End Drone: Curse of the MacCrimmons strikes down BPS member!By:
The headline is alarming, but until modern times the disease Dupuytren’s Contracture cold be thoroughly debilitating, and as far as a vocational bagpiper was concerned it might as well have been fatal. It is said that every generation of MacCrimmon – hereditary bagpip- ers at the court of Macleod in Dunvegan, Isle of Skye – fell victim to curling fingers that eventually prevented them from following their family calling; forced them into early retirement and, some say, extinction. These days, thankfully, we have orthopaedic surgeons and the NHS.
This Curse o’ the MacCrimmons (and the Mer-
ryweathers – my sister also has it) is the reason I’m typ-
ing this so laboriously with my left hand, correcting
every other word in the wake of cag-handed mistyping
or because the bulbous pot on my ‘good’ right hand hits
several keys together as I optimistically try to use that thumb to help type a capital letter or perform some, usually easy, deft formatting. Just you try to click your left/right mouse buttons with the wrong hand whilst employing the other, curled into a fist, for striking the keyboard!
Writing this essay is the author equivalent of Method Acting, ‘Method Writing’, in which I immerse myself completely in my subject by actually suffering the disease that makes the writing exercise difficult and the topic, playing music, impossible.
Over recent years my fingers have been deforming. First it was my left hand, on which the ring finger was worst affected, tissues knotting up within the palm and lever- ing it forward until bassooning became impossible. This was exemplified every time I tried to play my part in a beautiful Trio Sonata by J.B. de Boismortier. The C finger failed to cover its hole properly, leaking and sending notes haywire throughout the in- strument, particularly when the left thumb was employed, pulling the hand round the instrument imperceptibly, though enough to lift the fingers at the front of the instrument off their holes.
Dupuytren’s Contracture is a genetic complaint in which there is excessive build up of connective tissue in the hand (and feet and sometimes – I have read! – penis) that knots and tightens the musculature and tendons, deforming the hand. There’s a chap along the road from me who has the most severe DC I’ve seen, in which the pinkies of both hands are curled right into the palm, rigid and fixed. He’s not a musician, so was able to put up with this state of affairs for some thirty years, but has had the operation at last. Unusually (so other sufferers, do not be discouraged) he has not been cured. Follow- ing surgery, most people are delighted with the outcome, though we all might require further surgery years ahead due to the relentless return of the thickenings. I suspect Dave’s hands were too far gone or he didn’t do the exercises given him by his physio- therapist, which are an absolutely essential part of the usual swift and most satisfactory recovery. The palms heal remarkably swiftly and I was back playing with a scabby hand seventeen days after the first op, though not on bassoon. The namby-pamby oboe had to do for a while.
It’s over a year since my left hand was operated on and now it’s completely flexible, if a bit creaky due to natural aging, osteoarthritis and lumpy ‘ganglia’ on finger joints. However, once hand #1 was back in action, hand #2 decided it was time to make itself a nuisance, and this time the symptom was classic MacCrimmon: a curly right pinky with knotty lumps in the palm adjacent to it and the ring finger. This time I was able to keep playing my bassoon, thanks to its useful finger plates, but I started to miss or leak the pinky hole on bagpipes, a situation that eventually became ‘sub-optimal’, so I gently but firmly demanded surgical intervention.
Warning, but don’t be alarmed: there are nerves attached to the palm’s internal tissues that need to be pared away and pulled aside, out of the surgeon’s way while s/he routs out the rubbish that’s messed up your playing. They get a bit stretched (damaged) by this rough treatment and finger tips can lose their sensitivity. Be encouraged that after a few months feeling does gradually return to normal, and it’s better that way than that the nerve gets scalpel-nicked or severed by accident. Second time round, I asked my surgeon to take, if he possibly could, extra care of my finger nerves and as far as I can tell at this early stage in recovery, he did.
If there is any satisfaction to be gained from this annoying infirmity, it’s that this modern English bagpiper can be cured, and that his affliction is the same as that suffered by his most illustrious Scottish predecessors. Also, a Scottish bagpiper would be more seriously affected because his pinky has to exercise routine musical functions higher up the chanter as well as hitting the lower leading note.
To place these MacCrimmons in our BPS context, our mutual friend Julian Goodacre’s most splendid project of recent years has been the reconstruction of an 18th century Highland bagpipe featuring an important extant chanter that once belonged to Iain Dall MacKay (c.1656 - c.1754), the blind piper of Gairloch (a little way north of my home in Auchtertyre) who was a student of his Skye contemporary Patrick Og MacCrimmon (c.1645 - c.1730) at Borreraig (also not far from Auchtertyre). I have been unable to find out whether this specific early MacCrimmon suffered from DC.
Fancy a family with DC falling into bagpiping as a profession. Those old chaps would surely have been familiar with, and dreaded, Dupuytren’s Contracture, though not by that name. Knowing nothing of genetics, they probably blamed their music making for being the cause, but everybody be assured, it’s not your fault. It just happens to those of us who have the genetic predisposition.
I bet I’m not the only BPS member with DC. For one reason or another, every piper needs a “There, there.” now and again, so if you want to compare DC notes, do contact me for a little sympathy. There’s loads about it on the Internet and here are some good starters: