Billy the Piper – A John Dunn story

submitted by Michael Dunn. Written by his father John Patrick Dunn.

“Push over, Big Red,” Billy’s rubber boot brushed aside the last rooster in the hen house so that he could finish morning chores by filling the feed troughs in the hen house. “Mailman must have gone past now, so, I’d best go out to the road and get the paper,” he thought, pulling up the collar of his mackinaw against the mid-January chill.

When he opened the mail box that morning, a rush of surprise struck him. “And a letter too!” he exclaimed.

Winter barn chores, day after day, only emphasized how insignificant was the farmer out on the Pakenham plains, out of touch with civilization, struggling against drought, disease, and debt, until the mailman drops a letter in the box! Insignificance drops away: a letter proves even a small farmer’s a somebody. Billy turned back to the house.

In the light from the kitchen window, he ran a knife blade under the flap, brought out a single sheet of paper and held it up to the light. It said:

Dear Mr. Keen,

A Committee is again at work to organize the celebration of Burns’ Night in Almonte, and I take great pleasure in inviting you to be our piper once more for the presentation of the haggis and for some musical entertainment following dinner.

If agreeable, would you oblige me with the favour of a reply. The usual terms for such an engagement would be acceptable to the committee, and, I trust, to yourself.

Henry Brown.

Another engagement! Joy at the prospect brought a smile to Billy’s face, the same smile he would show if the sun opened up again after a seven days’ stretch of rainy weather.

Billy went to the cupboard under the chimney and lifted out the “Book of Everyday Things”. “Jan. 25th, in Almonte” he wrote, “A Nicht wi’ Burns”.

The ink was hardly dry when a second surprise brought him upright in his chair. Someone was at the door. Who in the world might that be, in mid-January? Billy opened the door, to admit Ben Baker, rags, bones, and bottles man. Ben saw value in things others threw away.

They sat in the afternoon light from the kitchen window. “I left my horse, with his blanket on, on the south side of your hen house. That’s O.K. Billy? But I see you’ve been busy. Is this your account book you’re reading, Billy?”

Billy threw out a wry smile. “I call it my Book of Everyday Things,” he explained. “I keep it handy under the chimney. It reminds me about the weather and the crops, prices for oats and barley, engagements and such like.”

“And egg money, I suppose?”

“Oh, aye, Ben. Every Scotsman keeps a ‘kist’,” said Billy. “His treasure chest. It holds egg money, and unexpected money, like after an engagement: he keeps it out of sight, saving for emergencies, tithes to the kirk, a portion to the laird and the like.”

“You’ll be having an engagement soon, when all the Scotch celebrate, sometime near the January thaw?”

“Yes, Ben. Burns’ Night, the 25th, in Almonte.”

“So that’s it. You’ll be there, with your bagpipes, like as not?”

Billy nodded, a glint of satisfaction in his eye.

“Well, now Billy, about those hens of yours,” came Ben’s business opener. “They’d be pretty well spent by now?”

Billy nodded again. The state of the egg-layers couldn’t be denied. “How much would they be worth, do you think, Ben?”

“Not very much, Billy. I might be able to offer you 8 to 9 cents a pound for the whole lot of them, fifty, that right?”

“And roosters?” asked Billy.

“How many roosters you got left, Billy?” asked Ben.

“Just one left. An independent cuss. ‘Big Red’ I call him.”

“Might as well keep him, Billy. His voice is still good, I s’pose. He’d be no use to me, and I s’pose he’s no longer any use to the hens, so you should keep him for his music. Besides, he’d be company for you, Billy, out there in the barn.”

“Well, all right. He can stay, for now. Ben, when will you want to pick up the hens?”

“I’ll be back right after your engagement. Say two weeks from now. That all right?”

“Just fine, Ben. Thanks too.”

The January thaw, the thought had stuck in Billy’s mind after Ben left. Surely it was part of the Ottawa Valley story too! It offered another surprise, reprieve from cruel winter, whispers of hope for a new spring, unlocking the hermitage of the farm, out on parole for a few days.

Sure enough. On the twenty-third a thaw came waltzing in unconcernedly, spreading itself out over the Valley in crazy wonder. Overnight! A shining silver day, freshly minted, hall-marked for pure enjoyment. Like Cinderella’s coach, the day glittered, and stayed.

After chores the following morning, Billy opened up the stable door and propped a milking stool against it to keep it ajar. Snow melted on the shingled roof and drained from the eave in a hundred separate drips. At the valley of the roof, a stream poured off as strong as a gush from the windmill’s pump. Drip, drip, drip, deeper and deeper the melt drilled into the snow, filling up the bore-holes with icy-green water and splashing over the mounds of snow. He left the stable door open and let the horses out for a change

In pure delight Billy watched as both Prince and Queen got down on their knees and then simply rolled in the sun-softened snow, rolling over on one side, hooves thrashing in air, rolling, kicking, necks swinging, turning and scraping snow, stretching, pushing, shoving this way and that. Then, repeating the exercises once more, until, well, they decided to come up on four hooves to look around at the wonder of the world right side up.

