Jimmy Allen - wayward Northumbrian master piper


Jimmy Allen - wayward Northumbrian master piper

Jimmy Allen (or Allan) (1734–1810) was a Gypsy player of the Northumbrian smallpipes, who was born near Rothbury in Northumberland, and became famous for his musical skill amongst a chequered life of thieving and cheating, which left him to die in jail.

Allen was an adopted member of the Faw gipsy clan, noted for roving the Scottish Borders.

The Northumbrian smallpipes he played are bellows-blown bagpipes, not mouth-blown as in the Scottish bagpipes. A leather bag tucked under the player’s left arm acts as a reservoir of air and is balanced by bellows tucked under the player’s right arm. A chanter with eight finger holes produces the melody and drones provide the background harmony.

Allen was a piper to the Countess of Northumberland and despite his wayward ways was esteemed for his great talent at playing the pipes and is thought to have composed pipe tunes such as Salmon Tails. The smallpipes have provided North East England with a musical identity for centuries. One of Allen's compositions, a polka, is categorised as a 'rant' among Northumbrian musicians. The Scottish name for the tune is Reel of Tullochgorum.

Often falling on the wrong side of the law, Allen was a cattle thief, horse-thief, bigamist and gambler. In 1803 he was arrested at Gateshead for horse theft and imprisoned in a cell beneath Elvet Bridge in Durham City for the rest of his days. He died aged 76, just four days before a pardon arrived for his release - the first criminal given a royal pardon signed by the Prince Regent (later George IV).

The entrance to the old House of Correction is still visible beneath Elvet Bridge in Durham City, and it’s said if you stand there at midnight, you may hear the eerie sound of Jimmy playing his beloved Northumbrian smallpipes.

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