The History of the Northumbrian Pipes
by Julia Say
Copyright, Northumbrian Pipers' Society
Reprinted with permission of the author and the Society
It is not known when the first Northumbrian pipes were played in their native region. Some of the claims made are fanciful in the extreme, and most turn on the definition of "a bagpipe".
The principal characteristics of the Northumbrian instruments are the bellows and the method of mounting the drones—the common stock. The drones are a straight tube, made in two parts, and a single reed. Northumbrian smallpipes also have a chanter with a stopped end—this is almost unique amongst bagpipes world-wide.
Earliest times to 1700
Mouth-blown bagpipes of various types are recorded throughout the Middle Ages in most parts of England. Much of this "recording" in is the form of carvings in cathedrals. The type of pipe illustrated is generally more closely related to the modern Highland bagpipe than to anything distinctly "Northumbrian". This one- or two-drone "English" bagpipe, sometimes with a double chanter, survived until the first half of the eighteenth century [see articles on pages 28 and 31-ed.]. (There is one school of thought suggesting that stonemasons employed in the building of England’s cathedrals were largely of Italian origin, and that they carved representations of instruments they knew from their home regions.)
The first known treatise on musical instruments (1511), mentions only mouth-blown bagpipes. The first bellows-blown instrument appears in a much-quoted publication of 1618 (Praetorius). It was probably about the middle of the 16th century that bellows-blown pipes first appeared. They were most likely imported from the Low Countries or Germany, almost simultaneously appearing in England, the Scottish Lowlands, and Ireland.
As noted above, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Northumbrian pipes is having all their drones mounted in a common stock, and this feature is also thought to have been introduced from the Low Countries or Germany (where now-extinct pipes had this form) at about the same time as bellows. It seems certain that, by the early 17th century, there were forms of the Border and Northumbrian pipes, as well as musettes with shuttle drones (originating from France), being played in Lowland Scotland, Northern England, and Ireland; in addition to the English mouth-blown pipes mentioned above. The Highland pipes were by this point in a largely separate, and isolated, chain of development.
The local records of Northumbria, particularly close to the Border, are extremely patchy. There does not seem to be any mention of musical instruments amongst the "gear" listed as stolen in any of the Border raids—had bagpipes been a major feature of this culture they would surely have appeared in lists of household valuables recorded when the victims of Border raids attempted to gain recompense through official channels. The first records of pipers are from the 17th century. In 1633, unnamed pipers were paid for playing to road menders at their work in Gateshead. There are town pipers, or Waits, recorded in Alnwick (1680s), Hawick, Jedburgh (1500 onwards), and Hexham (1665–80). In 1681 two pipers, Thomas Anderson of Swinhoe and Anthony Trewman of Ruddington, fell foul of the Church laws by piping before a bridegroom on his way to church, amongst other offenses. Robert Trumble was described as a "piper of Rothbury" at his marriage in 1664; and slightly later we know of Miller Anderson of Cambo (1700); the Dixon family of Stamfordham, whose writings in 1733 when William was in his 50s, furnish us with some of the oldest written bagpipe music in the British Isles; and of course, the infamous Allan family—Will was born in 1704, and was probably an active piper by 1730. Two pipers from Coquetdale took part in the 1715 Jacobite uprising.
It seems likely that all of these were playing a form of what we now call Border pipes, at least for their outdoor work. The instrument usually had three drones (as today), and was bellows-blown. Its chanter was open-ended, had a conical bore (so was fairly loud), and the fingering was similar to the earlier mouth-blown bagpipes. Exactly how many, and which, notes it produced is currently a matter of active debate. With all these examples recorded of officially paid pipers, Border pipes must have been in existence since 1600 at the very latest.
At the same time there was another type of fingering system, known as closed fingering, used on the musette chanter, which had a parallel bore. This chanter design gave a much quieter instrument, suitable for indoor playing, but still had an open end. Chanters of this type were then combined with Border pipe style drones, and these relatively quiet pipes with an open-ended chanter survived for a while, but then seem to have died out. At some point in the 17th century, probably around the end of the English Civil War, someone unknown stopped the end of their chanter, and produced the first recognizable instrument of Northumbrian smallpipe type, though where this happened is also unknown. The description by Talbot in 1695 (see NPS mag. Vol 19) of an instrument of this type is referred to as "Scottish", but Talbot was working in London, and this could easily include Northern England in the terminology of the time. This description was known of, and read by, researchers in the early 20th century (principally W.A. Cocks, see below), but he seems to have missed the crucial fact that the description of tuning specifically states that the drone should be tuned to the lowest note of the chanter (i.e., there is no "leading note" as there is on a Scottish smallpipe) and provides a diagram indicating which note this is. (In a description of another instrument, Talbot specifically mentions a "bell" or open-ended note.) From this we infer that the instrument probably did not have an open end.
We can therefore state with some certainty that a form of Northumbrian smallpipe, with a one-octave, stopped-end chanter, playing a diatonic major scale, and with three drones, has existed since at least the last quarter of the 17th century. [While Talbot’s "lowest note" is indicated as G, the chanter may have been somewhat different pitch.] From what we know and can deduce about the early repertoire of the instrument, it seems likely that it developed in the 1650–80 period, which was a time of great experiment with instruments of all forms.
