Maintenance, part 1

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The Bag (size and shape: the stocks: seasoning)      

By Seumas MacNeill

Seumas MacNeill

One of the most important things for a piper is the state of his bagpipe. The choosing of tunes, the ability to play well, the chance to perform for somebody’s pleasure (maybe his own), all go for nothing if the instrument is in poor shape. Unlike most other instrumentalists, the piper has to be his own tuner, adjuster, trouble-shooter and maintenance man. For these so very obvious reasons we propose to run a series in which will be presented some thoughts and tips on how to get the best out of a bagpipe.

Every individual part and its function has to be considered in some detail, so that the whole conglomerate of reeds, drones, chanter, bag, hemp, bridles, cover, cords, ribbons and whatever takes your fancy, blends eventually into one harmonious whole, easy to blow, easy to tune, constant in pitch and with that proper balance which tingles the spine and stops the chattering dead in the hall.

Can it be done, we fondly ask? The answer comes back clear and quick: not often. And everyone will applaud in agreement, but they applaud too soon. The proper answer is: not often enough. Many could do the magic trick if they just knew better what to do and then applied themselves diligently.

The bag
The basis of the whole glorious effect is the bag. Perhaps that may come as a surprise to many, thinking that the chanter or the drones or even the reeds should be the places to start, but if you do not have a good bag, of the right shape, tight and properly seasoned, with the holes marked and the stocks tied in in the correct places, then you are labouring under the severest of all handicaps.

For a start, strip your bagpipe down to the basic essentials and have a good look at what you use as a reservoir for your expelled air.

A sheepskin bag.

Now, bags, of course, are made of different materials – sheepskin, cow hide, horse hide, elk skin, kangaroo skin, plastic or even rubber. For all practical purposes we can reduce these into two distinct and separate categories. Sheepskin is the first category and all the other skins of animals can be lumped together and described simply as ‘hide’. Which of the two categories you choose depends entirely on the climate of the country in which you live.

In Scotland and in its neighbouring lands, where the climate tends to be rather damp, summer and winter, nothing has been found so far to beat the good old sheepskin. Certainly the quality of these skins is not perhaps as good as it used to be (but then nothing is), and in recent years the Chernobyl disaster is blamed for a further deterioration. We will perhaps never see a bag such as those old Angus MacPherson of Invershin used to describe when he told how they used to bring a four-year old wedder down from the hill, so strong he could ride on its back.

Sheep are not killed nowadays in order that their skins may be converted into bags for the convenience of pipers. Sheep are killed for food, and so the prime time for their demise is when they are quite young – before they have developed the mature skin that would be ideal for our purpose. That, incidentally, is why you cannot order mutton in a restaurant, or anywhere. What you get is lamb, and one is tempted to wonder what happens to the sheep that produce the lambs, or are they themselves made pregnant rather prematurely?

However, we do the best with what we can get, and certainly even these possibly inferior skins do the trick rather well, at least for the native Scots.

In the drier climates of North America, Africa, the Middle East, Australasia and probably all the rest of the piping world, the hide bag is justifiably the most popular and gives sufficient satisfaction. Which hide you use seems to be largely a matter of choice and of convenience, for obviously we never hear of kangaroo skin bags in Texas of elk hide bags in Western Australia. All in all, where hide bags are most convenient to use, they give a higher degree of satisfaction than do the sheepskin bags in the damp countries. The hide bags seem to last very much longer, are nice and clean to work with (you can even play them without a cover) whereas the sheepskins tend to be messy, are certainly more porous, and have to be replaced at fairly regular intervals – anything from six months to two years.

It is possible, but not advisable – at least for any length of time – to use the sheepskin bag in the hot and dry countries, or to use a hide bag in Scotland. The exception is that you use a hide bag in the home of piping, provided you do not play the pipes very much. If you do play regularly the hide bag, being less porous, inevitably wets the reeds and the drones, and so upsets the whole balance of the instrument.

The snag with sheepskin bags in a dry country is that they dry up very quickly and leak like a sieve. The dry central heating favoured by most North Americans is an additional hazard that accelerates the dehydration process.

So if you go with a sheepskin bag to Ontario be prepared to keep a damp towel permanently in the pipe case, and stand by with the seasoning every two or three days. Similarly, if you come to Scotland with a hide bag then bring your portable hairdryer to keep blowing through the drones in order to remove the moisture.

