This article, first published in the International Piper, discusses the various properties of a skin bag that the piper should be aware of.
By Captain John A. MacLellan
Climatic conditions often have a greater effect on the general condition of pipe bags than the material of which they are made. At one time, pipers who went abroad to the four corners of the earth relied on the traditional Scottish sheepskin bag. But, as difficulties arose and prevailing necessity occurred, locally produced bags were tried and thus a fairly wide variety of leathers are now in use. In addition, a great number of proprietary bag dressings have been produced which when allied to the correct texture of skin will give satisfactory service in varied conditions.
The first essential of a pipe bag is that it be an efficient reservoir for air. In this respect, the test to apply is that when the bag is fully blown up, by holding it between the outstretched fingers of each hand that it reacts in similar manner to a football or rugby ball. The blow-pipe valve should be functioning correctly and not allowing any air to escape back through the blow-stick. Some of the modern valves are much more efficient than the old leather flapper which, when it dries out, leaks like a sieve. It is recommended, that a modern one be fitted.
However, consideration alone to making the bag completely air-tight is not the only factor that must be thought about. Control of the amount of moisture blown into the bag is a most essential element, depending on whether the climatic conditions are bone dry, hot, hot and humid, cold and dry, cold, wet or frosty. In areas where the temperature is high it will be necessary to keep a considerable amount of natural breath moisture within the bagpipe. This is a reed requirement, because reeds function best when the cane has absorbed some moisture, while on the other hand they can become water-logged. In such conditions a hide bag with small pores will retain more moisture than a sheepskin one. However, should water be actually seen, then it will be necessary to control it with either a suitable bag-dressing which contains an absorption element, or by the addition to the bag of a watertrap.
Sheepskin bags have high water absorption properties, because of the soft chamois like texture of the skin, however the moisture that is absorbed must be dispersed. This usually happens when the bag dries naturally aided by a good bag dressing which keeps the open texture of the skin airtight — yet allows the skin to absorb moisture. One of the snags, however, with this type of bag is that it only functions best in temperate climatic conditions. In humid areas the sheep-skin bag often becomes porous and unless properly cared for can deteriorate
Hide bags on the other hand, because of the manner in which the skins are prepared, can at times be used without the aid of bag dressing, although experience has shown, that proper tightness is not always effected and it is probably better to dress the bag,
Such bags do not absorb readily moisture but tend to retain it, consequently in hot dry areas this type of bag is very suitable because it keep the reeds in as near peak playing condition as possible. But, should climatic conditions be hot and humid it is possible that the natural moisture in the air will turn to water, thus causing trouble to the reeds. In such conditions the use of a bag-dressing with drying properties plus a water-trap is desirable.
Pipers who live in very hot and dry areas may even find it necessary to treat their pipe bags (inside) with a dressing which has an oily base to keep as much moisture within the bag as necessary. Should such a course have to be taken, it is then advocated that the material for the bag be made of hide and the bag dressing contains lanoline.
Another water-hazard which can occur is when the warm moisture laden air condenses in the drones, due to cold, wet conditions. (While in vey cold dry areas the problem can be an immediate drying-out of the reeds, especially if the bagpipe has been blown indoors in an equable temperature). The water-trap can help to combat the moisture-condensing problem, particularly if the long tube type is fitted because moisture will be condensed inside the tube, consequently when the air passes through the reeds and up the drones it will be in a much drier condition.
Thus, it can be seen that the bag and bag dressing have an important part to play in obtaining good bagpipe sound. No piper should ever be troubled with wet reeds, but it is a fact that the problem of over-dryness in some climatic conditions is a very difficult one to overcome remembering, of course, that the bagpipe is a highly individual instrument and what is good for Tom, is not necessarily good for Dick, or Harry, even if they live in the same climatic conditions.
• From the September 1979 International Piper.