Billy Pigg

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Billy Pigg

Billy Pigg (1902 – 1968) was an English player of Northumbrian smallpipes. He was a Vice-President and an influential member of the Northumbrian Pipers Society from 1930 until his death.


Life and music

He was born at Dilston Park, near Corbridge, Northumberland, in January 1902 and died in November 1968. [1] He learned the instrument from several pipers including Tom and Henry Clough as well as Richard Mowat, but, according to Tommy Breckons, Batey of Stannington was his main teacher. Tommy later quoted Billy's reminiscences of the informal sessions at the Cloughs' and others: When he lived at Blagdon, he used to bike down to Clough's. There were fourteen or fifteen pipers all living in that area, and they took turns to play at each other's houses, including Billy's. Billy told him that when he first went to one of these sessions there were fourteen pipers in the house, ..., and everyone was better than me! By God..., there were some good pipers. But all I had to dee was practice and get up alongside them. [2] He learned by ear at this stage, and when he won a learners' competition in 1923, it was noted that he played the Barrington Hornpipe, but not quite as it is written. An early photograph of him from 1924, with a new set of pipes, is at; [3] he had won a Learners' Competition organised by William Cocks in this year, when he had been playing for three and a half years. The pipes in the photograph are the set made by Cocks, and offered as a trophy in the Competition. Billy went on to win these pipes outright in 1927. After he won the Spencer Cup at Bellingham Show in 1928, Cocks recorded that he was debarred from most contests, 'to give other pipers a chance'. At this time he must certainly have been playing in the traditional staccato style characteristic of the instrument, though in later years his style was much freer.

In 1930 he moved with his parents to a farm in Coquetdale, in the north of the county. He subsequently began playing with other musicians in this area, particularly John Armstrong and Annie Snaith, and later Archie Dagg – together the band were known as the Border Minstrels. In the 1950s he was noted for playing not only Northumbrian, but also Scottish and Irish tunes on the smallpipes. He also wrote many fine tunes for the instrument. A. D. Schofield and Julia Say produced a biography and tune book, The Border Minstrel, published by the Northumbrian Pipers' Society in 1997. This includes all his known compositions. These include the slow airs The Gypsy's Lullaby and Border Spirit, marches in 6/8 and 4/4 such as Bonny Woodside and The Old Drove Road, many hornpipes, including The Carrick Hornpipe and The Biddlestone Hornpipe, jigs such as Coffee Bridge and reels such as Cote Walls and Anne of Hindhope. One of his most spectacular pieces is Bill Charlton's Fancy, a 6/8 variation set. His version of the traditional tune, The Wild Hills of Wannies with his own variations, was entirely distinctive, and a good example of his Highland-influenced style.

During the 1950s Forster Charlton recorded his playing on many occasions; some of these can be heard on Radio FARNE. [4] In 1958 Royce Wilson, an American working in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, acquired a tape recorder and made some recordings of him. Other recordings were made by the BBC and by the School of Scottish Studies. An album of selected recordings made by Forster Charlton was issued as Billy Pigg, the Border Minstrel on the Leader label in 1971, and re-released on CD in 2004. Through these recordings of Pigg's own compositions and his repertoire of traditional tunes, Pigg became influential throughout the world of bagpiping. Most players of the instrument will have several of Pigg's compositions in their repertoire.

Recently the Northumbrian Pipers' Society issued an expanded second edition [5] of his music, the two volumes respectively covering his own compositions and his distinctive versions of other tunes. They also include a description of his playing style as well as transcriptions, some in great detail, of most of the surviving recordings.

Playing style

The distinguishing characteristic of Pigg's playing style is the use of complex open-fingered ornaments, in imitation of Irish and Highland piping. His father was a Highland piper, while Billy himself had great interest in Irish music. By contrast, most respected pipers before him would have stuck with an almost wholly staccato style. Tom Clough considered that any departure from this, a style where the chanter was closed and silent between any two notes, would be "a grievous error in smallpipe playing".

It is possible to compare his style with that of Tom Clough. The popular variation set for Northumbrian pipes Holey Ha'penny which is based on a simpler tune known elsewhere in the UK and Ireland as The Chorus Jig, was recorded by Pigg, and Tom Clough in the 1920s. The contrast between the two styles can easily be heard between these recordings.

