By Seumas MacNeill

Seumas MacNeill

Having dealt with the bag situation the next obvious consideration is the state of the stocks you intend to tie on to your bag. Most people probably feel there is not much in the way of maintenance to be done on the simple five wooden tubes, and they might well be correct. In some cases, however, the state of the stocks can have an important effect on the sound of the bagpipe. The first obvious consideration is to ensure that the stocks are fit enough to do their task, which means they must be free from cracks lest there be any air leaks through them. Sometimes the cracks are not immediately obvious; sometimes they do not leak until the stocks have become damp and the wood expanded. The best thing to do in such a case is to have a new stock made. Most bagpipe manufacturers will do this for you, fitting your own mount to the new stock.

In cases of financial embarrassment, however, an effective job can be done with the new epoxy resins that are now easily obtainable. A careful case of gluing may not look ideal (although repairs can usually be fairly well camouflaged), but the main importance, of course, is simply to fill up any leak.

Cracks may not always be obvious from the outside so before buying a second hand instrument it is as well to examine carefully the insides of these tubes.

A little known cause of bagpipe problems is the muck that can accumulate inside stocks down at the bottom. This muck is old seasoning. Pipers happily season their bags at regular intervals and probably pride themselves on the fact that they clean out carefully the chanter stock (or whichever stock is used for pouring the seasoning in) after the exercise has been completed. In the essential rubbing in of the seasoning, however, some of it often gets into the other stocks. If enough of it travels up a stock so that its presence is evident when the drone is put in, then that stock is, of course, immediately cleaned out also. But what happens is that in some cases the stock is not cleaned out right to the bottom, but only where the hemp is going to touch it. When this happens there can be a steady build up of seasoning at the foot of the stock and this can begin to constrict the flow of air to that drone. Apart from eventually making the bagpipe slightly harder to blow, it may produce unsteadiness in the drone.

Test the situation for yourself. Wrap two thicknesses of yellow duster round the handle of the porridge spoon and push it down the stock, making sure that it goes right past the lower end by about an inch or two. Give it a good twist around and then pull it out. Unless you are a regular cleaner out of the stocks, after playing then the bottom part of the duster will probably have a lot of black muck on it. You should repeat the procedure with a clean part of the duster until all the muck is removed.

Mickey MacKay pictured in 1950.

There is another effect of the narrowing of the bore of the drone stock, and this one I do not understand. The late Mickey MacKay, who was at that time Pipe Major in the Cameron Highlanders, first pointed this out to me. He had found difficulty in getting a good sound and a steady tone from the drones of his pipes, and after trying the usual remedies he discovered that the internal diameter of the stock was slightly less than those of his previous bagpipe. Being a real enthusiast he took the stocks off and had them re-bored and this, he told me, solved the problem.

An examination of some of the older pipes tends to show that the internal diameter seems to have been greater, at least with some of the good instruments, in the past. If anybody has made any investigations of this nature, such as Mickey did, I would be glad to know the results.

• From the September 1988 Piping Times.

* Maintenance, part 1 – The bag (size and shape: the stocks: seasoning)