Stamfordham, April 26th

“Beyond all reasonable doubt, this is the oldest known manuscript of bagpipe music. Need I say more? It’s one of the great discoveries of the century”

So wrote Roderick Cannon when the William Dixon manuscript was first published by Matt Seattle in 1995. To celebrate the anniversary of that publication Matt invited three pipers and a fiddle player to join him in a ‘Homecoming’ concert, to be held in the church of St Mary the Virgin in Stamfordham, near Newcastle, which contains a large memorial plaque recording the burials of several generations of the Dixon family. Matt tells me he was uncertain how the church would respond to his original suggestion, but the idea was enthusiastically taken up and the capacity audience was made up of 50% piping enthusiasts and 50% local people and church congregation.
Julia Say from the Northumbrian Pipers’ Association opened the proceedings with a fascinating summary of her research into the history of the Dixon family and their relation to the area, in which she described how the family, whose history in the area goes back at least as far as the days of Henry VIII, held lands in the local settlements of Ingoe and Fenwick.
The manuscript itself contains 40 tunes and has dates from 1733 to 1738. As an introduction to Dixon’s music all five musicians began with his version of ‘Highland Laddie’. Matt then took us head first into the music with a performance on border pipes of his own setting of one of Dixon’s tunes, ‘Cut and Dry Dolly’, ably assisted by fiddler Morag Brown and Iain Gelston on bouzouki. Pete Stewart then introduced the Border tune of the ’Twa Corbies’ followed by two tunes from the 1695 Northumbrian fiddle manuscript of Henry Atkinson, showing off to fine effect the right-hand thumbhole in his Scottish smallpipes [giving a C natural], made by Julian Goodacre. Pete then played Dixon’s ‘Cuddy Claw’d Her’, having passed quickly over the meaning of the title. Reports were later received of outbreaks of dancing at the back of the church.
Iain Gelston then gave us Bewick’s setting of ‘Peacock’s March preceded by Dixon’s minuet ‘Edward The Second’, Dixon’s concession to the fashion of his day and a very different kind of tune to the others in his manuscript.
Iain then played Dixon’s ‘Canny Willie Foster’ on a set of border pipes made by Dominic Allan, introducing the tune with a once-through of Bobby Shaftoe to help those in the audience who might otherwise wonder ‘where have I heard that tune before?’ (A branch of the Shaftoe family were neighbours of the Dixons.)
Chris Ormston, playing an historic set of Northumbrian smallpipes made by Robert Reid and accompanied by Matt on guitar, then played Dixon’s ‘Wally as the Marquis Ran’, followed by Clough’s Northumbrian setting of ‘My Dearie Sits O’er Late Up’, a later version of Dixon’s tune ‘Adam a Bell’.
The first half of the concert concluded with Morag Brown and Matt playing ‘Old Age and Young’, an arrangement by Matt of material from the Buccleugh collection which he is currently editing and then Morag played Dixon’s ‘The Apprentice Lads of Alnwick’, followed by two tunes from the 1776 manuscript of Northumbrian fiddler William Vickers.
The Church congregation had arranged food and wine during the interval and there was ample opportunity for the curious to investigate the magnificent Dixon family memorial. During this interval a member of the audience produced a fiddle which had been made by the parish clerk of Stamfordham in the 1770 and which had been played by the renowned Northumbrian fiddler and composer James Hill. Morag played this fiddle for the second half of the concert, during which we were treated to another unplanned contribution made by a small bat flying in the upper reaches of the church.
The second half opened with Chris Ormston giving a virtuoso performance of ‘Jacky Layton’ followed by Morag, with Iain on bouzouki playing ‘Athole Braes’ from the MacFarlane manuscript, a Scottish setting of a tune which Dixon knew as ‘The New Way to Bowden’. Iain then took up the border pipes and he and Morag gave a lyrical performance of Dixon’s ‘Saw Ye Never a Bonny Lass?’
Iain and Morag then joined Pete to play a set of ‘Tail Toddle’ tunes, David Young’s 1734 Scottish setting, Dixon’s ‘Lasses Make Your Tails Toddle’ and the song as sung today in Scotland.
Matt, Morag and Iain then gave a heroic rendition of Dixon’s mammoth 14-strain ‘Dorrington Lads’ after which Matt was joined by the assembled company for his composition ‘Lindisfarne’ and the concert was concluded by with a reprise of the opening tune, Dixon’s ‘Highland Laddie’.
For many years the notion of an entire concert of Dixon’s music may well have seemed to many pipers a dry and tedious proposition. This evening showed just how wrong that would be; all the performances demonstrated that in the hands of players who have given it time and understanding this music is as vital, varied and alive as anything in the repertoire, and can be readily enjoyed by an audience previously unfamiliar with it.
Something very special happens when a local community is introduced to an aspect of their history that they were unaware of, especially when its importance is revealed by the willingness of enthusiasts to travel long distances to share it and it can be presented in such an exciting and entertaining way by musicians at the top of their game. This was made clear by the response from the congregation:
“Thank you for a truly wonderful performance that brought people from as far afield as Fyfe, Peebles, Lancaster and London to hear the 300 year-old pipe tunes of the Border Country played in St. Mary's Church which was an integral part of the life of he who recorded them, William Dixon. The feed-back at Church on Sunday was all positive with some being absolutely ecstatic and a desire expressed for you to hold a similar evening again!”
The event was sponsored by the Lowland and Border Pipers Society and the Northumbrian Pipers Society. Video and sound recordings were made of the event and will be available online after editing. For details and more photos visit the Facebook page of The William Dixon Foundation.

Finale: Dixon’s Highland Laddie
L to R: Iain Gelston, Pete Stewart, Matt Seattle, Morag Brown, Chris Ormston