Pipers Tales Kirk Yetholm


"The earliest pipers of the Scottish Border, were of the name and family of Allen, who were based and bred at (Kirk Yetholm)Yettam, in Roxburghshire. They were all gypsies. (Additional notes to the Scots Musical Museum p.379.)

Will Allan, was well known in his day all over the Border Country for his skill as an angler, his passion for otter-hunting, and his masterly performances on the small bagpipes held in favour in the country. He had a rooted and cherished aversion to systematic labour of any kind, not only as regard himself, but extending also to his immediate relatives.The knowledge that a nephew had been apprenticed to the trade of a weaver, threw him into a paroxysm of rage, causing him to walk miles to where the lad worked and to violently drag him from the loom.

He sometimes condescended to do some work in the way of horning (making horn spoons) or besom-making (brooms); but most of his time was spent fishing, which he made a source of profit. He usually kept about a dozen dogs, which were trained for otter hunting; in this pursuit Will had an instinct which enabled him to attain great success. His genius for the small bagpipes was his most prominent accomplishment, as it was his principal source of income. In time he these being more numerous in his day than they are at present. His pipes and dogs sometimes obtained for him introduction to the wealthier classes, however, he never sacrificed his rough native independence of spirit and address to please his superiors. He was on the whole, honest, which could not be said for two of his six children, Robert and James, though they inherited all his love for fishing and the pipes. (The Gypsies of Kirk Yetholm, William Brodie.)

Under the tune "Dorrington Lads" in the "Northumbrian Minstrelsy" the following note occurs: -

“ Dorrington Lads” has always been a great favourite with each succesive generation of small-pipe players; notably, the celebrated Willy Allan (after whom it is sometimes named ‘Willy Allans favourite’) It is stated that in his last moments, when exhorted by the bystanders to think of the solemn circumstances in which he was placed, he exclaimed, with some degree of peevishness, “ Hand me the pipes, an’ I’ll gie ye ‘Dorrington Lads’ yet, and expended his failing strength in attempting to sound the bagpipes. This was about 1760.”

Jamie Allan (1734-1810) – In the ‘Life of James Allan’ (1828) it is mentioned that he played ‘Cut and Dry Dolly’ when on the run from an enlisting party from whom he had escaped in Durham. He had got into the company of some genteel lads and lasses who were dancing to a wretched fiddle. Then he struck up ‘Cut and Dry Dolly’ to everyones joy and admiration.

‘Dorrington Lads; has been a favourite of successive generation of small-pipe players; notably, the celebrated Willy Allan (after whom it is sometimes named Willy Allan's Favourite"). It is stated that in his last moments, when exhorted by the bystanders to think of the solemn circumstances in which he was placed, he exclaimed with some degree of peevishness,"Hand me the pipes,an' I'll gie ye 'Dorrington Lads' yet", and expended his failing strength in attempting to sound the bagpipes.This was about 1760.' James Allan, the youngest but one of Will Allans family , became a greater master of the pipes than his father, and lived a most eventful life of seventy-six years. He was notorious in his day to such an extent that his "life" was published and held in no small estimation in the county of Northumberland.This book cannot stand as a factual account of his life as it is difficult to say what is romance and what is reality. James Allan was born "on the roads" at the village of Hepple, in the Parish of Rothbury, Northumberland in March 1734. He seems to have imbibed depravity with his mothers milk; his father cared little and set no good example. He became the cruellest, wildest boy in the locality where he was brought up . He knew nothing of the useful discipline of school or of work of any kind, but, like his father, was more familiar with idleness.

There were no counteracting influences to prevent the deterioration of his character, so that evey evil passion was fostered and deepened, with the result that early in life his whole nature was utterly depraved. However, his mental faculties were greatly sharpened and exercised, by the execution of malicious tricks and intrigues. He was also an accomplished athlete, particularly at running and swimming, which served him well in carrying him out of harms way in youth and manhood. Such was the man he grew up. With the art of his calling, he had the ability to conceal the true man within, and to present the outward guise of suavity, good nature and respectability.He was an incorrigible theif throughout life. Early in his teens James had begun to tackle the small bagpipes, in the playing of which his father had attained great proficiency and who boasted that none could approach him in the difficult art of "shivering the back lill", the highest note on the bagpipe, which is performed by a peculiar trill with the thumb, and which affords an opportunity of showing the players mastery over the instrument and of attracting notice and applause from the audience.

