John Shone, an expert in classical piping, first learned to play while a member of the Boys’ Brigade seven decades ago and has practised daily ever since.
But the 77-year-old’s love of Scotland’s national instrument was sorely tested after he inhaled fungal spores which had colonised his bagpipes.
The College of Piping has now warned pipers to be aware of the dangers of not cleaning their bagpipes properly, particularly those that have modern synthetic bags, which do not demand the traditional maintenance treatments that help keep old-style bags, made from hide, clean.
Shone, a former committee member of the Piobaireachd Society, was preparing to play at a special event in September when he fell ill during a fishing trip to Scotland. He was forced to return to his Wiltshire home.
His GP prescribed antibiotics but they did not work and he was admitted to hospital. Two days later, he was sent home, but a week later his health deteriorated rapidly and he was quickly readmitted to hospital.
As he lay in a critical condition, doctors were mystified by the cause of his illness and struggled in vain for more than a week to cure him using a variety of antibiotics.
“I was extremely tired and slowly fading away and my consultant told me it was life-threatening,” said Shone, who added that he had been told the spores he had inhaled had a 50 per cent chance of killing him.
“I became very much weaker and it was obvious to my consultant and my son that they were dealing with a life-or-death situation,” he added.
It was only after a consultant questioned him about his hobbies that a possible cause was found.
Shone’s son was then asked to bring his father’s bagpipes into the hospital for tests. Pathologists there discovered a heavy growth of fungal cultures lurking inside, enabling doctors to prescribe an effective treatment.
Shone said he had just recovered from a previous illness, which he believes may have weakened his immune system before the spores entered his lungs. But he is anxious to ensure other pipers avoid a similar ordeal – highlighted in the Piping Times, bible of the bagpiping world.
Despite his month-long hospital stay, during which he lost a stone in weight, Shone, a former managing director of a food company, has taken up the pipes again, although he makes sure he cleans them regularly.
“I am now back playing but it is taking some time to develop the stamina of old,” he said.
Traditional bagpipes are made of hide and need regular “seasoning” to seal pores in the skin. The substance used for this acts as a natural cleanser. Bags made from man-made materials are supposed to have reduced the need for such frequent upkeep.
Shone said, as he was preparing for an important performance, that he had not wanted to tamper with his pipes as they were “going well” and so he had neglected to clean them for 18 months.
Robert Wallace, principal of the Glasgow-based College of Piping, said he had never heard of bagpipes causing such a serious illness before, but cautioned: “It’s very important that all pipers make sure they sterilise their pipe bag regularly. With the advent of synthetic bags, this maintenance is even more essential.”
According to the National Piping Centre, there are at least 7,000 bagpipe players in Scotland alone, with thousands more around the world. Different types of bagpipes are found in many cultures, and some form of the instrument is believed to have been played in the Middle East as long ago as 1,000 BC.
The use of synthetic bags has become popular with pipers because they are supposed to require less maintenance than traditional bags made of animal skin, which often need to be replaced on an annual basis. Synthetic bags usually come with a zipper on the side to allow access for cleaning.