The hens came out too. On the southern side of the barn, the sun was strongest. Cheerless chaff from last fall’s thrashing lay uncovered, and now washed, and spread out to dry in the springlike air. Old Red strutted about in the open; hens pecked away happily, moving forward half a step, scratching and backing up to see what had turned up, pecking away again, turning over some morsel, then moving on, again and again. Grit and grain together, the feathered flock ground it all in their gizzards. Cluck, cluck. Grit and grain, cluck, cluck.

A gathering of Scots people, all with memories that had been dusted off and swept clean with a heather broom, memories brushed and combed and tidied up for company’s sake, restored, even burnished to their pristine mirror-like finish. That’s what it would be. Memories of Argyle and Midlothian, of Skye and Bute, of Paisley’s chimneys and the Western Isles, and other places, memories which belonged to people who trembled in face of the glittering verses in the talk of grandfathers and grandmothers, verses of that man Robbie Burns, ennobling the common man as they all were, “A man’s a man for a’ that, and a’ that”, The Cotter’s Satu’day Nicht”, “To a Mouse,” with an explanatory sub-title “On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785 An Address to the De’il” “To a Louse” again with an explanatory sub-title “On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”.

This last contains the following conclusion

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us!

It wad frae monie a blunder free us

An’ foolish notion;

What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,

An’ ev’n devotion!

Billy began to feel the fires of kinship with the clan warm around his heart as he trudged along the road beside the CPR tracks. By the time he reached the Snedden way station, his walking pace had reached its zenith, he considered the notion of independence. Here it was 1930 and there was a Depression abroad all over in the country, Yet, in spite of the decline of economics, he thought that the Scots whom he knew in Ramsay and Pakenham and in the town of Almonte had all thrived, and, if one were to draw a lesson from their thrift, one might be pardoned for reaching a conclusion that the Scots people by nature are bound to thrive even in the most difficult circumstances.

Before leaving home he had glanced once more at the list of people in the booklet printed by the Almonte Gazette, enumerating the people who had registered for the Old Boys’ Reunion, of 1920 wasn’t it? He remembered Henry Brown’s name, the Chief Superintendent of the Rosamond Woollen Company,

As he got going along the 10th line from the village to walk the other four miles to Almonte, and he came so far that he could see in the distance the road half-way crossing of the railway line, he glanced aside to the old MacDonald Burying Ground, the lair of two brothers of that Sept, Ian and Lachlin, pioneers in Ramsay 10th line district, one of whom died at age 100, and the other at 101, and lay in their lair under the spreading elms beside the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s main line from Montreal to Vancouver. And, if he were not mistaken, he had heard that it had been another Scot, Donald Smith, who had been the chieftain for the building of that very railroad to the western ocean too.

The ladies, he knew, must have been busy all afternoon preparing for the dinner, making ready the cauldron of potatoes, and another for the neaps, as well as tables garnished with salads, home-made bread and buns, pickles, relishes, and tasties that tempt the palates of the hungry.

Not indeed that the men sat about idling their time, waiting for the call to dinner. There were tables and chair to attend to. Water to be carried in from the pump. A guest list arranged. Toasts listed. Entertainment too. Oh, aye, and, of course, the haggis.

Fortune favoured the Scots in this. The men’s committee merely turned to Mick McCabe, butcher, opposite the new war memorial, and make their enquiry about a sheep’s stomach for the haggis, and that’s all.

Though nary a drop o’ Scots blood ran in his own veins, the McCabe was his most genial self. He’d be happy to oblige. He’d manage the matter of the sheep’s stomach for the Dissenters’ dinner. Not only the stomach, but the heart, the lungs, and the liver too, which organs he would run through the grinder, and finely ground too, to be mixed with onions and oatmeal and salt and pepper and whatever else Scots could stuff into this barbaric potful to be boiled into a heathenish mass inside the sheep’s stomach.

The geniality of the McCabe never flagged in this enterprise. He took a cold comfort from the notion that it was an Irish sheep’s stomach that held the oatmeal en masse with the liver, heart and lungs for the Burns’ Nicht dinner in the Orange Hall! Smug satisfaction put a sheen on the McCabe face.

It was six o’clock when Billy reached Carss Street on the very edge of Almonte. He swung off the Blakeney Road to go down Carss Street to the very end of Union Street, and there he found Tom Leishman waiting with his team and the flat-bed sleigh, a kind of Burns’ Nicht taxi, decorated with straw and blankets to carry people the last mile to the dinner hall.

Billy’s arrival brought many smiles of satisfaction from the ladies already working in the kitchen. Music was assured: Billy indeed had brought his bagpipes. “The piper’s here,” the news flew around from ear to ear.

“Oh, that’s very nice,” came the response, with an immediate wonder about the arrival of another important guest for the evening. “Where’s ‘Wee Robbie’? Has he come yet?”

“Not yet, although there’s a crowd of men just waiting to greet him, I’ll vouch for that.”

‘Wee Robbie’ — the name was spoken of as a mystic presence, a spirit perchance, whose presence would be felt more than seen. Billy wondered if it, like the haggis, were some kind of throwback to prehistoric and primitive rites of primitive cavemen, until an anthem from a reveller struck his ear:

Wi’ tippeny we fear no evil

Wi’ usquebae we’d face the De’il.