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You are in: Tyne > People > Profiles > A piping tradition

Colin Ross

Colin's made the pipes for many years

A piping tradition

The Northumbrian smallpipes are enjoying a renaissance but only a handful of people in the country still make them.

The image of the Scottish bagpiper, belting out a tune in full highland dress, is a familiar one.

But did you know that the North East of England has a long piping tradition too?

The Northumbrian smallpipes are a small, bellows-blown bagpipe that, as the name suggests, were developed in the North East.

Colin plays the Northumbrian smallpipes

Colin plays the Northumbrian smallpipes

Domestic instrument

The instrument first emerged around the end of the 17th Century and is still played today.

In fact, the Northumbrian smallpipes are currently undergoing something of a renaissance with high profile players like Kathryn Tickell and performance groups at the Sage stimulating interest.

Colin Ross, from Monkseaton, knows the Northumbrian smallpipes inside out.

Not only does he play them, he's one of only half a dozen people in the whole country who can make them.

"I think most people think about the highland pipes when they talk about bagpipes," he says.

"The main difference is that the Northumbrian pipes are a bellows blown instrument and they're quite quiet. They're much more of a domestic instrument I suppose, to be played indoors rather than outdoors."

Constant demand

Colin's love affair with the instrument began during his college days at the end of the 1950s.

Squeezing the below

The instrument is blown by bellows

He joined a morris dancing society in his spare time but soon became more interested in the music than the fancy footwork.

Eventually he managed to afford his own set of smallpipes and it all snowballed from there.

"It just took within a year," he says, smiling at the memory. "Within a year I decided I can't just play these things I've got to make them as well."

Initially Colin fitted the pipe-making around his full time job as an art teacher, but redundancy in 1978 gave him the opportunity to set up his own pipe-making workshop at home – and it's kept him busy ever since.

"The demand is pretty steady although a couple of years ago I had to call a halt to taking orders for about six months [because he had so many].

"There's a big demand now for what we call 'G chanters' which are chanters that play in concert pitch so they can be played along with other instruments… It's the sort of thing that the youngsters want who play at The Sage Gateshead."

Artistic skills

These days Colin concentrates on making the drones (single-reed pipes) and chanters (used to play the melody) for the smallpipes, while he has friends who make the bellows and bags.

Making Northumbrian smallpipes

Making the smallpipes is intricate work

His wife even helps out by making the bag covers.

Such intricate, detailed work might look a million miles removed from teaching but Colin says it complements his interest in materials as an artist.

"Having a natural feel for materials is what's needed. I trained as a sculptor at the art college in Newcastle and this was just an extension of sculpture. It's contact with materials all the time which is what I like."

Making the Northumbrian smallpipes is obviously something Colin loves doing but he also enjoys playing them. And in doing so he's helping to keep this north-east musical tradition alive.

"I'm chairman of the Northumbrian Pipers' Society and part of a group called the High Level Ranters. We've been going since the 60s, as long as the Rolling Stones I think," he jokes.

"I've never regarded it as work to tell the truth. It's always been a pleasure to be making music or making pipes."

last updated: 23/04/2008 at 15:48
created: 18/03/2008

You are in: Tyne > People > Profiles > A piping tradition

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