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The Northumbrian Smallpipes

Northumberland County, or Northumbria, is located at the northeast corner of England, and shares its northern border with Scotland. Northumberland is also the native region for the pipes which bear its name, the Northumbrian smallpipes (the name is sometimes abbreviated to NSP).

All the drones on the Northumbrian smallpipes are mounted in a common stock, and the pipes are bellows-blown. The NSP are unique among British Isles bagpipes in having a closed-end chanter. This design difference makes the NSP the quietest of the Celtic bagpipes.

Evolution and the Northumbrians

There are no historical traces of bellows-driven pipes prior to the 16th century, so it is likely that they were invented around the middle of that century, the first models probably being imported from Germany. Within 100 years, Highland pipes, English mouth-blown pipes, and rudimentary examples of the Northumbrian and Border pipes had spread throughout Scotland, Ireland, and Northern England.

Throughout most of the 18th century, the basic design and functionality of both Border pipes and Northumbrian smallpipes did not make much progress. The catalyst for further development in the instruments was the rampant popularity of fiddle hornpipes. Pipers were frustrated at the limited range of the Border pipes and Northumbrian smallpipes; without modifications to the instruments, it would be impossible to play the new fiddle repertoire on a nine-note Border pipes chanter or eight-note NSP chanter. (These tunes could be played on uilleann pipes, however, so uilleanns moved higher in popularity.)

Unfortunately for the Border pipes, no instrument makers or craftsmen came forward to adapt their design so as to enable a broader repertoire. As a result, the Border pipes fell out of favor, and nearly fell out of existence altogether. By 1855, Border pipes had all but vanished from the entire border region and Northumberland, but survived around the area of Aberdeenshire.

Fortunately for the evolution of the NSP, on the other hand, their most enthusiastic players and proponents were often skilled craftsmen, such as joiners, cabinetmakers, carpenters, and assorted other lathe-turners unafraid to experiment with new design ideas. A community of craftsmen/pipers around Newcastle would prove monumentally important. These men turned their attention to expanding the range of the NSP by the addition of regulators and keys.

Reids to the Rescue

The most historically significant members of the Newcastle NSP group was the Reid family—Robert Reid Jr., an umbrella maker by occupation; his father Robert Reid Sr., a Border piper and cabinetmaker; and Robert Jr.'s son James. Before Reid (now referring to Junior) started tinkering with the design of the NSP, the instrument was basic to the core, with three drones and a simple chanter of very restricted range. By 1810, Reid's instruments had a seven-key chanter capable of at least a solid attempt at the previously unplayable fiddle repertoire, but he didn't stop there. By the time of his death, he had transformed the NSP into an instrument that had a range of nearly two octaves; in addition, Reid's more involved models had four drones with tuning beads and a 14-key chanter that could tackle almost any musical genre of the period. His son, James, later added three additional keys, expanding the possible total to 17.

Modern Modifications

Despite the technological and design advances brought to the NSP, the instrument started to slide back into obscurity near the end of the 19th century. By the dawn of the 20th century, the number of pipers playing the Northumbrian smallpipes had dwindled down to almost the zero mark—a situation which persisted throughout most of the last century.

In 1983, however, the evolutionary path of the Northumbrian smallpipes took a sudden left turn. At that point, Colin Ross of the High Level Ranters, was the one lone piper still playing Northumbrian smallpipes on stage. Ross was also a builder of Northumbrian smallpipes, and he made some modifications, creating a chanter that was cylindrical to fit the Northumbrian's chanter reed, yet was playable using the same half-open fingering system used by Great Highland pipers. Ross had invented a new instrument, the Scottish smallpipes. The ensuing revival of public interest in pipes music rescued the NSP and Border pipes from oblivion and helped ensure a brighter future for all varieties of Celtic bagpipes.

It's fair to say that the development of the Northumbrian smallpipes as an instrument effectively ended with the Reids. Since their day, minor modifications have been made—incorporating new materials, altering positioning of keys, making the NSP in a wider range of keys—but the modern Northumbrian smallpipes are basically unchanged in design since around 1850. To piping fans who believe in the value of preserving tradition and the old ways, this is a key component of the instrument's powerful appeal.