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For The Record, Episode 9: Lost To History

Stephen Mullen’s audio diary, entry 6, July 9th, 2016

[SIGH] Got another response to my ad today. Woman called, um, Katherine Sinclair, huh, sent this in. Local, from Edinburgh. Uh, well here we go I suppose.


Have you ever heard the story of the lost piper? Well, actually no. I should give some context first, great, um, in media res supernatural encounter, just what I asked for. Uh, it was just a couple of weeks ago and I was walking down the Royal Mile shortly after midnight. Uh, not for any of the exciting reasons you might usually expect someone to be strolling along a high street in the wee hours, just got a bit too caught up in catching up with a friend who lives in the town centre. It was nice. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but my own brain hasn’t been the kindest to me over the last several months and it’s not as often as I’d like that I feel up to that sort of quality time.

[SIGH] So anyway, there I am, on the Mile and, I’m sure you know it’s never really empty? But it does get quiet at that time of night. Quiet enough that the small handful of people in your line of sight can turn off onto a sidestreet and for a few moments you can be alone with the dark and the stillness. [SFX: BAGPIPES START] I hate those moments, they always make me think of the lost piper.

It’s a pretty popular local legend, but I know not everyone’s heard it, so I might as well go over it here. The story goes that several centuries ago, nobody ever seems to know quite how many, the opening to a network of tunnels is discovered under the Royal Mile. The legend is that some long gone royals had a secret escape route running between the castle at the top of the Mile and Holyrood Palace at its foot. [SFX: BAGPIPES FADE OUT] So the group who rediscover this tunnel entrance naturally want to explore the myth, but without risking anyone important, so they fetch a young man. [SFX: BAGPIPES START AGAIN] A boy really, one who plays the bagpipes, so they can follow the sound on the surface as he follows the tunnels below. Contrary to what decades of stand up comedians have had to say, I don’t know if the sound of bagpipes could really carry through several feet of rock? But it makes a good story. Anyway, this group are apparently following the pipes well enough until about halfway down the street, I’ve always pictured them outside the Tron kirk, where the bridges are now. Anyway the piping stops. So of course they stop as well, and listen. Nothing. They call out the boy’s name. Nothing. They wait days for him to come out. [SFX: BAGPIPES STOP] Nothing. And of course, the legends go that ever since, if you’re out on the Mile on a quiet night, you might just hear ghostly piping on the wind.

The bit that always gets me is the ring of truth it has? There’s so much under that part of the city. There’s the famous ones, Mary King’s Close, the whole street that survived plague and fire and the march of centuries, built over and left as bare stone. The South Bridge vaults, storage cellars and retail space abandoned to the impoverished and the desperate when the businesses failed, out of sight and away from the compassion of their former peers. Aside from those though, because of how steep that part of the city is, perfectly respectable buildings like the supreme court can go down for storeys of dingy basements and tragic histories to another ground floor. It doesn’t seem unlikely for one more poor kid to lie forgotten under our feet.

[NERVOUS LAUGH] I’m sorry, I’m… not sure why I launched off into the history lesson there. I was actually just coming up to the bridges when the last couple of people I could see rounded the corner. I’m not too proud to admit I hurried my step a little at that point. It’s not that I’m scared of the dark? There were plenty of streetlights anyway. It’s just cities on a quiet night that unsettle me. Everything that was designed to accommodate throngs of people, the space, the lights along the whole street, the traffic lights without traffic, the endless doors and alleyways for someone to enter or exit. [GASP] I suppose I feel singled out by having a thousand people’s worth of infrastructure to myself. It’s not usually too bad though, a mild spike in anxiety until I can get home. This time a cool breeze picked up and carried away all the sounds of the city, [SFX: WIND BLOWS] the traffic from the more modern, car-friendly streets nearby, the distant chatter and laughter of the clubbing scene one street over in the cowgate, even the near-subliminal hum of the lights, all whisked away with the wind. I broke into a run and the sound of my shoes on stone barely peaked around the edge of the new quiet. I stopped as I got to the crossroads to look down first North Bridge, then South.

There should have been people there, a car stopped at the lights, an almost empty night bus, anything! But no. Just me and the breeze, which, now that I stopped, took on an almost musical tone [SFX: DISTANT SOUND OF BAGPIPES] as it whistled through the uncaring edifice of the city. I knew as soon as I heard it, but it took me a few moments to admit to myself where that song must be blowing in from. As soon as I did I was struck with, this sounds silly, but I was struck with the overwhelming impression that in the heartbeats between my losing sight of the other pedestrians and this thought forming, a whole new city had sprung up above my head [SFX: DISTANT BIRDSONG] and I was left alone with those forgotten by the cold and cruel times gone by that we are supposed to be so much better than. I saw, actually saw the colourful shop signs fade and the glass fronted buildings blur into bare, rough stone, just like Mary King’s Close. I was convinced that was it for me. That I’d never rejoin reality again. That the world would go on with no more use for me than a story to send a fun shiver down their children’s spines. Just me, the piper’s song and a soft… buzz? [SFX: MOBILE PHONE VIBRATES, BAGPIPES AND BIRDSONG END ABRUPTLY] I remembered I still had my phone on me, pulled it out and sure enough there was a new text, from the friend I’d spent the evening with. All it said was “Let me know when you get home safe, OK?” But I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. It seemed the most novel, the most unlikely idea in the world that someone might have thought to check on me. [QUIET SNIFF] I stared at that screen as though the message might fade into imagination and dreams if I stopped confirming its existence. Oh! My attention was only brought elsewhere by the rather unsteady, but very happy seeming woman who stumbled into me from behind. [SFX: WOMAN LAUGHS] She held on to my shoulders to steady herself as she apologised and it felt for a second as if all the energies of life were flowing out through her fingertips into me. By the time her friends called her away to the now approaching taxi a few seconds later, [SFX: CAR HORN] my time as Edinburgh’s newest ghost story was well and truly over. I hurried home and, if I’m being honest, I’m still a bit more reluctant to stay out late. At least, not alone.

[QUIET SCOFF] Well what does she want me to do about it? There’s not much in the way of souvenirs or eyewitnesses in that story and I can barely afford to get into the castle, [SIGH] let alone dig up the high street for secret passageways. Ah well. Fingers crossed the next one gives me something a little more concrete. I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to end an audio diary entry.

[MUMBLES] Is it… this… button?

This episode of For The Record was written by and starred Tom Chaney. It was directed by Sivan Raz and edited by Megan “Ryan” Lee, Sivan Raz, Jo Mendacium, and Algie Todd. It used sounds from, under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial License. For full accreditation, see the show notes. To be kept up to date on new episodes, submit your statement, or to get involved in production, you can follow us on Twitter @ftrecordpod, on Tumblr at fortherecordpod or view our website at Stay safe, take care, and remember who history forgets.