Monday, October 27, 2014

Monday Exposure: The ghost piper of Edinburgh Castle

Torches burn at the gatehouse of Edinburgh Castle
Torches blaze in front of the gatehouse of Edinburgh Castle.
It was already disquieting to toil below the castle amidst the dolerite rock where the volcanic plug resisted any repairs, lanterns feebly seeking to dispel the nearby shadows, shuffling under the weight of their tools, the dust puffing into a haze around their calves like the night mists in highland glens far far far away from the constricted wynds and closes of the city with its stench and rats and desperate hunger, where help seldom came and in bygone times buboed plague sufferers despaired as the guards bricked them tightly within their homes, and it was down there the tunnel headed, they had not been searching but only stumbled upon it, the faintest wind emanating an earthy smell, no one had ventured within the passage in living memory as the only footprints were those of the master mason, and he tread only so far as he could still discern the others back at the entry, their voices muffled, and when he could no longer hear them he strode back, twice as quick as he had reconnoitered.

They debated ignoring the tunnel, pretending they had not found it. The steward, however, would inspect their work and know where they had labored, spot the footprints in the tunnel. He would be displeased with their answer.

Tunnel in the dungeons of Edinburgh Castle
A tunnel into darkness within the dungeons below the castle.
That the junior apprentice volunteered made it easier, in the beginning. Made it harder in the end, because they should have done more, someone should have gone with him, he was too ill-equipped too young too foolhardy      too alone. But in the beginning it was easier; he seemed to want to prove his mettle. Perhaps he knew they eventually would have settled on him anyway.

His plan was ingenious, they admitted. He would proceed down the tunnel with a lantern and his bagpipes. It would make a fearsome noise in the narrow passages, an unrelenting drone and skirl. As in war, he would advance with the pipes. Their wail would succor him, he would not be bereft of courage.

As he played, they followed the wail from above ground. A martial air at first. The music pulsed, piercing the ground from below. With their heads cocked and ears attuned, they trailed the piping as he forged on. Out of the gatehouse they followed his music, across the flat esplanade. Less jaunty than before, though still he played. Onto the cobbles of the road as it descended, the sun sunk behind the rooftops, the king's mile a-clatter as merchants shuttered for the day, a horse and cart rumbled past, the piper blew a lament now (or perhaps that was only as they remembered it later), he piped unrelentingly, a burst of skirl through some unseen crack, they were halfway to the palace now, and then the piping  .  .  .  stopped.

They never saw him again.

When, finally, a search party delved into the tunnel to look for him, they returned ashen and empty-handed. The lone piper had vanished. No lantern, no bagpipes. No body.

Soon afterwards, at the steward's instruction, they bricked up the tunnel. He paid them for their work, more than they were owed. Enough to build homes in their highland glens. As for the young apprentice's family, the steward said he would make arrangements, which they did not question. They left the city and, as agreed, did not return.

Yet not all trace of the lone piper was gone. Though centuries have passed, on quiet nights, from beneath the castle and its royal thoroughfare, careful listeners occasionally hear faint melodies floating up from the earth, the remote echoes of a solitary piper.

In the depths he plays on, searching the catacombs, endlessly wandering in the dark.

Haunted Edinburgh Castle sits atop a volcanic plug
In the rock beneath Edinburgh Castle twists a warren of storerooms, dungeons, and tunnels.

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