THE PIPER AND THE PLAGUE (June 4/99)

Almost everybody collects something. Stamps, coins, books, badges, Canadian Tire money, marbles, full-color car ads from the 50s and 60s and old wood carvings, for example, are a few of the things I can think of offhand that friends collect.

When it comes to collecting I’m no exception. However, what I collect can’t be placed in display cases, hung on walls or held in your hand. As for the value of my collection, well literally it’s worthless; no one would pay you one red cent for it and it’s the kind of collection that doesn’t appreciate. My collection is one of a kind and I doubt that anyone has one like it.

After this build up, I’d better tell you what I collect. To start with it’s connected with learning to play the bagpipes when I was a teenager. I started my collection one day when our band was tuning up in a field in Waterville; while we were tuning a spectator walked over and announced that he was a lover of pipe music. “By the way,” he said casually, “I’ve been a piper for over 50 years.”

We were awestruck, impressed. Wow, imagine someone piping for over 50 years. Then came the punch line: “Let me introduce myself,” the man said to our pipe-major. “I’m George Piper.”

If that brought a groan, how about this bagpipe joke. A piper is stomping up and down the hallway of an apartment building late at night, playing his pipes. One of the tenants shouts, “Cut out that infernal racket.” The piper obligingly removed his boots and continued to play.

Obviously what I collect is piping stories and jokes. I have scads of them, all relating to that fine musical instrument the Scots claim and the Irish invented – or at least introduced into Scotland. I’ve been gathering piping stories and jokes for decades and if I don’t have them in my collection, then I probably heard them somewhere. Piping jokes are like Newfoundland jokes; they go around and around and are retold and reinvented again and again and again.

My favorite bagpipe story, a slightly gruesome but supposedly true tale, involves a piper and the great London plague of 1665.

During the peak of the plague people were dying by the score. Every morning, the plague accounts tell us, “death carts” made the rounds of London streets picking up the dead and taking them to a mass burial site.

It was the misfortune of a piper to be in London when the plague struck. Attempting to escape the hardships of life in Scotland, he ran into harder times in the great city. With a miniature set of bagpipes, the Scot roamed the streets of London with his dog, playing tunes and begging for money. The piper was soon starving. The few people left in London when the plague was at its peak were mostly poor and money was scarce.

Roaming the streets one day with his bagpipes, the piper was offered some grog. He had gone for several days without food and the grog was too much for his empty stomach. The piper collapsed on the street and it was assumed that he was dead. When the dead-cart came along he was thrown in, pipes and all; on the way to the burial site other corpses were piled on him.

The piper’s dog, following the dead-cart and barking shrilly, is said to have aroused him. He stood up in the cart among the dead, still too intoxicated to realize where he was, and began to play his pipes. The piper, it is said, did not catch the plague despite his nearness to the dead. A statue of the piper stands today in a London museum to commemorate this event.

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