Literature of the Bagpipe – Northumbrian Music

By Roderick D Cannon

THE small-pipe of Northumberland is sometimes confused with the Irish pipe on account of its also being blown by bellows, but it is in fact an entirely distinctive instrument, and perhaps the least known of the bagpipes. It has been known since the seventeenth century, and is believed to have been developed from the French musette.18 Early forms called shuttle pipes’ had elaborately constructed drones on the French model,19 20 and in some cases at least double chanters were used, permitting various kinds of harmonisation;21 but in the eighteenth century it settled down to a simpler form — a single chanter giving a nine-note scale, and three drones. Sometime around 1800 a unique innovation was introduced: the chanter was blocked at the lower end, so that by closing all finger holes it could be silenced completely. This sacrificed the bottom note, but with the standard method of fingering, by which only one hole is ever opened at once, it made possible various kinds of articulation, including staccato and long rests between notes. This form of the instrument was catered for by John Peacock in his Favorite Collection of Tunes with Variations, c. 1805 (201). Peacock printed the scale and finger diagram, and a number of traditional tunes suited to the one-octave compass; but he himself had by this time invented a chanter with keys, extending the range of notes downwards to d’ and upwards to a”; and he arranged a number of tunes to be played on it. The trend towards greater technical development continued through the nineteenth century,22 with more notes being added to the chanter, including chromatic semitones, and additional drones for alternative harmonies in G, D and A.20

Peacock was apparently a professional musician, being one of the Newcastle Town Waits; whether he played the pipes in the course of his duties does not seem to be known, but he was remembered long after his death as a fine player, perhaps the best of his day.23 Professional piping seems not to have existed in Northumberland as it did in Scotland, though there are occasional references to ‘family pipers’, and the Duke of Northumberland seems to have patronised various players from time to time. The tradition seems to have been maintained by pipers in relatively humble circumstances who chose to devote their time and energy to their playing; and the manufacture of the instruments was carried on as a sideline by craftsmen in a variety of trades, as well as by Scottish bagpipe makers.22

Concern about the state of piping in Northumberland was voiced from time to time by various individuals. One of the early enthusiasts was Thomas Bewick, the engraver, who wrote in his memoirs, ‘At one time I was afraid that these old tunes, and this ancient instrument, might from neglect of encouragement go out of use, and I did everything in my power to prevent this and to revive it, by urging Peacock to teach pupils . . . and … I flatter myself my efforts were not lost.’24 This must have been around 1800 and what result Bewick’s efforts’ led to is not known, unless conceivably the appearance of Peacock’s book was one of them. Another interested person was Thomas Doubleday, who in 1857 published in pamphlet form an open letter to the Duke of Northumberland on ‘the ancient Northumbrian music’, urging that steps be taken to collect and preserve the pipe music of the songs of the county.25 In fact by this time the Duke had already taken some initiative, in his capacity as a patron of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Hitherto the Society, like most others of its kind, had confined its attention to research in local history and archaeology; it was and is famous especially for the work done by its members on the history of Roman Britain. The Duke ‘expressed a desire that the Society would turn its attention to the collection and preservation of the old music and poetry of the North of England’ and for this purpose the Ancient Melodies Committee was set up in 1855.26 After many vicissitudes, which have been recounted in some detail,26 27 the Committee in 1882 produced Northumbrian Minstrelsy (203) — a compendium of songs and pipe tunes, with historical notes, which has remained a standard work ever since.

A more direct effort to encourage the playing of the pipes was the institution of competitions, presumably following the Scottish example. The first of these was organised in Newcastle in 1877,26 and a small collection of tunes was published especially for the occasion (202), Peacock’s collection having long since been unobtainable. The competitions continued ‘with more or less regularity’ for a number of years,28 and then in 1893 the Northumbrian Small Pipes Society was founded. This lasted only until about 1899 but during its short life it organised more competitions,29 and issued a valuable journal;30 and one of its members, J. W. Fenwick, published the first book of instructions for the instrument (204). Then followed another period of comparative inactivity until around 1920, when another revival of interest took place. According to Askew, the prime movers in this were G. V. B. Charlton, W. A. Cocks and E. Merrick; but undoubtedly his own name should be added to the list as well. Several new series of competitions were started, the principal one, at the annual Bellingham Show, starting in 1921, and others based on various districts in rural Northumberland.26 31

