Pride – and bags of enthusiasm

The pipes, the pipes are calling - and Environment Editor Tony Henderson responds.

The pipes, the pipes are calling - and Environment Editor Tony Henderson responds.

Sounds can be just as much a part of the spirit of a place as the sights.

Out on the hills and moors of the North-East, the bubbling sound of the curlew or the skylark's uplifting melody enrich the experience.

Another sound which encapsulates the often haunting beauty of the region is man-made - that of the Northumbrian small pipes.

And Morpeth in Northumberland is privileged to have an internationally-important collection of Northumbrian pipes which are of as much interest to students of the archaeology of music in Britain as they are to the general visitor.

The collection of bagpipes, which also includes Scots, Irish and other instruments from across Europe, is held in Morpeth's medieval Chantry building. Dating from the late 13th Century, the Chantry has had a chequered existence and, as well as the bagpipes, it houses the town's visitor information and Northumbrian crafts centres.

The core of the bagpipes collection was built up by William Alfred Cocks and numbers around 120 instruments, to which the Chantry has added another 30 with the earliest dating from the 17th Century.

It is both an archive and a tribute to the clear, sweet sound of the Northumbrian pipes, which occupy a key place in the region's cultural heritage and identity.

"People are usually amazed at how bagpipes are found across Europe. They have been about for a long time - Shakespeare mentions them and Chaucer's miller played them," says collection curator Anne Moore. "But in England it is only the Northumbrian pipes which have survived. You don't get Yorkshire pipes or Surrey pipes. It is something to be proud of."

William Cocks, who died in 1971, was a master clockmaker from Ryton in Gateshead - and a member of the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries for 51 years.

He was, by all accounts, a shy man who devoted much of his time to making, playing and collecting bagpipes. A meticulous individual, he kept a record of every transaction he made and a maintenance log of each set of pipes he produced or purchased, and he backed it all up with research and the gathering of historical material on the bagpipes.

On his death, he left his collection to the Society of Antiquaries, which kept it in its base at the Black Gate in Newcastle for 15 years.

During that time, Whitley Bay Northumbrian piper Colin Ross was honorary curator of the collection.

It was transferred to the Chantry where it would be more accessible to the public and where conditions were better for the instruments.

Colin is chairman of the Northumbrian Pipers Society, which is growing steadily and has over 700 members.

As well as playing, Colin makes sets of pipes and has just completed an order from California. He says: "I have always felt that the pipes evoke the moors and hills, which make up a large part of the county. Scots abroad feel the same way about the Highland pipes and the same applies to people from the North-East.

"The Northumbrian pipes are very particular to Northumberland and North Durham and if we lost them then it would be like losing a language.

"They are something we can't afford to lose. You can open as many posh bars and restaurants as you like, but people are proud of their cultural heritage."

Bagpipes have been played in England for, it seems, at least 600 years - a 15th Century carving in Hexham Abbey portrays a player. Another instrument, the Border or half-long bagpipes - bigger and better for playing outdoors - are also used in Northumberland and lowland Scotland. The Northumbrian small pipes operate by bellows pumped by the player's arm.

"It started out as a little instrument which played simple tunes," says Colin.

But that changed when keys were fitted which improved the small pipes' versatility and allowed the adaptation of fiddle music.

Famous pipe makers include Jamie Allan, born in Hepple in Northumberland in the 1730s. He appears to have been a bit of lad. He was employed at Alnwick Castle but is said to have deserted from the Army and to have married three times. He died in 1810 in the Durham House of Correction after being sentenced to transportation following a conviction for horse stealing. But he still had his fans. A free pardon from the Prince Regent arrived just after Jamie's death.

The first piper to be employed by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland was Joseph Turnbull, whose portrait of 1756 hangs in the castle.

John Dunn was making pipes in Newcastle in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries while Robert Reid, born in 1784 and based in North Shields, is held to be the finest maker of the small pipes. He was succeeded by his son, James.

Pipemakers in the 20th Century included Jack Armstrong and Bill Hedworth, from Gateshead.

Among today's pipe makers are David Burleigh, who first set up in business in Morpeth in the early 1970s and is now based in Longframlington.

Over the last 35 years, David has made 2,879 sets of Northumbrian small pipes, supplying anywhere from the Falkland Islands to Nepal and Alaska.

The Northumbrian pipes have been brought to a wider audience by local players like Kathryn Tickell and Pauline Cato.

Colin Ross, who has played the Northumbrian pipes for 40 years, says: "I have always been fascinated by the pipes. Bagpipes developed in medieval times and, compared to other instruments of the time, they were the electrical instruments of their day. They were extraordinarily powerful.

"There's been a revival in the Northumbrian pipes since the folk movement of the 1960s. Whereas in the past there have been ups and downs, growth in recent years has been steady and the future looks secure."

The Northumbrian pipers meet on the first Monday of every month at 7.30pm in the Chantry and also on the third Saturday afternoon. Visitors are welcome.

They also meet at the Red Bull pub in Morpeth on the first and third Wednesday evening of the month.


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