Julian Watson describes his encounter with a remarkable bagpipe, ‘besieged by impracticality’.

The illustration reproduced overleaf was drawn in the 1980's. I can no longer remember which part of the remains of this weird bagpipe was actually on display in the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, Co Durham. Enquiries of friends who were working there led to the stores, where there was a box of other bits which were clearly associated.
For a while I became fascinated, researching into its most recent owner before it came to the Bowes Museum, and looking at attempts that have been made to extend the bagpipe generally, intrigued by the lengths that people will go to develop an instrument. However it became frustrating. I no longer have my notes.
The Bowes Museum is a professional institution. It had kept proper accessioning notes. I corresponded with Forster Charlton who, with William Cocks, had visited the former owner (who had lived in Gainford) on bagpipe matters. I also corresponded with the gentleman's daughter. That neither of them could recall seeing this distinctive and strange instrument was, with hindsight, a herald for a bag of nothing but loose ends.
Whoever made this ensemble was very likely aware of several related bellows-blown bagpipes: the Northumbrian pipes, the musette de cour, the uilleann pipes and French pipes that suspend drones from the chanter stock. To have had this range of awareness of instruments in probably the 19th century indicated some depth of knowledge. They seem to have attempted a synthesis of these instruments, incorporating some innovations of dubious use in the process. So, the double sort-of-Northumbrian chanter is entirely keyed, dispensing with finger-to-hole closed fingering in favour of a new system of 26 (I think!) sprung keys for all notes, while also adopting the musette's double chanters extending each other. The ensemble is plugged into the side of the drone stock, which also incorporates uilleann-style regulators. The mystery is how this was physically held, never mind played, as the drones seem to have been intended to be held in the 'French style'. Unless you wanted to play the uilleann chanter which also came in the box of bits... This is, as you might expect by now, more elaborate than usual and came with a rubberised material neck and a swan-neck connector which could be plugged into the same 'chanter hole'.

I still find the thought of this instrument, which had remains of reeds, disturbing. It displays a collector's knowledge of uncommon instruments. There was clearly a lot of thought and, actually, a lot of craftsmanship that went into its making, but this skill is also besieged by, and shot through with, impracticality. No maker or musician that I know would spend time in trying to realise this concept and yet....here it is.
I showed the box of bits to Colin Ross. He wondered whether the instrument had been through William Cock's hands (he used rubberised material for his bags). He pointed out that 19th century Tyneside had a strong reservoir of fine industrial skills that allowed the 'classic' 18th century Northumbrian pipes to be quite dramatically developed. This context would be right for the kind of metal and wood-working skills shown here.
However the mystery remains as to how a skilled craftsman, possibly also a musician, using their eyes and hands, could think that a player would be happy to pick up this strange anomaly in their hands.....and launch into clear working music

.Julian Watson

A detail of the ‘Northumbrian double chanter’.

[Ed.: I am truly grateful to Julian Watson for making these stunning drawings available despite the challenges of adequately reproducing them here. As I understand it, none of this extraordinary instrument is now on view in the museum, but I’d like to hear from anyone passing by who can persuade the curators to view it, thereby establishing that it still is in their possession.]