980 census, says “Scots have dispersed themselves so thoroughly that their distribution is much like that of the total U.S. population,” which reflects their “social assimilation.” In other words, they live where everybody else does because they are now like everybody else. There are more Hungarians, more Arabs, and more Cubans in the city than Scots. I went to one Burns supper here some years ago. It was a fine affair, with a haggis, the Immortal Memory (a speech about Robert Burns), a Toast to the Lassies and one to the Laddies. But it was sponsored by some corporation and held at the Metropolitan Club; you couldn’t make a parade down Fifth Avenue of it.

Scots may be thin on the ground, but they have been intellectually chic for a while now. Perhaps Garry Wills started it, when he suggested that Jefferson was the disciple, not of John Locke, but of the Scottish Enlightenment. (Harry Jaffa went nuclear; I still bear scars from the blast.) Scots are credited with inventing the modern world. Atheists and wits rediscover David Hume; every good conservative economist knows Adam Smith; every wise one also knows John Law. That Scotland has nothing to do with bagpipes. That is the music of outlaws, losers, reactionary rebels, and their bard was Sir Walter Scott. The English novel is not known for its political sophistication; Scott, who has sunk without a trace, is an exception. From Old Mortality to Redgauntlet, he wrote a series of novels that track the end of the House of Stuart, the Scottish dynasty that inherited the English throne at the beginning of the 17th century and lost it by the end, though their partisans kept up the fight for some decades. Scott wraps their failure in romance — but he also shows why it was necessary. He asks, What must go before enlightenment can come? When does a good cause become a bad one? An old cause a lost one? Do we lose anything in honor, to gain order, votes, and banking?

Scott certainly writes about bagpipers. I don’t know how many bagpipers read him. But if there was ever a man who put that wail into thoughts and words, it was him. He heard the distance and the time, and it said: We are gone (except from your memory).

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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