The more open-fingered style was very successful for Pigg's music, allowing him a greater range of expression than a more traditional style. His tempi were very fast - he played for listening, not as a dance musician. Unfortunately, he was suffering badly from worsening ill-health throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when all the recordings were made, and it is certain his playing must have suffered. However, the best of his recordings have a wildness and passion which is both inspiring and wholly distinctive.

He has been hugely influential, and many pipers have sought to emulate his style, notably Adrian Schofield.


In 2009, "Skye Crofter's / The Swallow Tail" from Wild Hills O'Wannie, The Small Pipes of Northumbria, was included in Topic Records 70 year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten as track one on the seventh CD.

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Joe Hutton (1923–1995) was born in Halton Lea Gate, near Haltwhistle in the west of Northumberland. Like his father, Jake, he was a shepherd, and a musician - he started on the fiddle, but took up the Northumbrian smallpipes after hearing P.J. Liddell and G.G. Armstrong playing at a concert in 1936. He started on a James Reid set from Halton Lea Gate, refurbished by G.G. Armstrong, a noted piper from Hexham, and he took lessons in the instrument from Armstrong. He made rapid progress, and won a competition as a novice, the following year. Armstrong made him a new set of pipes in January 1938, and Joe was photographed, standing at the left, with other competitors at the Bellingham Show piping competition in 1938. He continued to play the fiddle at dances during the war years, but he continued piping, upgrading to a 17-keyed chanter, again by Armstrong, in 1943. In 1950 he began piping in competitions again, winning all the Open competitions for two years. He was very isolated living out on the border with Cumberland, and to play with Tommy Breckons, a noted piper from Bellingham, he recalled "it meant walking 8 miles to Gilsland, bus to Hexham, another bus to Bellingham....Man, it was a day's work getting there". On another such piping trip, to Carrawbrough on the Roman Wall, he met his future wife, Hannah, whose brother John was also a piper.

Tommy Breckons (1928–2009) lived all his life on his family's Foundry Farm, Bellingham, central Northumberland. He was a noted player of the Northumbrian smallpipes.

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John Armstrong of Carrick was an English farmer, huntsman, stick dresser and traditional musician from near Elsdon, in central Northumberland. His nickname refers to High Carrick, his hill farm on the edge of the Otterburn Army ranges, near Elsdon; Armstrong is a common name in the Borders. He claimed descent from the Border reiver Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie. His wife was descended from Muckle Jock Milburn.

Archie Dagg was a shepherd and traditional fiddler, piper and composer from central Northumberland. He was born at Linbriggs, in Upper Coquetdale, and except for his time in the Army at the end of the First World War, lived all his life in that region. In the late 1930s, he was a member of the English Sheepdog Trials Team; when competing with them in Scotland, he would play Scottish tunes on the Northumbrian smallpipes, and found he would get a steady supply of free drams.

George Hepple (1904–1997) was an influential traditional Northumbrian fiddler. He was born at Sook Hill Farm, Haltwhistle, West Northumberland. He went to a nearby school in Melkridge. He began his working life as an apprentice blacksmith at Cawfield's Quarry at the age of fourteen, before moving to Ventners Hall Colliery where he remained until its closure in the 1950s. He then worked at Bardon Mill Colliery. He later worked in a plastics factory in Plenmellor, South of Haltwistle, until his retirement. In the last years of his life, he lived with his wife Edna in sheltered housing in Haltwhistle. At this time, he also had a pacemaker implanted and when the doctor said he should return to have the battery replaced, in 10 years, he replied "I don't need to worry about that then!".

John Forster Charlton (1915–89), was an English traditional musician, originally from near Hexham, Northumberland, who later settled in Gateshead. He at first played fiddle, but later also took up the Northumbrian smallpipes. He was a major figure in the folk music revival during the 1950s and 1960s, and an active member of the Northumbrian Pipers' Society. He was a founder member of the High Level Ranters, playing fiddle and smallpipes on their first record, Northumberland for Ever, but he subsequently left the group. Later he played in a country dance band, The Borderers.


  1. Billy Pigg, the Border Minstrel. Leader Sound, 1971: LEA 4006
  2. Some Memories, Tommy Breckons, Northumbrian Pipers' Society Magazine, v.18, 1997
  3. "Woodhorn Museum Website". Archived from the original on 26 April 2012. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  4. Billy Pigg, The Border Minstrel, Northumbrian Pipers' Society, 2nd edition, 2 vols., C. Ross and J. Say, ISBN   978-0-902510-30-2, ISBN   978-0-902510-31-9.