Skirl of the bagpipes is just a load of hot air

By John Dowie
Saturday 18 April 2009 01:38

Good news for music lovers - playing the bagpipes is bad for your health. At least it is according to Dr Robert Sataloff, director of the Arts Medical Centre in Philadelphia, and he should know.

Good news for music lovers - playing the bagpipes is bad for your health. At least it is according to Dr Robert Sataloff, director of the Arts Medical Centre in Philadelphia, and he should know.

Traditionally, he points out, the pipes are made from a sheepskin bag, which is coated with a treacle-like substance. This acts as a perfect culture for fungi, whose spores can be breathed in by the piper, creating potentially fatal lung and brain disease. I would have thought that it was brain disease that led to playing the bagpipes in the first place, but no.

"Bagpipers' disease," says Dr Sataloff, "is a little- known problem within the medical profession." This may be due to the fact that it doesn't exist. Enter Robert Wallace, principal of Glasgow's College of Piping. "I have been playing for 40 years," he says, as though this were something to be proud of. "Pipers are renowned for their longevity", he adds, a statement which it is hard not to perceive as some sort of threat. "Furthermore," he insists, "playing the bagpipes helps people keep fit." Damn.

A frequent visitor to Scotland, I have heard the romantic skirl of the bagpipes many times. Give me a nine-year-old practising the recorder any day. I mean, which would you prefer? Some hairy, red-kneed bloke producing the sound of a hundred cats being strangled, or a fingernail scraping a blackboard? Given the choice, I'll be in the classroom with my arms folded and my back straight.

I've sat through some bad music in my time. Accordionists, trad jazz played by middle-aged drunks, dreadful thumping stuff coming out of car windows (why is it always the people with the worst taste in music who play it the loudest?). But for teeth-grindingly awful, nerve-jarring noise, nothing beats the bagpipes.

I wouldn't mind if they could carry a tune. It doesn't matter which melodic air the bagpipe player blows into his instrument, what emerges still always sounds like "Amazing Grace".

Traditionally, of course, the Scots were preceded into battle by the sound of bagpipes. This may explain many of the massacres they have had to endure. Nothing could sharpen the enemy's resolve to kill, hurt and maim than the sound of "Scotland the Brave" advancing towards them. It is the musical equivalent of, "Do you want to step outside and say that?"

It's hard to pinpoint what it is in the Scottish character that leads to the need to inflict bagpipe music on the rest of us. Their Celtic cousins, the Irish, consume just as much whiskey as the Scots, but even they don't get so drink-befuddled that they think coating a sheepskin bag in treacle and blowing into it is a good idea. The origins of the instrument remain shrouded in mystery. No wonder.

Given that potentially fatal lung or brain disease is no deterrent, my hopes lie with the young. You won't find many 14-year-olds standing in front of their bedroom mirror playing the air bagpipes.

There's no Jimi Hendrix of the bagpipe world to act as a role model. Which, in a way, is a shame. Picture the poor, helpless parent whose rebellious offspring threaten to form a bagpipe band and practise in the spare bedroom. "We're opening with 'Anarchy In The UK'," they say. "Followed by 'Stairway to Heaven' and 'Smoke On The Water'. Now, what do you want to do? Listen to the rehearsal or buy me a car?" My theory is the keys to the Volvo will be on the kitchen table before you can say deep-fried Mars bar.

I'm not going to be the one to say that Scottish culture is a contradiction in terms. I love oatmeal, haggis and Carol Smillie. Irn Bru is wonderful. But the classic definition of a brilliant musician is someone who can play the bagpipes but doesn't. And if they do, well, you take the high road and I'll stay at home.

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