At Canadian competitions the pipers tend to keep blowing the pipes at every possible opportunity during the day, in order to keep enough moisture on the reeds so that they do not close up completely. To do this with a hide bag in Scotland would soak the reeds and put the drones very quickly completely out of tune – as the early Canadian competitors discovered to their horror. Stories are even told of pipe majors of Canadian bands spending the night before a contest replacing all the hide bags with sheepskin ones.

Size and shape
Pipers come in all sizes and shapes, creeds and colours. For a long time however bag-makers seemed to assume that everyone who wanted to learn to play the Scottish National instrument was the same height and had the same length of arms. In recent years fortunately they have begun to offer small, medium, standard and large sizes, so overcoming the difficulties that ten-year-old boys and girls had of getting the arm round a bag and still reaching the chanter, and the problem that six footers had of finding the bag after they had tucked it under the oxter.

The size of person, however, has often tended to be a secondary consideration from the eager piper’s point of view when choosing a bag. A rumour still goes around that the bigger the bag the less chance there is for the drones and the reeds to get wet – the theory being that with a large absorbing surface (the inside of the bag) moisture from the breath had a better chance of being captured before affecting the parts which produced the music. There may be some truth in this, but it should not be a primary consideration. Comfort in holding the instrument and freedom for the fingers is very much more important. A small boy hanging on to a huge bag as if it were a rubber duck to keep him afloat is not a pretty sight. Nor is the small boy able to play as well as he would if the dimensions were correct. Choose, therefore, the size that makes it easiest for you to play the tune and let the water problem be solved in other ways.

You can of course order a long bag that perhaps projects out behind you. This can give the same surface area without stretching the arm, but remember that the bare backside of the bag is another not a pretty sight, so the cover has to be tailored accordingly.

Finding the best size can only be achieved by applying that least efficient but most successful method – trial and error. Having a shot at other people’s pipes saves a lot of time and money, and if you can find someone who has the right size and shape of bag for you then all you have to do is measure it and order accordingly.

Placing the stocks
Now we come to the most important part of the whole proceedings. The standard methods of measuring stock positions are given in several publications, for example the Red Tutor (College of Piping Tutor Part 2, pp 14-16). These, however, may have to be altered slightly in certain circumstances. The usual thing to say is that if you prefer the drones to slope backwards more than usual then you tie the stocks in a little further forward; whereas if you prefer the drones to be erect then the positions for the stocks should be marked further back.

There is one consideration that is never mentioned but is of primary importance. If you have a heavy set of drones, full silver mounted or silver and ivory mounted, then the weight of the drones on your shoulder and upper arm tends to push the bag forward, the shoulder being used as a fulcrum. This has the effect, after playing for some time, of causing the bag to slip forward and downwards until you find you are pressing the bag, not with your elbow and upper arm as you should, but with your forearm or even your wrist. Now since the fingering of the chanter depends primarily on the flexor muscles of the forearm, this can have the effect of making movement of the fingers very difficult. So your left hand becomes very tight on the chanter and your playing becomes even worse than it usually is.

With heavy drones therefore you have to make sure that the stocks are tied in in such a way to keep them very erect, only leaning back enough to give stability and a fairly gentle weight on your shoulder.

Seasoning
What type of seasoning you use again depends on which part of the world you live in. Hide bags in general require less seasoning, but all require a touch at intervals to swell out the seams. Sheepskin on the other hand has to be seasoned regularly because the pores which are so effective in allowing moisture from your breath to escape eventually also cause the bag to dry up in a comparatively short time.

Many types of seasoning are used and are strongly advocated by those who have found them to be successful. All details of these are also given in the Red Book. Some do a good job but the aroma would sicken a saint. Honey, on the other hand, has a sweet and lasting taste but can only be used on sheepskin because it simply pours out of the hide bags. The universally selected solution (solution? that’s good) is the Airtight of R. G. Hardie and Co., obtainable from practically every bagpipe shop throughout the world. Used regularly, with the ex being poured down the sink and not back into the tin, it imparts a fairly neutral flavour which adds just one more aroma to the many others — in my case Guinness, thick black tobacco and Red Tape whisky — which create the unforgettable nostalgic atmosphere of the great Highland bagpipe.

• From the April 1988 Piping Times.