My nearly two-years-old sheepskin bagpipe bag has begun to leak. I discovered leakage accidentally when I removed the bag cover for some reason. The horror! I got the bag, my first sheepskin, in Glasgow from James C. Begg himself, who transferred my 2007 Naill DN2 pipes from the Gannaway hide bag into the new bag at his basement shop in May 2012. Actually, his assistant did the work while Begg and I chatted over a pint at a nearby pub, tended – strangely enough – by a rather fetching Virginian lass in her 20s.
Where was I? Oh yeah – I’d heard a wide range of longevity predictions for my bag: from 6 months (from a member of the Scottish Power Pipe Band) to 5 years (from a Grade 2 piper working on the 5th year of his first sheepskin bag, which – when I asked to see it – looked like a leather-esque, old road-killed goose. So I had no idea what to expect or when I’d need to get a new one. And there would not be any other type of bag, since the sheepskin had eclipsed the sound and feel of the synthetic and Gannaway hide bags I’d used prior.
It’s a long story that shouldn’t be told here, but suffice it to say that I had a “spare” sheepskin bag sitting around like so much stiff white leathery cardboard. Its time, I knew, would come. But I kept putting it off, even though I had a new set of Naill stocks with engraved silver I wanted to put in it. I was going to do it last summer, but chickened out. Then I was hoping to do it this Spring Break, but this long weekend I found some spare time and thought, “Why not? What’s the worst thing that could happen? I’ll botch the job and inadvertently strangle myself with artificial sinew?”
I found some instructions on Keith Bowes’ website; Bowes is the “other” sheepskin bag maker in Scotland, next to Begg, but Begg’s new website did away with the instruction his old site had. You can download the PDF instructions from Bowes’ site, which were really helpful. I also used Andrew Lenz’s helpful instructions from his awesome website.
Still, the task was daunting. The first step is really the one that terrified me the most before I began, and which had for so long kept me from initiating the activity: cutting holes in the bag seemed like sacrilege, not to mention potentially catastrophic. Instructions were cryptic, but I took the plunge and made the first cut, thinking of “Doc Martin” and his hemophobia-induced surgical squeamishness. I used my fading bag as a model, and the holes Begg’s man had cut while we drank Smithwick’s nearby were little starry affairs, with residual blue ballpoint marks outlining the points.
After cutting all the stock holes with my super-sharp Exacto Knife, following Bowes’ measuring directions, which worked out perfectly in the end, the next step was to get the center tenor stock loaded. Bowes’ instructions tell you to use a hammer to slightly enlarge the bass stock hole and stick the tenor stock through it and into position, but I didn’t want to enlarge the bass hole for fear of ripping the bag. So I crammed the tenor stock through the chanter stock opening, and did not use any Vaseline or dish soap or any other lubricant. My hands still hurt from passing that stock.
Once inside the bag, it wasn’t too tough to get the ferrule into position to emerge through the starry hole. I positioned the bag on the table so the grooved end of the stock rested flat on the table and held the bag on either side of the stock and pushed it down until about midway down the stock. Then it became a matter of finessing the stock so the groove was – as Bowes’ site instructs – about 1/3″ below the cut. I took this to mean below the lowest part of the cut, and not the tip of the starry points (which were 1/2″ long).
Here’s where it got tough. Having wrapped about 30 feet of artificial sinew on the dowel I’d made, and putting it under my feet, I followed Bowes’ instructions carefully. But manipulating the bag so I could wrap the sinew around the groove and pull it tight enough proved tricky. The bag, for one, was stiff and I was afraid to be rough with it. Once I started working the bag, though, I figured out that I had to reform the bag so I could grab a hold of the stock in order to get the wraps of sinew around the groove. But I was still too easy with it: once I’d made one wrap in the groove and put the loop under the next wrap, I was afraid the sinew might cut the sheepskin so I didn’t pull it tightly enough. So I ended up with 8 wraps of sinew and a stock that easily twisted in the bag. Lenz’s instructions tell you that if this happens, you must redo it. Arg! As I was struggling to take the sinew off I thought, “Why don’t I just wrap over this since it’s already in the bag and I can tighten it up with new wraps?” That’s what I did. I hope it wasn’t a mistake. When I was finished, I had a stock that was tied into the correct spot in the bag, and it didn’t budge.
The next stocks (outside tenor, then, bass, then blowpipe) got a little easier, aside from the outside tenor’s hole ripping slightly, making it hard to keep the groove from coming clear through the starry hole. I struggled with this for a while before putting a screw clamp over the star points to hold the stock where it needed to be and then wrap it and tie it off.
I followed the chanter stock instructions as closely as I could from Bowes’ instructions and from looking at my existing bag. But it still didn’t end up looking quite the same as either. And, perhaps fatefully, I didn’t put any “foreign” substance in the seam groove. We’ll see if it works once I get the bag seasoned and airtight.
Below is a sequence of photos from my first attempt at tying in a new bag: