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The Ducal Pipers of Alnwick Castle

by Richard Butler

Following this in-depth article about the Ducal Pipers is a chronology & history of past Ducal Pipers

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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 all the pipers were or how many there were we will probably never know. But from The Life of James Allan it is recorded that in 1746 or ‘47 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 various 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 documented 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 no record in the Percy Archives of this set of pipes,) which he played at the Coronation of George III, was thrown pit 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 of November. To get such a pardon he must have 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 Saracen’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 him undertaking 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 that 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 Allan 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 Willaim Lamshaw (Junior) was 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-three 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 known.

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 and 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 of 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 an open competition for the position. He was paid £30 per annum and given a list of duties byt the Duke’s Commissioner; including playing at fairs and courts throughout Northumberland. In this respect a letter from Mr. Wheeler, Commissioner to the Duke, listed Hall’s exact duties including

  • Elsdon Fair, 26th 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 and 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.

1n 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 this 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 a ‘lesson from the master’ with regular visits to his house in Wideopen to be taught 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 organized by the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society. From that day I owe a great debt 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 offical duty was to play the Shrove Tuesday football match. He held the position until ill health forced him to retire.

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 a letter of appointment with an instruction to attend the next Shrove Tuesday football match. The second letter was ‘asking if I could possible 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 as piper? What did he ask for - ‘The Scottish Soldier’! You will 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 dinner at Alnwick 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


History of Ducal Pipers of Alnwick Castle

1746/7

  • James (Jamie) Allan played for the Countess of Northumberland. But no record in Alnwick Castle of being appointed as the Duchess's (countess's) Piper.

1752

  • Walpole writing about the Percy Estates records that ‘the Countess has her pipers’

1756

  • Joseph Turnbull appointed Piper to the Countess. There is a painting hanging inside Alnwick Castle labelled 'Piper the Duchess of Northumberland'. It should read 'Piper to the Countess' as Dukedome not created until 1766.

1766

  • The Dukedom was created.

 1766

  • In the publication The Life of James Allan, it states that James Allan wore the Percy’s Crusade Trophy on his right arm. However there is no record in the Percy Archives (Alnwick Castle) recording that James Allan was Piper to the Duchess or Duke. Furthermore, the engraving of James Alan within the above mentioned book is actually taken from an engraving of a Dutch Piper long after Allen's death.

1780

  • William Lamshaw (Senior) appointed Piper to the Duchess. An innkeeper in Morpeth, and one of the Town Waits who was John Peacock 's first teacher, and his family is remembered in the tune Lamshaw's Fancy. (A Wait was a musical nightwatchman, paid for by the Council, who provided a livery.)

1800

  • William Lamshaw (Junior) appointed Piper to the Duchess. Young William followed his grandfather as Duke's piper, and probably taught Henry Clough, a notable piper from Newsham, near Blyth.

1806

  • William Green (Senior) appointed Piper to the Duchess.

 1849

  • William Thomas (Tom) Green (Junior) appointed Piper to the Duchess. Given a set of ivory pipes by Duchess Eleanor. Played, at the age of 12, at a banquet during the Coronation of Queen Victoria and at Cragside, Rothbury, before the future Edward III.

1857

  • Second piper appointed to help promote the pipes, James Reid of North Shields. Both Green and Reid played for the Ancient Melodies Committee set up by the Duke to collect ancient melodies.

 1890

  • Piper to the Duchess ‘changed’ to Piper to the Duke. Tom Green referred to himself as 'Piper to the Duke'.

1892

  • Tom Green retired and James Hall 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; these included playing at fairs and courts throughout Northumberland.

James Hall Dukes' Piper - outside the Barbican, Alnwick Castle, Shrove Tuesday (year unknown). Photograph by kind permission of the Bailifgate Museum, Alnwick

James Hall Dukes' Piper - outside the Barbican, Alnwick Castle, Shrove Tuesday (year unknown). Photograph by kind permission of the Bailifgate Museum, Alnwick

1931

  • James Hall retires and James Byrnes appointed Piper to the Duke. James Byrnes worked for the Northumberland Estates in Alnwick Castle, so was technically the last full time employee of the castle to hold the position. His only official piping duty was to play at the Shrove Tuesday football match.

James Byrne Duke's Piper playing at the beginning of the Shrove Tide football match. Photograph by kind permission of the Balifgate Museum, Alnwick, Northumberland

James Byrne Duke's Piper playing at the beginning of the Shrove Tide football match. Photograph by kind permission of the Balifgate Museum, Alnwick, Northumberland

1949

  • Jack Armstrong (1904-1978) appointed Piper to the Duke. Only official duty was to play at the Shrove Tuesday football match and at other functions at the discretion of the Duke.

