I Won A Bottle Of Scotch By Making Everyone Cry

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When we look back on that night, we all agree that it was Allison who started everything.

Monday night had come, sweeping in the same old tide of patrons at The Blue Lamp. The old-timers at the bar sat with their tweed caps perched on their balding heads, eyes focused on the game blaring from the television on the far wall. They said little to one another and gripped their glasses—pints of dark, yeasty ale or warm, 12-year single malts—as if their very lives depended on them. At the first sign of a depleted glass, Sam, the barman, who boasted a gaping, toothy smile and a wink for any girl who favored ale over rum and Coke, was there to fill the glass and set things right again. You might say he was quite good at his job.

It was nearly 11 p.m. when I entered The Blue Lamp, a taste of the bitter Aberdonian wind following me as I stepped through the door. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim atmosphere, hung as it was with a thick gauze of cigarette and pipe smoke. As I slung my bagpipes from my back to the floor, where they took up residence in the accumulating pile of instruments near the door, Sam winked at me and started to pour out a pint of Three Sisters.

The session was already in full swing. I was the last to arrive and, pint in hand, I slipped into a booth beside Elaine, who had the table in front of her spread with various tin whistles.

A normal Monday night—session night—at the Lamp might adjourn somewhere around one, when the mandates of the law forced Sam to stop serving and usher us back out into the cold. A good night, though— "a real cracker of a session,” as Elaine might call it, punctuating the phrase by slamming her pint on the tabletop—would wax through to the early hours of 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. You could never quite tell when it was going to be one of ”those” nights, though, for they required a particular combination of energy, music, and drink that didn’t come along very often.

And tonight? Well so far, tonight was a typical session night.

Elaine and her whistles. Me beside her, bagpipes across my lap. Morris dozing in the corner when the tempos slowed down, his bodhran resting briefly on the seat next to him. Brandon launching into huge, six-jig fiddle sets that no one else dared to follow. Allison, pink-cheeked and smiling in the dim light. Gus with his glass of Glenlivet and one of the many guitars he chose to bring along that night. Anders striking up the old revolutionary songs that could make your blood burn like the taste of Scotch on the back of your throat. Underneath it all, the murmur of conversation. “You offshore this week?” “Got that reel down, the one I showed you, fit like?” “Missed you last week.” “Aye, but that’s a cold wind tonight.”

I barely noticed time passing. It was almost 1 o’clock, which meant that most of the old-timers had vacated the bar and were already shuffling their way home. The music had slowed down, and Sam was starting to wipe down the empty tables and turn up the chairs when Allison struck up her fiddle with a very sad air. No, “sad” doesn’t even do justice to her rendering of “The Massacre of Glen Coe”— “pathetic” would be the more appropriate word. Elaine lit another cigarette as the remaining musicians—there were maybe 10 of us in all—sat back in our chairs to absorb all the hurt that was pouring out of Allison’s fiddle. Pouring and pouring.

When she finished, there followed a brief pause before Brandon, after downing the final contents of his glass in one lengthy swallow, spoke up: “That’s it,” he said. “A Miserable Tune Contest. Winner gets…. Sam, you got a bottle to donate here?”

Sam’s eyes drifted to an unopened bottle of Talisker already sitting on the bar. “Talisker! Excellent! Winner gets the bottle.” Then Brandon began, with a series of pickings and flourishes and fingers shivering over the strings of his fiddle, to tune for what was to follow. I nudged Elaine.

“Elaine—what’s going on?”

“Miserable Tune Contest, love. First one to make us cry gets that bottle sitting there.”

Brandon, I can only suppose, thought he had the whole thing in the bag, and started going on a run-through of “Leaving Port Askaig,” which, I’ll admit, had my own eyelashes quivering. Not wanting to be bested, though, Anders was soon to follow with a torturous version of “1639.”

Elaine seemed to have already decided that I would win, asserting, “Bagpipes get them every time.” I was scanning the far-reaches of my musical memory for the most pathetic thing I could play tonight, but when it got to me, the pipes stayed where they lay.

“A song,” I said, and cleared my throat. I had learned “The Lowlands of Holland” during my first two weeks in the country while I had been traveling by foot, train, bus or any means possible, across the Western edge of Scotland, in and out of its many islands. I had picked it up on the Isle of Skye where the owner of the only pub in town had implored me to play my pipes and, in exchange, taught me a few of the songs his mother sang to him.

Oh, I never had but one sweet love
and now he’s gone far away from me…

I could see the fading expressions of the people who I had grown, in the course of four months, to call my friends. Sam ceased his routine motions behind the bar, pausing with his dish towel in hand, to listen. Elaine closed her eyes, a slight smile on her lips, and touched her cigarette to her mouth. Brandon’s eyes dropped to the carpet in a valiant attempt to keep his emotions at bay.

I will have no stay in those unfriendly lands…

…but my own mind was now swarming with the knowledge that Aberdeen, that Scotland, that Monday nights at The Blue Lamp, were all beginning to slip away from me…

…not until the day I die, since these foreign winds and these stormy seas came between my loved ones and I…

I probably don't need to state the succession of events that followed: The song ended, many cheeks glistened in the low light of the quiet pub, and I tucked the Talisker under my arm. Allison and I walked out of the Blue Lamp one final time and split a cab back uptown toward Hillhead. When we parted on Don Street, shouldering our instruments and squaring off the cab fare, she put an arm around me and pulled me close to her, and whispered in my ear.

“The very best kind of hurt."


Posted on 6/23/2009 by

Amy Smith

Amy  Smith


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