Also beginning in 1921, a determined effort was made to reintroduce an older instrument, the Northumberland half-long pipe, by this time totally disused and known only in a few specimens.32 It was hoped that the half-long pipe would be generally adopted as a marching instru­ment, and it seems to have been taken up to some extent by Boy Scout troops, again with the encouragement of competitions. Askew implies that there was some attempt to persuade the military authorities to adopt the half-long pipes for the county regiment, but ‘without success’.28 A tutor and collection of tunes was issued by Cocks in 1925 (205) and over 100 copies were sold in the first six months; but the revival was not a permanent one and there are now relatively few players. The half-long pipe has no firm basis either of literature or local tradition, and it has not been able to compete with the Scottish Highland bagpipe.

The Northumbrian Pipers’ Society was formed in 1928, and by 1936 it boasted of some 110 members,28 mostly small-pipe players. New sets of pipes were made and the number of young players began to increase. The Society is still in being and nearly all subsequent music publications have appeared under its auspices.

A feature of the Northumbrian tradition is the quantity and high quality of scholarly, descriptive and musical literature produced especially in the past fifty years. The researches of Askew, Cocks and others have contributed much to knowledge of bagpipes in general, and not only to that of the Northumbrian pipes. But it must not be forgotten that the oral tradition of playing has been handed down also to the present day, if only by a few players. By common consent, the greatest Northumbrian pipers of this century were Henry Clough, who died in 1936, aged 81 years,29 and his son Tom (1881-1964).” Henry Clough had won the Gold Medal at the last competition of the Small-Pipes Society in 1899. Tom Clough presumably inherited his interest in the pipes from his father, but when he was a boy he was sent for lessons to another celebrated player, Thomas Todd. He later recalled how before being allowed to play the big tunes, he had to go through a course of progressive exercises: ‘I was never allowed to play the Barrington Hornpipe, only exercises; but when at last I was allowed to play the hornpipe I could do it straight away. I have often thought that somebody should have written down these exercises before they were forgotten.’ A feature of Northumbrian pipe music is the practice of adding long sets of variations to well-known local tunes: quite simple variations but remarkably effective when played rapidly with the articulation characteristic of the closed chanter. These variations can be traced back as far as Peacock’s collection, and according to a later writer, there were standard sets of them, used mainly in competitions. Examples of Tom Clough’s variation playing exist on a record, and have been transcribed and printed in the Charlton Memorial Collection (207). But the tradition is still alive and vigorous; the later collections contain much music successfully assimilated from other sources, as well as new compositions in what can now be recognised as a distinctively Northumbrian mode.


  1. Askew, ‘The Origins of the Northumbrian Pipes’, in Archaeologia Aeliana, 4th series, 9, pp. 68-83 (1932).
  2. Baines, cit., Ch. 6.
  3. A. Cocks and J. F. Bryan, The Northumbrian Pipes [giving details of construction of various types of small-pipe], Newcastle, 2nd edition, 1975.
  4. A. Cocks, ‘James Talbot’s Manuscript, III. Bagpipes’, in Galpin Society Journal, 5, pp. 44-47 (1952).
  5. A. Cocks, The Northumbrian Bagpipes: Their Development and Makers, Newcastle, 1933.
  6. A note in Archaeologia Aeliana, New Series, Vol. 3 (1859), p. xiii refers to Peacock as ‘the prince of pipers in his day’.
  7. T. Bewick, Memoir of Thomas Bewick Written by Himself, with an introduction by Edmund Blunden. London, 1961, pp. 111-113.
  8. Doubleday, A Letter to his Grace the Duke of Northumberland on the Ancient Northumberland Music, its Collection and Preservation. London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, 1857.
  9. C. Bruce, Introduction to Northumbrian Minstrelsy (No. 203 below), pp. [iii], iv-vii.
  10. L. Lloyd, Foreword to the 1965 reprint of Northumbrian Minstrelsy (No. 205-IV below).
  11. H. Askew, The Northumbrian Bagpipes (an 8-page pamphlet). No imprint [1936]. British Library: Cat. No. 7897.t.33.
  12. H. Askew, Medal of the Northumbrian Small Pipes Society’, Proc. Soc. Antiquaries, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Ser. 4), 7, p. 218 (1936).