Joe Hutton (piper)

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Joe Hutton (1923–1995) was born in Halton Lea Gate, near Haltwhistle in the west of Northumberland. [1] [2] 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, [3] and Joe was photographed, [4] 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.

Halton Lea Gate Village in Northumberland, United Kingdom

Halton Lea Gate is a small Northumberland village, situated on the A689 road close to the boundary of the counties of Northumberland and Cumbria. The village is part of the parish council area called Hartleyburn.The village borders the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Halton Lea Farm has a Grade II listed farmhouse, the eastern end of which probably represents a large bastle. A long distance footpath, The Pennine Way runs just to the east of the village.

Haltwhistle town in Northumberland, England

Haltwhistle is a small town and civil parish in Northumberland, England, 10 miles (16 km) east of Brampton, near Hadrian's Wall. It had a population of 3,811 at the 2011 Census.

Northumberland County of England

Northumberland is a county in North East England. The northernmost county of England, it borders Cumbria to the west, County Durham and Tyne and Wear to the south and the Scottish Borders to the north. To the east is the North Sea coastline with a 64 miles (103 km) path. The county town is Alnwick, although the County council is based in Morpeth.


In 1955, he obtained, from Tommy Breckons, a fine 17-keyed ivory and silver set of pipes. These had previously belonged to P.J Liddell, and are widely believed to have been made by T. Errington Thompson, of Sewingshields, about 1870. He played this set, the first set he had ever heard, for the rest of his life. In 1978, he retired from farming and settled in Rothbury, in the centre of the county. This enabled him to concentrate much more on piping, at a time of growing interest in the instrument and its traditional music. [5]

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.


His playing was largely based around dance music, mostly from Northumberland as well as Scotland and Ireland - later on he added tunes from Shetland, Canada and the USA. His playing of hornpipes was excellent as a model, with a clear and steady pulse, and tasteful but relatively sparse ornamentation. His playing of slow tunes, such as the Irish slow air 'Boulavogue' was much more ornate, though without obscuring the shape of the tune. His style was far less complex and ornate than Billy Pigg's, but notable for its rhythmic drive; in his early career, he had played a lot for dances, and throughout his career, he played duets with fiddlers. His earliest recordings, such as Roxburgh Castle which appears on the LP Holey Ha'penny, which must show the greatest influence of his teacher G.G. Armstrong, are remarkable for their precision. His piping has thus been very influential, being highly accessible to learners, but a fine example for them to follow.

Billy Pigg British musician

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.


Some early recordings of the playing of various Northumbrian musicians, including Joe and his father, were made in the summer of 1954 for the BBC by Peter Kennedy; these were later compiled into the disc Holey Ha'penny Topic 12T 283 (1976). In 1959, Joe, with his wife Hannah, moved to Rowhope, at the head of Coquetdale, close to the Scottish border, where he farmed for the next 17 years. In 1973 the Northumbrian Pipers' Society and Topic Records recorded a selection of Northumbrian pipers, including Joe, on The Wild Hills o' Wannie 12TS 227(1973), and another recording featuring Joe, again from Topic, is Bonny North Tyne 12TS 239 (1974). In retirement after 1978, he continued to play, making a solo record Joe Hutton of Coquetdale MWM Records 1024(1980). Together with the fiddler Willy Taylor, and Will Atkinson (musician) on moothie (mouth organ), they performed as The Shepherds, making a recording Harthope Burn MWM Records 1031 (1983); both records were produced by Geoff Heslop. Other non-professional recordings of him may be found on the FARNE archive, and the British Library sound archive.

Topic Records is a British folk music label, which played a major role in the second British folk revival. It began as an offshoot of the Workers' Music Association in 1939, making it the oldest independent record label in the world.

Will Atkinson was a noted traditional musician from northern Northumberland. He started off as a player of the English diatonic accordion, but was best known as a harmonica or moothie player. His playing was distinguished by a very clear sense of rhythm, with a definite lilt. He was a major figure in Northumbrian music. He was also the composer of several tunes that have entered the tradition and are played at gatherings and sessions.

Geoff Heslop is an English record producer and musician


In 1975, as Joe approached retirement from farming, he agreed to start teaching weekly evening classes in Northumbrian smallpipes in Rothbury, which continue to this day. Joe, along with the pipemaker David Burleigh and others, was one of the founders of the Rothbury residential piping course, which began in 1979 and was always known as Joe's Course. This course has had a considerable influence, enabling many people from outside the county to study the smallpipes intensively.

In 1979, the Northumbrian Pipers' Society granted him Honorary Membership, in recognition of his services to piping.

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The Northumbrian Small Pipes Society was founded in 1893, by members of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne to promote interest in, and playing of Northumbrian smallpipes, and their music. As it only continued in existence for seven years, it is now regarded primarily as a short-lived precursor to the Northumbrian Pipers' Society. However, despite its short life, it played a significant role, publishing the first tutor for the instrument, J. W. Fenwick's Instruction Book for the Northumbrian Small-Pipes (1896), holding regular meetings, and organising annual competitions. In 1894 and 1896-7, the society published Transactions, as well as publishing an account of their Annual Meeting of 1897. As well as Members, who paid an annual 5s. subscription, there was a category of Honorary Playing Members. Since the society's records include the names and addresses of all members, of either kind, they have listed the names and addresses for 37 known pipers. Two articles in the Newcastle Courant, in April 1900, gave an account of their Annual General Meeting, at the Literary and Philosophical Society, and referred to the society as flourishing, with 200 members, of whom almost half were pipers. Officers were elected for the following year; however there is no subsequent record of any formal activity of the society, such as meetings or competitions. In 1906, when the Cloughs played for King Edward VII at Alnwick Castle, an account of this in the Berwickshire News stated that the Northumbrian Small Pipes Society had done some good work in reviving interest, but that 'seven winters had passed without it giving any signs of life'. This suggests that the society had been largely inactive for some time before its final AGM.


  1. Ranting and Reeling, Topic TSCD 669, notes by Reg Hall.
  2. 'Joe Hutton of Coquetdale', Mike Tickell, NPS Magazine, v.1, 1980.
  3. G.G. Armstrong's record book, David Geddes, Northumbrian Pipers' Society Magazine, v. 19, 1998.
  4. Woodhorn Archive
  5. Obituary, by Graham Wells, The Guardian, July 1995.