With many events falling victim to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all monitoring the guidelines from our respective governments around the world. Our chosen is just that: a hobby. Some take it more serious than others but it’s still a hobby. As The National Piping Centre advised on Thursday, there’s one of steps pipers should heed is to keep to your own instrument; do not share pipes or chanters and be aware of how you are treating reeds etc.

With hygiene and maintenance of our instruments on our minds just now, we reproduce below a pertinent article Tommy Pearston wrote in the March 1950 Piping Times. Clearly, he was writing at a time when there were no synthetic materials used in piping. Nevertheless, the principles behind his article remain sound even though he’s not writing about a specific virus.

For those who may be unaware, Tommy was a co-founder of the College of Piping. He was also a Fellow of the Institute of Medical Laboratory Technology.

Your set and your health
By Tommy Pearston

Thomas Pearston.
Thomas Pearston.

I think I might be correct in assuming that, theoretically, the bagpipes are an unhygenic musical instrument. Of course, like many another theory, this can be exploded when put to the test; and I may be correct in saying that our instrument performers are about the healthiest section of the community.

In other words, I think the disadvantages are less than the advantages with regards to the health of the player — provided that he avoids certain points which I list.

The first one is probably obvious to most people. It is definitely bad policy to allow other people to blow your chanter or set of pipes. You should never lend an instrument, even to your relations, without taking at least some aseptic precautions.

I have seen pipers wiping the mouthpiece with their hands, believing that in doing so they have cleaned the saliva of the previous player. I may also add that if we all took a heavy dram before we play then the alcoholic fumes would certainly act as a deterrent to active germs.

The precaution I would suggest is that every piper should carry his own mouth-piece in his pocket and replace it on the set of pipes which are to be played.

Empty the bag
Before handling a strange instrument I would also see that as much air as possible is squeezed out. This would be the residual breath of the previous player. As a further precaution I would blow into the bag for several minutes before tuning up.

A thing which I think should be avoided is resetting the pipe chanter reed or drone reeds or wetting the flapper with your finger. Avoid oral contact of any description, and always wash your hands after handling a strange set of pipes.

Hygiene is to the fore more than ever.

There is a point worth mentioning about buying a second-hand set, and it is that you should scrap the bag and get a new one. Also wash out the wooden parts with soap and hot water. Give special treatment to the drone and chanter stocks at the point where they have been tied into the bag.

You can make things complete and buy a new set of reeds and a new flapper.

Use mild antiseptic
The re-hemping of all the joints is another precaution which applies in buying a second-hand practice chanter. I would not recommend douching the parts with any strong disinfectant, as they tend to remove the varnish off the wood. A mild antiseptic could be tried — but in a weak solution.

To clean ivory it has been suggested that lemon juice is effective. Soap and water is a good substitute.

After thorough cleaning and drying of all the parts, the internal bore of the drones and other pieces should be given a light skimming of linseed oil to preserve the wood, A rifle pull-through is an excellent way of applying the stuff.

As far as I know, no bacteriological examinations have been done in connection with the piob mhor, which indicates that my hypothetical ideas of cleanliness may be all wrong.

However, experiments are under way by the College of Piping to try and assess the potential aspects of the bagpipe as a disease-carrying object. We all know that the virus of the common cold is acquired by being present in a large crowd. The air then is quietly polluted with bacteria and is transferred by droplets of secretion with the breath of other individuals.

Don’t take to drink!
The story — which is worth repeating — of the Arctic settlement which had spent many months with a population free of the common cold until the arrival of a visiting whaler with an infected person aboard. The virus quickly passed from one to another and soon the people on the mainland were having an epidemic.

The bagpipe can be assumed to be dangerous if played upon by an individual suffering from the common cold or other respiratory infection.

In further articles I shall discuss the bacteriological aspect of the bagpipe as a medium for disease-carrying organisms, but in the meantime don’t take to strong drink as an aseptic precaution!