The Pipes

The Northumbrian Pipes is a term covering two different types of bagpipe played in the region. These are The Northumbrian Smallpipes and the Border or Half-Long pipes.

Border Pipes (George & James Young, Alnwick ca.1770)
Ivory keyed Smallpipes

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. The sound of the chanter has been likened to the singing of a lark over the drones sounding like the buzzing of bees.

Keyless ivory set of Smallpipes, John Dunn (ca. 1764–1820)

The current form of the pipes was developed by makers in Newcastle-on-Tyne and North Shields towards the end of the 18th century, when the addition of chanter keys extended the melodic range of the chanter beyond an octave. This allowed pipers to explore the fiddle repertoire as well as the older pipe tunes of the region. Playing tunes with different key signatures required a variety of drone tunings which led to: the addition of more drones; stoppers to turn off those which conflicted with the melody; and tuning beads to widen the selection of pitches.

Border Half-Long Pipes, owned by Joseph Crawhall c.1850

The Society also supports the Border or Half-long pipes (also known in Scotland as the Lowland pipes). These are also bellows-blown but have an open-ended, conical-bored chanter and are somewhat louder than the Smallpipes.

Also known variously as the ‘common pipes’ or even just the ‘big pipes’, they were played throughout most of Northern England and Scotland until the late 1800s and possibly had a repertoire similar to the early smallpipes.