Museums: A pipe-dream becomes reality: Joanna Gibbon visits Morpeth, home to the only collection of bagpipes in Britain

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The Independent Culture
THE CHOICE of Morpeth, a small market town in Northumberland, for Britain's only bagpipe museum seems at first a little odd. But this is because most people think only of the Scottish Highland bagpipes, the largest and loudest of them all, mainly developed to rally troops for war and to wail down the glen. In fact there are many other types, including the Scottish lowland bagpipes, the Northumbrian small pipes, the Irish or Uilleann pipes as well as many European varieties.

And it is just this misconception that the Bagpipe Museum had to dispel when it opened in 1987. 'There was much local opposition because people couldn't see what a bagpipe museum had to do with Morpeth - they fell into the trap of thinking it really ought to be in Edinburgh. We have had to work hard to prove that there is more to bagpipes than the Edinburgh Tattoo,' says Anne Moore, the curator. Beside her is a board which states: 'All bagpipes are not the same'.

It is thanks to William Alfred Cocks, a master clockmaker who devoted much of his life from 1914 onwards to collecting bagpipes - particularly the Northumbrian and border kind - that the museum exists at all. Renowned for his knowledge and craftsmanship, he made sets of small pipes and renovated many others. On his death in 1971 his collection of pipes and manuscripts was bequeathed to the Society of Antiquaries.

Even though the museum, which resides in a former chantry, was deserted last week - November is traditionally quiet, especially after half-term - it attracts 10,000 people annually. Apparently people become transfixed in the permanent exhibition area which, at first glance, looks overly formal.

All the pipes are behind glass cases and manage - with the help of invisible string - not to look like dead pheasants. But it is clever little wire-free headphones, which pick up infra-red signals from points near each case, that transform the display: different bagpipe music plays into the listener's ears as they stand beside the corresponding case.

Beginners can quickly begin to discern the different sounds - the reedy, mournful call of the Irish plpes; the lighter, more sophisticated music of the Northumbrian pipes - as they gaze at some of the collection's 220 bagpipes. All date from the last four centuries and their pipes tend to be made from carved ivory, ebony and oak with silver or brass detail; the leather bags are covered in velvet or tartan. These, Ms Moore says, are definitely the top of the range, owned by the wealthy; those of poorer materials have not survived.

The development of the bagpipe comes from no single source although for the early English bagpipe some strange, squat carvings at nearby Hexham Abbey and some 13th-century manuscripts show rudimentary instruments with a bag, a mouthpiece and a chanter, upon which the melody is played. It is thought their sound was loud and robust, ideal for strolling minstrels at dances, fairs or on pilgrimages.

In later centuries modifications appeared. The collection owns a striking French musette, dating from 1680. 'It is thought that bellows were developed by the nobility because it was considered vulgar to blow into an instrument. There was a fashion to play at the pastoral life then, but no one was prepared to blow into a bag and go all the way,' explains Ms Moore.

Apparently, such refined French taste extended to reshaping the usually long drone - drones make the background harmony and were first seen in the 14th century: the musette's drone is more a short and squat shape to dispel any phallic connotations. Northumbrian pipes, which also have bellows, developed at about the same time but no one knows whether the French were influential.

Talking to Ms Moore, who plays the Northumbrian small pipes herself, is definitely worthwhile: she is both informative and humorous. Playing the Highland bagpipes is too noisy - 'I wouldn't be surprised if some pipers went deaf in their left ear,' she says - especially when indoors. 'Small pipes are becoming popular because those who ordinarily play the Highland pipes like to play indoors without being too anti-social,' explains Ms Moore. Highland pipes, although banned after the the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, recovered with the help of Queen Victoria who employed her own piper.

At another case the story of the infamous Jamie Allen, an 18th-century Northumbrian piper, is told. As piper to the Countess of Northumberland, Allen was a skilled musician but notorious for having married three times, enlisting and deserting the army several times, and for organising his cronies to pick the pockets of his admiring crowds while he performed.

There is a surprising growth worldwide in popularity of the strolling minstrel - there is one piper in the Congo and another in Malaysia. A stream of pipers - individually or in groups - arrive at the museum's doors. American and Australian enthusiasts often bring their pipes with them across the continents. 'They are so obsessed they can't leave them at home,' says Ms Moore. A group of Breton pipers once arrived, on their way to Edinburgh, and performed an impromptu concert with their bagade, which are similar to Highland pipes. Similarly a Spanish troupe, three pipers and 20 dancers, put on a superb display of intricate circle dancing. 'The Spaniards' gaita pipes were very loud and raucous - excellent for dancing,' she says.

Last week, two men gave lively demonstrations of the Northumbrian small pipes. Somehow they had mastered the bellow-pushing with one arm while playing the chanter - nowadays the pipes have a greater range - with both hands: to the inexperienced this looks like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. On being asked if he was a professional musician, one man replied, cheerfully: 'No, I'm a psychiatric nurse - this stops me going insane.'

The Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum, Bridge Street, Morpeth, Northumberland NE61 1PJ (0670 519466). The museum regularly holds concerts and is open all year.

(Photograph omitted)