Matt Seattle tells how he came to Geordie’s Paircel o Tunes

Our editor having kindly made me aware of Andy Hunter’s contribution to this issue, I should like to offer a perspective of my own, not so much on the trajectory of the Society, but on my own piping journey, about which I may know a little more.
As a musician moving from Sussex to Northumberland in the 1980s I became fascinated with, and rapidly immersed myself in, Northumbrian traditional music. It would hardly have occurred to this late starter on fiddle, suddenly in the company of the best Northumbrian smallpipers, to take up the pipes, but I became familiar with their music, and particularly attracted to what was unique about it, the surviving 18th century tradition of playing variations on some of the oldest and best-built tunes in the repertoire. This was not jazz, of which I’d had some experience as a guitarist, but there were some parallels – and it was from here.
I would soon become obsessed, though, not with what was already around me, but with what was missing. Chris Ormston and Gordon Mooney were in my musical circle and both played Northumbrian smallpipes, Highland pipes, and the then new-fangled Scottish smallpipes which were being made by some Northumbrian pipemakers, and both were intent on finding and playing a local repertoire on these recently revived – arguably, re-invented – pipes.
Gordon’s vision of a distinctive Border repertoire outlined in his early publications was inspired at the time and remains inspirational to this day. Chris and I, being closer neighbours, saw each other more often and jokingly conspired to “find” the missing Jimmy Allan Border pipe manuscript, for which I began to compose variation sets for open-ended 9-note chanter modelled on the Peacock variations for closed-ended 8-note chanter. I wasn’t asking anyone’s permission to do this, but if I had ever needed it there was sound musical justification: internal evidence showed that a few of Peacock’s and his pupil Robert Bewick’s sets were more-or-less-convincing adaptations of sets for a 9-note chanter with a flat 7th – Border pipe tunes.
I quickly realised that there was something I wasn’t quite getting, though, and it was a rather obvious something. Each instrument has its own physicality, and while a lot of music is readily transferable, I was trying to do something extremely pipey, but on a fiddle. In early 1991, in my fortieth year, I took the plunge and was soon the happy owner of a set of Heriot and Allan Scottish smallpipes. I decided to teach myself because I wished to avoid acquiring a Highland musical accent as a default setting. This had its drawbacks in that I was being taught by someone who knew nothing about playing pipes, but even though I later learnt basic Highland techniques I am glad I followed the prompting to allow my piping style to grow from the music around me, the fiddling and singing of Northumberland and the Borders.
As I was already involved in publishing collections of traditional music procedures were in place for me to share my explorations and, with a characteristic over-confidence (which I attribute to my dear late Mother) in 1993 I published the modestly titled The Border Bagpipe Book. Its fifty pieces comprised one original, Lindisfarne, composed in 1990, and forty-nine traditional tunes, some of them with the variations I had composed in the time since I had been learning the pipes. I would get a fair ribbing from my friends for playing 18 rather than the customary 7 strains of Cuckold Come Out Of The Amrey, to mention just one example. I knew I was out on a limb.
Once I could manage a few tunes on the smallpipes I tried them out in pub sessions and ceilidh band gigs, and had an unwelcome realisation: while they were great for working out ideas and sounded good in the bedroom, their volume, and more crucially their register, an octave lower than the other melody instruments, rendered them unsuitable for my social and professional performance situations. The obvious solution this time was the one that had been in my mind from the beginning of the journey: I needed Border pipes.
Acquiring a set was a more convoluted process than anticipated, but I was was pleased with the eventual outcome: drones by Phill Brown (a friend and craftsman woodturner) copied from the ‘Jacobite’ set in Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum, bag and bellows by Heriot and Allan, and chanter by Nigel Richard. With impeccable timing, just as my Border pipes were up and running the William Dixon music landed in my lap in early 1995, an event summarised in the last issue of Common Stock. As close as one could imagine to the real Allan family repertoire, the Dixon tunes have become accepted as part of our musical landscape in the succeeding twenty years. There have been innumerable performances and there are now well over forty commercial recordings of Dixon tunes by pipers and others. The 1997 LBPS Collogue was themed around the Dixon music; and more recently (April 2015) the William Dixon Homecoming Concert celebrated the Dixon musical legacy in William’s own parish church in Stamfordham, an event supported by both the LBPS and the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society, which featured Pete Stewart, Iain Gelston (LBPS), Chris Ormston and myself (NPS), along with Morag Brown’s exquisite fiddling.
Musical journeys are of course inseparable from personal journeys, and in 1998 mine took me to the Scottish side of the Border, and further adventures. I began a musical relationship with Mr McFall’s Chamber which, though intermittent, is ongoing. I continued to perform, compose, arrange and research, and on moving from Peebles to Galashiels in 2002, I found myself confronted by another challenge.
I was familiar with the surviving literature about Border pipers, notably Thomas Scott’s list which includes his description of Geordie Syme: “He was the best piper of his time; he knew the art of producing the high octave by pinching the back hole of the chanter, which was reckoned a great improvement. He was the best piper of his day.” As well as making sure we all get the message about Geordie, it is recorded that before Thomas departed this life he ensured that his son James could play the Soor Plums o Galashiels correctly. So, now living in Gala, and with a burning desire to be a Border piper, how could I look in the mirror if I couldn’t play the Soor Plums?
Fast forward to 2011, with much water under the bridge. I now live in Hawick, and as well as other continuing musical outlets, I have a piping partner in Bill Telfer of Langholm. Our adventures have included playing tunes to which Robert Burns set his lyrics in Ellisland, the farm where he wrote them; playing Weel Bobbit Blanche of Middlebie in Middlebie for Blanche’s direct descendant Blanche Armstrong; giving Ken Moffat’s award-wining Johnny Armstrong sword a Border pipers’ send-off from Gilnockie on its journey to London; playing Mary Scott, the Flower o Yarrow for the present Laird o Harden as he rededicated the bridge at Ettrick Bridge, originally endowed by Mary Scott’s husband Wat o Harden; and playing The Original Teribus “as played by Walter Ballantyne in 1777” from the manuscript in Hawick Museum which Roddy Cannon had alerted me to some years earlier.
[Editor: Yes, OK, but it’s 2015 now, please get to the point! What happened to the Soor Plums – and the rest of Geordie’s repertoire, which presumably included that iconic tune?]
What happened was, I went on a quest to discover, and gradually unwrap, Geordie Syme’s Paircel o Tunes. The way I discovered it, and the tunes it contains, will be revealed in the forthcoming book of that title.