Article by Richard Butler on the Ducal Pipers of Alnwick Castle
The engagement of pipers by the House of Northumberland predates the creation of the Dukedom in 1756. Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry contains the following passage:
'As the household of Northumberland had anciently three minstrels attending on them in their castle in Yorkshire, so they still retain them in their service in Northumberland. They wear the badge of the family, a silver crescent on the right arm, and are thus distributed, viz. one for the Barony of Prudhoe and two for the Barony of Rothbury. These attend the Court Leets and Fairs held for the Lord and pay their annual Suit and Service at Alnwick Castle, their instrument being the ancient Northumbrian Bagpipe.'
Walpole in 1752, writing of the Percy family, states:
'They are building at Northumberland House, at Sion, at Stanwick and at Alnwick and Warkworth Castle. They live by the etiquette of the Peerage, have Swiss porters and the Countess has her pipers.'
Who the all pipers were or how many there we will probably never know. But from The Life of James Allan the Countess is is recorded that in 1746 or 1747 the Countess requested the attendance at Alnwick Castle of James (or Jamie) Allan.
James Allan was, by all accounts, an amazing character. Born in the Gypsy camp in Rothbury in 1729, he was throughout his life in and out of favour with the Countess and Militia for his varies exploits and misdemeanours. Much of the information about Allan is to be obtained from two books written after his death in 1810. Clearly much of which is 'editorial licence' and probably more imagination than fact. Although both very similar in content, as a gypsie musician to have your life document in two substantial books at the beginning of the nineteenth century must be a reflection of the larger than life character. The boundaries between fact and fiction are clearly blurred. In both books, we are told that the Countess gave him a silver set of ivory pipes (there is not a record in the Percy Archives of this set of pipes), which he played at the Coronation of George III, was throw out of the castle for thieving and deserted from the army on more than one occasion. We are also told of his incredible adventures in Europe, Asia and Africa where he witnessed murders, escaped from prison and the French, had numerous liaisons with the fairer sex and played his pipes where ever anybody would listen. Surely a larger than life character. But we do know as fact that in 1803 he was charged with robbery and sentenced to death but received his Majesty's pardon on condition he be transported to Botany Bay. His health failed so he was never deported and he died on 13th November 1810 at the age of seventy-seven in Durham jail where he was buried. The final twist in the story being that on the 15th February 1810 a petition to his Majesty soliciting a free pardon was raised, but because of his Majesty's ill health it was never signed. It was eventually signed by the Prince Regent, but it arrived at the jail on the 17th November. To get such a pardon he must had contacts; possibly the Countess. But we may never know who.
According to the Life of James Allan, James Allan played the pipes at the request of the Countess, wore the Crusade Trophy of the Percys on his right arm, the Sarecen's Crescent in silver, but whether or not he was the first official piper is debatable. With the position came certain duties and there is no record of Allen sted undertake them. It is recorded in Alnwick Castle on a painting of Joseph Turnbull ' Piper to the Duchess of Northumberland 1756' . As the Dukedom was not created until 1766 it is possible he was appointed in 1756 and the label added later. Furthermore, William Green, a Ducal Piper, in his minutes dated 1856 to Mr Kell, Secretary of the Ancient Melodies Committee, states 'Joe Turnbull was the first Piper at Alnwick Castle - that was ever!'. Maybe a clear reference to the supposition of James Allen being a Ducal Piper. Even today's piping community are split as to who was the first Ducal Piper.
It is not possible to determine when Joe Turnbull ceased to be the Ducal Piper, but in 1780 William Lamshaw (Senior) was appointed Piper to the Duchess holding the position until 1800 when William Lamshaw (Junior) appointed Piper to the Duchess the position he held until 1806 when at the age of twenty-five he died of tuberculosis.
William Green (Senior), who was the owner of the Seven Starts in Morpeth, was appointed Piper to the Duchess in the same year. During this time he also fought and played the pipes in the French Wars and was a Pipe major in the army. He held the position for forty-thee years until 1849 when William Thomas (Tom) Green (Junior) was appointed Piper to the Duchess. As a piper at Cragside, Rothbury, before the future Edward III. He was piper to three successive Duchesses with Duchess Eleanor giving him a set of ivory and silver pipes. The location of this set of pipes is not know.
Tom was required to play at a number of functions including the fairs and courts where the Duke of Northumberland was Lord of the Manor; Corbridge, Ovingham, Newburn, Stagshawbank, Warkworth, Harbottle, North Shields, Tynemouth, Bellingham, Elsdon, Wark, Alnwick, and Rothbury. All undertaken on foot.
To promote the failing interest in the pipes, the Ancient Melodies Committee was established by the Duke, to collect ancient melodies recommended the appointment of a second piper to help promote the pipes. So in 1857 James Reid, a noted maker of the pipes, of North Shields was appointed.
It was about this period that Piper to the Duchess 'changed' to Piper to the Duke with Tom Green now referring to himself as the Piper to the Duke.
In 1892 Tom Green retired and James Hall was appointed Piper to the Duke on the 8th October after open competition for the position. He was paid £30 per annum and given a list of duties by the Duke's Commissioner; included playing at fairs and courts throughout Northumberland. In this respect a letter from Mr Wheeler, commissioner to the Duke, listed Halls exact duties including:
- Elsdon fair - 26 th August
- Meet at Corbridge proceed to Stagshawbank
- Stagshawbank Saturday before Whitsun
- North shields fair - meet at the quay at 12 noon
- Ovingham fair
James Hall was piper to three successive Dukes of Northumberland, and played before the Royal Family on their visits to Alnwick Castle as was the last of the pipers to be engaged on a full time basis as a musician.
In 1931 James Hall retired and James Byrnes was appointed Piper to the Duke. James Byrnes worked for the Northumberland Estates in Alnwick Castle and his only official piping duty was to play at the Shrove Tuesday football match.
James Hall was the last piper to be employed by the Northumberland Estates.
In 1949 Jack Armstrong was appointed Piper to the Duke with his only official duty to play at the Shrove Tuesday football match. Other functions at the discretion of the Duke. In his time Jack was a great exponent of the pipes not only as a player but also as a maker. During his time he inspired many people to take up the playing and making of the pipes. My father being a great enthusiast of the pipes arranged for me to have 'lessons from the master' with regular visits to his house in Wideopen to be taught the art from the age of eleven. His enthusiasm rubbed off on to me, when in 1965 at the age of fourteen I entered and won the open piping competition organised by the Northumbrian Pipers' Society. From that day I owe a great dept to my father and Jack for their encouragement and help.
In 1971 due to ill health Jack retired and Tom Matthews was appointed Piper to the Duke. As with Jack his only official duty was to play at the Shove Tuesday football match. He held the position until ill health forced him to retired.
I was appointed by the 10th Duke in 1982. That year I received two letters from the Estates office on behalf of the Duke. The first was the letter of appointment with an instruction to attend the next Shove Tuesday Football match. The second letter was 'asking if I could possibly play for Her Majesty the Queen at the official opening of Kielder Dam'. This I found very interesting, for it showed that the Duke held the old traditions in very high regard and were sacrosanct. I did play for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, but was worried when the Duke of Edinburgh asked if he could request a tune. What was he going to ask for I asked myself. Will I be the shortest time serving piper? What did he ask for - 'The Scottish Soldier'! You will be pleased to know I did not let the position down.
Since my appointment I have played at many functions including the 10th Duke's memorial service at Westminster Abbey. On happier occassions I have played at parties and official dinners at the Castle including the Millennium Celebrations when I played on the battlements before the fireworks and at Earl George's 21st birthday party.
Richard Butler 2013