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Glendale Local History Society welcomed Andrew and Margaret Watchorn, who very ably demonstrated their knowledge and skills of traditional Northumbrian music '“ their focus was the Northumbrian smallpipes.
It was fitting as March 10 happened to be National Bagpipe Day.
Bagpipes are a truly historic instrument, played by many people all over the world.
The Watchorns have also specialised in Swedish music and demonstrated a Swedish bagpipe, together with a Swedish keyed fiddle – both have ancient origins.
Our speakers’ ability as teachers, and Margaret’s university education in music, became apparent as they explained the origins, construction and mechanisms of a selection of pipes.
The instrument comprises a bag, usually made of leather, and pipes, sometimes made from plum or boxwood, but now more commonly constructed from African blackwood or ebony, its hard texture producing high quality sound.
Bagpipes are known throughout the world, and are known to have existed since the mediaeval era.
The earliest 12th century representation can be found on a gravestone at St Michael’s Church in Ford, with another in Hexham Abbey. Morpeth Bagpipe Museum holds examples from the 18th century.
Although air was originally blown into the bag by mouth, this fell out of fashion when, in the 18th century, the French developed a ‘souffle’ – an arm pumping mechanism, thus reducing distortion of the player’s facial features.
We learned that the construction of the instrument includes drone pipes, which ‘hum like bees’, giving harmony, whereas the chanter ‘sings like a bird’, producing the tune.
As increasingly elaborate chanters evolved, giving two octaves and a wider choice of keys, there became a need for extra drones too.
Details of variants in sound production were illustrated, together with an explanation of pitch.
We learned how notes have subtly changed over the centuries.
As with many instruments, bagpipe performance can be influenced by its sensitivity to temperature and humidity.
With Andrew playing smallpipes, and Margaret a fiddle, they peppered their explanations by playing a variety of traditional tunes – one, Juniper Hill, was recorded in Yorkshire in the 1700s, and another, The One Horned Sheep, referred to an illicit whisky still.
Only since the 1970s have written traditional Northumbrian manuscripts appeared; prior to that tunes were learnt by oral tradition.
Indeed, Margaret was inspired by a famed local mentor, Jo Hutton, with whom she spent many days simply listening, interpreting, understanding, playing and practising to perfect her pipe playing ability.
Thanks to this excellent playing and explanation of Northumbrian smallpipes, the audience’s appreciation of our county’s long musical tradition will have been greatly enhanced.
Glendale Local History Society’s next talk is on Wednesday, April 13, at 7.30pm, in the Cheviot Centre, Padgepool Place, Wooler.
It will be led by Michael Wade, who will be speaking of the traditional craft of hedge laying, and demonstrating the tools of his trade. He is a skilled craftsman and a judge at hedge laying competitions.
Tea, coffee and biscuits, served at 7pm, are included in the £2 charge.