It was also the time of the Restoration (of Charles II) when, in Scotland at least, there began to be a relaxation of the laws and strictures of society against general merriment, and dancing in particular. Despite the common view that English Puritans were also of this persuasion, the available evidence suggests that even immediately south of the Border, those in authority were fair less repressive than their Scottish counterparts. (The authorities in the majority of Northumberland and Durham were not, in any case, of the Puritan faction.) The Restoration period generally was marked by a frankness of language and behavior in society, which is apparent in many of its songs and other publications—and the fact that some of the piping tunes we have inherited share this characteristic (despite the efforts of Victorian editors)—lends weight to the surmise that Northumbrian smallpipes were developing their first repertoire at this time.
Throughout most of the 18th century, both Border pipes and Northumbrian smallpipes remained largely static in design.
Many of the players of whom we have record (Allan, Lamshaw, Turnbull, etc.) are known to have played both types. In addition there was a third type of pipe, played by these players and others, and widespread through the British Isles. This was the Pastoral pipe, also known as the Union, Hybrid Union or Irish pipe. It was popularized partly due to a taste by the aristocracy for things "Pastoral" (equated to rural and idyllic). It also had drones in a common stock, but unlike most other pipes was capable of a chanter range of two chromatic octaves—if the tutor for it published in London in 1747 is to be believed. It also sometimes had one or more "regulators", supplementary structures fitted to the drone stock, which were, in effect, closed-end chanters with keys. These enabled the player to produce additional harmonies to his tune.
During the 18th century a great upsurge in the popularity of fiddle music, both for dancing and listening, occurred, primarily in Scotland but also in Northern England. Some of the pipers were also fiddlers, and were able to play these "new" tunes only on the Pastoral pipes, to their evident frustration. Adaptations of these tunes to the restricted 9-note (in the case of Border pipes), or 8-note (Northumbrian smallpipe) chanters were attempted, with varying degrees of success. The "new" tunes were played alongside the "airs with variations" which had been played since the very early days of the instrument, and which had been further developed by the outstanding pipers of the day. It seems to have been this perceived limitation in repertoire which led to the next wave of development.
Though we do not know of any specific makers of the bellows pipes much before 1800, it seems likely that they were never commonly a home-made instrument. Craftsmen such as joiners and cabinet-makers, and those whose principal employment involved the use of a lathe, seem to have frequently made pipes as a sideline. Towards the end of the 18th century experimentation on the design of pipes became common—Pastoral pipes acquired extra regulators and sometime in the 1790s, John Dunn of Newcastle, a joiner, put the first four keys on a Northumbrian smallpipe at the request of John Peacock—see below. (Border pipes seem to have received little attention and started to disappear.)
There was an extremely active circle of interconnected pipers in and around Newcastle at the time. In addition to smallpipes, some also played Border pipes, others Pastoral pipes or fiddle. Most were professional craftsmen of one sort or another, or were able to mix in that level of society. Included amongst this group were John Dunn himself; Jimmy Allan, by now an elderly man; William Lamshaw, the Duke of Northumberland's piper; his grandson, also William; Robert Reid, a Border piper and cabinet-maker; and his more famous son Robert who later made keyed smallpipes; Henry Cleugh, the second generation of his family to play, and possibly taught by Lamshaw; William Cant, who had played pipes in the Northumberland Militia and was now a publican in charge of an extremely convenient meeting place in the Side, Newcastle; and John Peacock, the last of the Newcastle Waits, and reputedly one of the best performers of the time. They were supported by a few local admirers of the instrument, such as Thomas Bewick, the engraver.
With such a hothouse of musical talent meeting relatively regularly, and sometimes competing, it is hardly surprising that Robert Reid the younger had, by 1810, developed and produced a 7-key chanter on which much of the previously inaccessible fiddle repertoire could be attempted. At some point he had moved to North Shields, where his primary occupation was that of umbrella-maker and music seller, but probably with the assistance of, and ideas from, the active pipers around him, he also produced the first known sets of Northumbrian smallpipes with four drones, stops, and tuning beads, by which drone harmonies for keys other than G major could be easily used with the expanded range of the chanter. By the time of his death in 1837 he had made the chanter almost fully chromatic from D above middle C to B almost two octaves above.
Robert Reid's son, James took over his business, describing himself in the 1851 census as a professional instrument maker, and shared his designs with other interested makers such as John Baty of Wark and Robert Hall of Powburn. Examples of the new keyed smallpipes had spread from Tyneside to encompass the current playing area (and beyond) in the first half of the nineteenth century, but by about 1840 the number of players was starting to dwindle. Most of the outstanding players mentioned above were dead by the 1820s, and only Robert Bewick, Thomas' son, remained of the earlier group in Newcastle. There were players scattered throughout the county of Northumberland, though most still had intermittent contact with others. James Reid, encouraged by one or two enthusiasts, and along with John Baty, extended the chanter range further, to low B, and increased the number of possible drones to six, though this proved rather unwieldy.
By the 1850s the Border pipes had effectively died out, at least in Northumberland and the counties immediately adjacent to both sides of the Scottish border. They seem to have survived a short while longer in the Aberdeenshire area.
Though today the possible range of a Northumbrian pipe chanter is even further extended and there are instruments available in a variety of pitches, the evolutionary history of the instrument itself finishes with the Reids. The continuation of the Northumbrian piping tradition becomes primarily a history of piping and pipers rather than one of instrumental development.
(The above material is taken from on-going research notes, which hopefully will become a book published in 2005 or 20006. Consequently, the conclusions may be subject to change as more information is uncovered. Author)
Julia Say first heard Northumbrian smallpipes in 1970 and began playing them twenty years later. She soon became fascinated by the history and tradition of the instrument and its music. She has helped to produce several of the Northumbrian Pipers Society's recent publications, compiling "Billy Pigg—the Border Minstrel" in 1997, and most recently writing The Clough Family of Newsham" with Chris Ormston.
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