What are Northumbrian Smallpipes?

The Northumbrian Smallpipes are a melodious, bellows blown bagpipe. They are softly spoken in comparison with other bagpipes and are normally played indoors.

The chanter has a closed end and is played with closed fingering, giving a beautiful and 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.

History of the Northumbrian Smallpipes

Bagpipes were widely played by the 12th Century but it's difficult to trace the origins of the Northumbrian Smallpipes from much earlier than the 17th Century. There are some mentions in written accounts, some manuscripts and pictures but no clear trail outlining the history and development of the pipes in Northumberland and the Borders before this time. There are some mentions of pipers, but 'pipes' were a generic term for a number of musical instruments at this time including flutes and whistles. Some instruments remain from the 18th century, and the development of the Northumbrian Smallpipes from then to now is clearer.

The earliest known description of instruments resembling Smallpipes in Britain is in the Talbot manuscript from about 1695. It mentions a bellows-blown 'Bagpipe, Scotch', with three drones and a keyless chanter with a one-octave range from G to g. Each note was sounded by uncovering a single hole in the same way as they are played now. This seems to have been a closed-ended chanter, for the lowest note is sounded by uncovering the lowest finger-hole and there was no bell-note sounding when all the holes were covered. The use of such bagpipes seems to have been widespread across Europe at this time so it would be wrong to say they were unique to Northumberland.

These instruments seem to have been well-established in Northumberland by the early 18th century; many of the tunes in the William Dixon manuscript from 1730's are suitable for such simple sets. Soon after this the first keys were added and these early developments are documented in Peacocks manuscript 'A Favorite Collection of Tunes with Variations Adapted for the Northumberland Small Pipes, Violin, or Flute'. This was first published by William Wright of Newcastle in about 1800 and the manuscript includes a picture and the fingering chart for the 'New Invented Pipe Chanter with the addition of Four Keys'.

 An early 4 Key Chanter from the Peacock Manuscript

The first of these were probably made by John Dunn. The four keys were the low F sharp, E and D below the fingered notes, and the high A above them. Two early pipe tunes written for such an instrument are "Lamshaw's Fancy", and "Shields Fair". Lamshaw died in 1806, but is known to have played the 'improved smallpipes'; although only one of these tunes bears his name, the other probably commemorates the Tynemouth and North Shields Fair, inaugurated in 1804. Lamshaw played there in his capacity as the Duke's piper.

In subsequent years, the design was developed and refined further by Robert Reid and his son James; in particular, more keys were added. The design of the seven key chanter was established by them by about 1820 and this remains the instrument used by the majority of Northumbrian Pipers today.

Chanters were soon developed with more keys, up to 17, to permit the playing of a wider range of tunes and allow access to much of the fiddle repertoire.

The chanter has a double reed. Traditionally, the chanter has been pitched somewhere between F and F sharp, with the older instruments often being closer to what is now F sharp.

There are usually four drones on a set of Northumbrian pipes, mounted in parallel in a common stock. These are tunable, and three will usually be tuned to the tonic, dominant and octave tonic, the other one being shut off. Like the chanter, these have a narrow cylindrical bore. Unlike the chanter, though, the reeds have a single blade.

As well as a tuning slide for precise adjustment of tuning, each drone will usually possess one or two 'bead holes' allowing its pitch to be raised by a tone or two, therefore allowing the piper to play in different musical keys, but still generally using the tonic, dominant and octave tonic combination of drone harmony.

Playing Style

As the chanter has a closed end, when all the fingers are in place the chanter is silent. Thus the traditional Northumbrian Piping style is to play each note slightly staccato. Each note is only sounded by lifting one finger or operating one key. The aim is to play each note separated from the next by a moment of silence. "The notes should come out like peas". This traditional style can be traced back to at least 1857 when Thomas Doubleday published an open letter to the Duke of Northumberland about the "ancient music of Northumberland. He wrote that-

"The Northumbrian pipe is played upon by means of the method called 'close fingering', for which it is calculated. This method of stopping allows only one finger being lifted at a time. Thus this instrument is limited to a single octave; and this (little as it is) admits of all the airs, to which it is really suited, being executed by its means; with the additional improvement that it may be played perfectly in tune, whilst the tones it produces being staccato and of a clear, ringing, pearly and brilliant character, gives the instrument a power which its appearance by no means promises, and which is really surprising when the diminutive size of its chanter or melody-pipe is considered".

Similar information is found through the manuscripts, letter and notes from the Clough family from Newsham. Their piping pedigree can be anecdotally traced back to when Tom Clough or even his Father James played at Elsdon Fair in about 1800. Some recordings of this style were made of Tom Clough in 1929, and Chris Ormston could be described as the leading proponent and gatekeeper of the traditional style today.


The earliest bagpipe tunes from Northumberland, or indeed from anywhere in the British Isles, are found in William Dixon's manuscript from the 1730s. Some of these can be played on Border pipes or an open-ended smallpipe like the modern Scottish smallpipes, but about half the tunes have a single octave range and sound well on the single-octave, simple, keyless Northumbrian pipe chanter. These tunes are almost all extended variation sets of dance tunes in various rhythms – reels, jigs, compound triple-time tunes (now known as slip jigs), and triple-time hornpipes.

At the beginning of the 19th century the first collection specifically for Northumbrian smallpipes was published, John Peacock's Favorite Collection. Peacock was the last of the Newcastle Waits (musical watchmen), and probably the first smallpiper to play a keyed chanter. The collection contains a mixture of simple dance tunes, and extended variation sets. A pupil of Peacock, Robert Bewick, the son of Thomas Bewick the engraver, left five manuscript notebooks of pipe tunes. Dated between 1832 and 1843, these are from the earliest decades in which keyed chanters were common, and they give a good early picture of the repertoire of a piper at this stage in the modern instrument's development.

As keyed chanters became more common, fiddle tunes were commonly played such as those by the Tyneside fiddler James Hill. Many of these have became a significant part of the current repertoire but pipers such as Billy Pigg have also been prolific tune writers and left a significant body of work. His playing style has also been a major influence on many modern players.

Although many pipers now predominantly play dance tunes, waltzes and slow airs, extended variation sets have continued to form an important part of the repertoire especially for pipers who wish to play in perhaps the purest form.