The Quick-Thinking Duncan Dhu

This blog is chiefly about great reads for a quarter, but it seems reasonable to include great reads for a dollar, too. And one of the greatest reads for a dollar, for anyone who loves Scotland, especially, but for everyone else too, is Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.

You can almost always find it for a buck, but you might want to pay a bit more for an edition with good illustrations. You’ll get a better picture of the miser uncle. It’s a rippin’ good read. There are no real pirates — for those you have to read Treasure Island — but you’ll get a guided tour of the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides in 1751.

You’ll visit lively destinations like Balluchulish, Corrynakiegh and Balquhidder.

You’ll build your word power with words like philabeg, boddle and perliecue.

The narrator, David Balfour, is a Lowlander who gets kidnapped through the connivance of the miser uncle Ebenezer and escapes with the assistance of Alan Breck (Stewart), a Highlander, with whom he shares many vicissitudes, which I won’t go into except to say that they are what make the book such a grippin good read. We learn that Alan is an excellent swordsman with a bit of a temper.

So at Balquhidder, where “no great clan holds rule,” David is wicked sick and he and Alan have sought refuge in the cottage of Duncan Dhu (Maclaren), who will soon surprise us with his quick thinking.

Alan runs into Robert Oig (Macgregor), a son of Rob Roy, who is famous for a cocktail, and apparently there is no love lost between their families. But both men are wanted by the English, who had clobbered the Highlanders at Culloden in 1745, etc., etc. so a duel would be bootless. Here’s the dialogue:

“I did not know that you were in my country, sir?” says Robin.

“It sticks in my mind that I am in the country of my friends the Maclarens,” says Alan.

“That’s a kittle [ticklish] point,” returned the other. “There may be two words to that. But I think I will have heard that you are a man of your sword?”

[Highlanders frequently use the future perfect tense in situations of this kind.]

“Unless ye were born deaf, Mr. Macgregor, ye will have heard a good deal more than that,” says Alan. “I am not the only man that can draw steel in Appin; and when my kinsman and captain, Ardshiel, had a talk with a gentleman of your name, not so many years back, I could never hear that the Macgregor had the best of it.”

“Do you mean my father sir?” says Robin. [This is getting extremely personal.]

“Well I wouldnae wonder,” says Alan.

“My father was an old man,” returned Robin. “The match was unequal. You and me would make a better pair, sir.”

“I was thinking of that,” said Alan.

I was half out of bed [says the narrator], and Duncan had been hanging at the elbow of these fighting cocks, ready to intervene upon the least occasion. But when that word was uttered, it was a case of now or never; and Duncan, with something of a white face to be sure, thrust himself between.

“Gentlemen,” said he, “I will have been thinking of a very different matter, whateffer. Here are my pipes, and here are you two gentlemen who are baith acclaimed pipers. It’s lan ault dispute which one of ye’s the best. Here will be a braw chance to settle it.”

Then Duncan Dhu “made haste to bring out the pair of pipes that was his principal possession, and to set before his guests a mutton-ham and a bottle of that drink which they call Athole brose, and which is made of old whiskey, strained honey and sweet cream.”

[More quick thinking by a guy who doesn’t want his home wrecked and a body on his hands]

So they quaff some brose and have a piping contest and Robin wins. Who’s the judge? Alan himself. After besting him in the variations contest, Robin plays the ancestral tune of the Appin Stewarts, and beautifully, too. Like a Yankee band playing “Dixie.”

“Robin Oig,” he [Alan] said when it was done, “ye are a great piper. I am not fit to blow in the same kingdom with ye. Ye have mair musin in yer sporran [purse] than I have in my head. And although it still sticks in my mind that I could maybe show ye another of it with the cold steel, I warn ye beforehand — it’ll no be fair! It would go against my heart to haggle [skewer] a man that can blow the pipes as ye can!”

Way to go, Duncan Dhu!