James' father carefully instructed his son in the art, and the more promise he showed the more painstaking was the tutoring. James had the gift of music, especially of the small pipes, although he also played well on the large bagpipes.The time soon came, when, to the old mans chagrin, James made him stand second ( The pupil became the master ) When his father considered him ready, a meeting of minstrels was convened and James made his debut before this critical audience. Their seal of approval would be a passport to general favour and employment.He was greatly praised and his repute as a player rapidly spread after this event.

His early career as a "professional" piper was spent amongst the Gypsy tribe known as the "Faa gang", where he played for weddings, feasts and merry-makings. Soon he came to the notice of the gentry and nobility, and his fame reached the ears of the Countess of Northumberland, who took him under her patronage and installed him as piper at Alnwick Castle where he dwelt in comfort and repute for over two years.

During his time at the Castle he emulated his superiors in manners of dress and speech, accomplishments which were to be of advantage to him later. He seems to have been happy and well behaved at Alnwick, and met with great favour from the Countess who presented him with a set of beautiful ivory small pipes mounted with silver and silver chains. When she became Duchess she appointed him her own piper, and placed upon his right arm a copy in silver of the Saracen's Crescent won by the Percy during the Crusades.

He left the Castle supposedly to improve his education but this soon fell through and shortly after he married. His wife was no better than she should have been, and seemed to be his equal in depravity. His discovery of her unfaithfulness caused him some suffering and set him firmly on a life long course of misadventure.

Soon after his marriage broke apart his money and credit came to an end. He then enlisted in the militia for the sake of the bounty paid to recruits. When this was spent and he had to make do with a soldiers scanty pay , he decided to desert. This was easily accomplished. Repeatedly this ploy became his ready resource to raise money when his funds were low. Time after time he pocketed the Kings money only to desert the Kings service. The devices by which he eluded the military were varied and clever but sometimes desperate.

On one occasion after he had deserted and taken refuge for some time in Newcastle he rashly went to his parents home.There, he had a very narrow escape and fled to Hexham, where he worked on a farm, much to his distaste. To relieve his misery he ventured to Staneshawbank (Stagshawbank) Fair for some fun. While drinking with an acquaintance he was spotted by a sergeant of the regiment from which he had deserted. On being challenged he attempted to flee, but after a scuffle, was apprehended and put in prison. The next day he was marched away under escort for court martial. On the third-day of the march the company halted at a public-house intending to stop the night. Soon the drink was flowing and the soldiers amused themselves with games. Allan persuaded the soldiers to remove his handcuffs and joined them in sports of leaping and quoits.The soldiers drank copiously while Allan with characteristic cunning took little. He provoked them into a shooting match to find which one of them was the best shot. Egged on by him they continued firing until they had used all their powder. At that point Allan sprang over the wall and made off; the soldiers being too drunk and surprised to pursue him.

According to his biograpy the "Life of James Allan" he continued to go from one amazing adventure to another - from Dublin to China, riches to poverty , Russia to France, luxury to hardship.

All these experiences, if they were true seemed only to harden him in vice and crime. His mastery of the pipes was complete and won him a way to public favour which his misdeeds should have made impossible.

His final crime was the theft of a horse from the stable of Mr Mathew Robinson of Gateshead. He was arrested two days later in Jedburgh where he had pawned his pipes for £2-10s. James Allan was taken to Durham for trial in 1803 and on being found guilty was sentenced to death.This sentence was reduced to life imprisonment probably because of his popular fame. Some say that the Duchess of Northumberland intervened on his behalf. He died on 13th November 1810 in Durham gaol still unrepentant. He is buried in the churchyard of St.Nicholas parish at Durham. As a folk hero his memory lives on; he was certainly possessed of talents which under different circumstances might have led him to an honourable career. He chose, however, to prostitute his genius and is not remembered for any good or worthy deeds.


All ye whom Musics charms inspire ,

Who skilful minstrels do admire

All ye whom bagpipe lilts can fire

Tween dear and Tweed,

Come strike with me, the mournful lyre ,

For Allan’s dead.

No more where Coquet's stream doth glide,

Shall we view Jemmy in his pride,

With bagpipe buckled to his side,

And nymphs and swains ,

In groups collect, at even-tide

To hear his strains.

When elbow moved,and bellows blew,

On green or floor the dancers flew,

In many turns ran through and through,

With cap'ring canter,

And aye their nimble feet beat true ,

To his sweet chanter.

The Gypsies of Kirk Yetholm – William Brockie, Kelso 1884