The Northumbrian Smallpipes are a melodious, bellows blown bagpipe. They are rather quiet by comparison with other bagpipes and are normally played indoors. The chanter has a closed end and is played with closed fingering, giving a unique staccato character. Three drones are normally used as accompaniment – a bass and tenor tuned an octave apart, and a baritone tuned a fifth above the bass.
There are a number of forms of Northumbrian Pipes – which include the Border Pipes and the “half longs” though the Northumbrian Smallpipes are the only ones with an unbroken tradition.
Northumbrian smallpipes are all handmade, normally by craftsmen working in their homes or small workshops. Most makers have a waiting list. Traditionally, many players have made their own – there are also a range of people who also make reeds and maintain (fettle) pipes.
The piping societies often have a number of sets of hire pipes for those who would like to try before they invest in (or make) their own set.
Here at Mindrum, Tom and Freddie both play (as amateurs). We also have a small workshop in which we are learning to make and mend pipes and reeds. We are also experimenting with materials that come from Mindrum.
One of the wonderful things about the pipes is the music; traditionally tunes were written about many things, but often about events, people and places – what a wonderful way to be remembered or to remember someone or an event.
Northumberland and the North East of England are packed with visible evidence from over 5 millennia and is covered in evidence of Stoneage, Iron age, Romans, Rievers, Industrial periods and many other parts of our history, but it is easy to miss the music map. Many of our historic landmarks are remembered in the music of the region, much of it written for the Northumbrian Pipes. The Northumberland Pipers Society Website has a list of tunes (extensive though not completely exhaustive), many of which have been plotted on a tune map. If you are interested in this sort of thing – have a look – you may be able to add to it!
We have also tried our hand at writing some tunes which are attached below. I am still working on a number of others – and will add these as they are ready. I am working on getting some proper recordings, though have currently resorted to an electronic performance despite it being a bit soulless..! Please bear with me!
The tune book contains the following tunes….. This is their back story.
- Mindrum Billy – One of my first tunes which was written for Willy and Margaret Brown who were part of the Mindrum family for nearly 50 years. At various times in his career, Willy was Dairyman, Pigman and latterly head shepherd. Margaret looked after my parents for most of my life. Their son David is currently the Head shepherd. Willie loved the Northumbrian Pipes. When I was a small boy, he used to make rose hip guns out of Elder and Cherry wood for my sister and I. Freddie and I created this together for Margaret and took it to her for tea.
- The Howtel Rag – written for Tom and Jean Neil to celebrate their joint 60th Birthdays. I gather that Tom’s first car numberplate – (allegedly the car he used to court his bride), began with RAG. I couldn’t resist it. I must acknowledge significant influence from Cole Porter.
- Elmerice Fairfax – when my cousin Alexander married his wonderful Austrian Bride, Elmerice, they kindly asked me to play at their wedding. Given that every bride should have a tune written for her wedding day, I tried include a bit of an Austrian Influence. I must acknowledge slightly gratuitous influence from J. Strauss – It should be played as a waltz.
- Mist over Mindrum – a tune I started one morning whilst sitting on the top of the hill at dawn, having a look to “see what was going about”. Looking down on the early morning mist lying over the Bowmont Valley, it wasn’t hard to imagine the valley as it would have been when the Romans were here. Originally written in 3/4 – I have been playing around with it in 6/8. The Jury is still out..
- Bob’s Wood – Bob Lee was a Woodman who lived Mindrum for many years. He planted Bob’s wood by hand when he was in his 70’s. He was always bright and sparkling – fun to be about- I have long been waiting for the right tune to come along – I think this is it!
A word of caution – Having spent much of the last 40 years learning (and forgetting) tunes on both the highland and Northumberland Smallpipes, I have some concern that I have remembered rather than written elements of these tunes. Whilst I have run these past a number of people to check, it is of course possible that I have inadvertently committed plagiarism. If I have accidentally re-written a tune created by someone else… I would be enormously grateful if you would let me know on TPFairfax@gmail.com