The bagpiper at Hexham Abbey

At the 47 minute mark, the peasant musicians, zampogna (bagpipe) and ciaramella, begin their slow parade of wails for Nina and her mental health.

We did a little twirl of the Sele in Hexham, Saturday morning, in a persistent drizzle, so the opportunity to duck into the Abbey was welcome. I renewed my acquaintance with the ancient piper whose carving is part of an irreverent series of nine in the fifteenth century Leschman Chantry Chapel, positioned up to the left of the high alter.

Back at the turn of the century, we (Northumbrian Music Nights) shared an EU LEADER (Liaisons Entre Actions de Développement de l’Économie Rurale) project with a lovely village situated about three hours south of Rome, called Scapoli. Scapoli is the centre of an artisanal culture involved in the making of zampogna, apparently the original bagpipe.

It seems that the distribution of bagpipes follows the spread of the Roman empire. Each culture coming under the Roman domain may have incorporated distinctive elements of the original pipe and bag for their own. Certainly the zampogna is a very primitive instrument, if very loud. But members of the Italian band Il Tratturo, who visited Allendale, were proud of their lead zampogna player who had made his own modifications to the chanter, rendering it marginally more musical.

In the YouTube video linked above, Piero Ricci, the very same piper who thrilled us in Allendale, marches around a distraught Nina at La Scala, while her mental distress is communicated by undulating ribbons and a gyrating pendulum.

It was lovely to remember those heady days, when we embarked on projects with scarcely a care in the world, except that we were embracing the cultures of the continent, and they us. Scapoli welcomed a band we’d put together, Cappy’s Drift, featuring Ray Sloan and Andy Lawrenson on Northumbrian pipes, Paul Bloomfield on guitar, and Andy Morgan on fiddle, to their annual Zampogna Festival.

I made it myself, at a later point, to that festival, through a series of misadventures, but I suspect that the real cultural exchange was felt more thoroughly in Allendale than anywhere else. It was all a lot of fun, and great times to remember.

It seems you don’t realise just how and why these memories are laid down, but looking back we can only marvel at our wide-eyed wonder and delight. Such joy experienced, and reflected back at us, as I remember the leader of the Scapoli group exclaiming at her discovery of the little piper in the far nook at the top of the Abbey.

‘I find pipers everywhere I go!’ she laughed. A bit like finding a fillip of joy then.

4 responses to “The bagpiper at Hexham Abbey”

  1. What a fascinating blog, Larry. Such lovely connections and great memories. I had no idea bagpipes were something to add to the list of things we owe to the Romans. I will look out for the little bagpiper in the Abbey. Thanks for this ‘fillip of joy’!


    1. When we were packing things up to move from Sparty Lea, I came upon a box of black folders, the kind with dozens of plastic pockets, in one of the last clearances from the loft, which were a record of our years of music promotions in Allendale and environs. I thought then, this might be useful grist for a memoir mill, especially if I keep all the cassettes and CDs acquired from visiting musicians at that time (that somehow felt crucial too). To think we kind of just drifted into that life — very odd to contemplate how these things develop, and what, on reflection, they might mean to us in retrospect. Thank you Fiona, for noting these connections!


      1. Drifting into things can have such joyous results.


  2. Larry, Yesterday, very ODDLY enough I was trying to remember something about your Northumberland Co., Hexham & Allendale. I say oddly after  reading today’s Joy. Perhaps it’s merely coincidence or were there 100 monkeys somewhere who were thinking Henry, Larry, Allendale?  I turned to my copy of “Allendale Diary” to get my bearings. Kudos. I don’t know where I began (my ADHD reality). I ended up, however, in your beloved town at the museum featuring the controversial Dalek! Thank you for today’s Joy about bagpipes. I’ve always enjoyed hearing them played by masters of the art. I enjoyed reading about their history as well.  Write on, Henry


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