Jack Armstrong was born at Wideopen in 1904, a close neighbour of young Billy Pigg, who was also to become a great piper. Jack's father sold his pipes to Billy when it seemed Jack had his mind on other things. It was not till he was 24 and living in Yorkshire that Jack began to play seriously and after returning home to start a haulage business. He began competing against his old friend Billy Pigg at prestigious events like the Bellingham Show. Soon Jack was broadcasting from the BBC studios in Newcastle under the direction of J.C. Clark, John Polwarth and later Richard Kelly, who saw to his progress into television. At length the Duke of Northumberland invited Jack to become his personal piper. He also formed his own band, the 'Barnstormers', and played the role of 'Farmer Bewick of Windyhope Farm' for the TV series 'Northumbrian Barn Dance' which went out nationwide.

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He also taught himself to make pipes at a time when pipemakers were almost extinct, later collaborating with Bill Hedworth, and then passing on his knowledge in this area to some of the present generation of pipemakers, in particular David Burleigh. He recorded extensively in the 1950s, both solo and with his dance band, the Barnstormers.

Burl Ives invited Jack to Hollywood to record the sound-track for a projected film of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The film was not made in the end, but a haunting record exists of Jack accompanying Burl Ives' rendering of W.B. Yeats' 'Old Angus', the poem which ends with the line:

The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.

Back in Northumberland, Jack built 'Stalk's Cottage' at Wideopen, but later moved to Wallington, where he would entertain the diners at the Clock Tower Cafe along with Patricia Jennings.

Shortly before his death, Jack moved back to Wideopen where he died in 1978 and is buried in Dudley Cemetery, Northumberland.

1971

  • Jack Armstrong retires and Tom Matthews appointed Piper to the Duke. Only official duty was to play at the Shove Tuesday football match. Other functions at the discretion of the Duke.

Tom was very well known throughout Northumberland and Scotland. He was a true Northumbrian gentleman, so modest in his achievements, but he was great in the number of friends he gathered throughout his lifetime.

Tom was born in Amble in 1923 and, as a young boy, his sporting potential emerged and he developed into a talented sprinter and high jumper. He then trained professionally as a solo Highland dancer before going on to take up rock climbing, frequenting the Cairngorms and the Cuillins of Skye.

At the same time, he started to paint watercolour landscapes, and some of his works were exhibited in Newcastle's Laing Art Gallery.

"Dad was a true Northumbrian born-and-bred and spent every spare minute walking his beloved Cheviot Hills. He boasted a welcome and a bed in every Northumbrian hill shepherd's cottage," said Roddy, Tom’s son.

It was his special friendship with one of those hill shepherds, Jack Dagg, who was also a Northumbrian piper, that kindled Tom's interest in the Northumbrian small pipes.

Mr Dagg put him in touch with Jack Armstrong, who became his teacher, mentor and close friend and, in 1971, Tom took over from Jack when he was appointed Piper to His Grace, the Duke of Northumberland.

Tom married Elizabeth Bradley (Betty) in 1955 and, at his suggestion, she took up the Clarsach, the Scottish harp, to accompany his piping, which led to performances throughout Northumberland and Scotland.

Tom's funeral was held at St Mary's Church, Ponteland, when the current piper to the Duke of Northumberland, Richard Butler played, along with Andrew Davison.

1982

  • Tom Matthews retires and Richard Butler appointed Piper to the Duke. Only official duty is to play at the Shrove Tuesday football match. Other functions at the discretion of the Duke.

Richard Butler playing at the annual Shrove Tide football match - piping all of the players and organising committee to the field in front of Alnwick Castle.

Richard Butler playing at the annual Shrove Tide football match - piping all of the players and organising committee to the field in front of Alnwick Castle.

Richard's first duty was to play for Her Majesty the Queen at the opening ceremony of Kielder Water. Since 1982 he has played at the 10th Duke’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey, 11th Duke’s memorial service in Alnwick and many private functions at Alnwick Castle including the 12th Duke’s 50th birthday party and at a dinner parties for the King of Spain, Her Majesty the Queen, HRH Prince Philip and HRH Prince Charles.

Prince Charles presenting on behalf of the Duke of Northumberland a painting of Alnwick Castle to Richard Butler to mark Richard's 30 Years as Piper to the Dukes of Northumberland    (left to right - HRH Prince Charles, Duchess Elizabeth of Northumberland, Richard Butler, Duchess Jane of Northumberland, the Duke of Northumberland )

Prince Charles presenting on behalf of the Duke of Northumberland a painting of Alnwick Castle to Richard Butler to mark Richard's 30 Years as Piper to the Dukes of Northumberland

(left to right - HRH Prince Charles, Duchess Elizabeth of Northumberland, Richard Butler, Duchess Jane of Northumberland, the Duke of Northumberland)