Updated Dec 5, 2023
Northumbrian Pipers' Convention
August 23-25, 1997, North Hero, Vermont
by Ryan Thomson
A few years back a friend invited me to a local gathering of "Northumbrian" bagpipers. I was unfamiliar with the term, which reminded me of some sort of vegetable, like a type of squash. I was quick to learn that Northumbria referred to an area of England where there is a long standing tradition of bagpiping. I learned further that these pipes were distinctly different from the more widely known and much louder Scottish Highland pipes, or the Irish "Uilleann" pipes. I learned of a "piper's convention," in Vermont, where bagpipers gather from all over the world. I filed away this information in the area of my brain reserved for musical trivia where it remained dormant until early in August when I discovered I had a weekend free of other obligations.
I called piper Alan Jones, the festival organizer , and he gave me the basic schedule: informal jam session on Friday night, workshops, classes, and dance on Saturday, more workshops on Sunday followed by a grand piping concert, and finally more workshops and jamming during the day on Monday. I wasn't sure how I would fit in as a fiddler, but decided that I'd give it a go since a lot of the tunes that I play on the fiddle are from the repertoire of pipers. The drive to northern Vermont from southern New Hampshire took about 4 hours, with beautiful late summer scenery the entire way.
What I encountered in North Hero, Vermont, was everything that I had expected, but with many additional surprises: bagpipes from many other countries besides the British Isles; a rock and roll band with Highland pipes as the lead instrument; jazz tunes played on the pipes; a fiddle workshop on English and Northumberland fiddle tunes; Hurdy Gurdy workshops and impromptu jams; continuous Irish sessions with French speaking people from Montreal; flute makers and flute workshops; outdoor dancing on the lawn to piping music from Breton; and vendors with exotic and hard to find tune books, piping manuals, and other folk music resource materials.
For the more musically experienced readers I offer these bits of piping information that I gleaned from my immersion into the piping world:
1. Irish "Uilleann" pipes play tunes best in the common fiddle keys like D and G.
2. Scottish "small pipes" play best in the keys of A and D.
3. Northumbrian pipes play best in the keys of F and C, except that the pipes are purposely tuned slightly sharp of "concert" pitch, so that fixed pitched instruments(my accordion, for example) are out of tune with them.
4. Scottish highland pipes play best in the key of B flat.
5. The first three mentioned pipes above, are relatively quiet, so that fiddlers may join in and still be heard, as for highland and Breton pipes - sit back and listen, or find an equally loud instrument to join in with: snare drum, clarinet, fog horn, etc.
6. Pipers always carry two cases: one for the pipes, and an additional "fishing tackle" type box for the large set of tools and spare parts needed to keep the pipes in good playing condition.
7. Pipers divide up their time as follows: Talking to other pipers about piping - 25%, basic maintenance: carving reeds, patching bags, fiddling with mechanical parts - 40%, tuning the drones - 10%; actually playing tunes - 25%.
The bottom line for this festival is that I had a great time, learned lots, played a bunch, and met some really nice folks. I'd recommend this event not only for folk musicians or pipers, but also for anyone in the general public looking for an interesting way to spend a weekend. North Hero Vermont is on a beautiful Island in Lake Champlain. There are nearby camp grounds, Country Inns, fishing and boating.
The lake temperature was in the 70's and was right across the street from the Town Hall where many of the events took place. It was possible to swim out into the lake, float on my back, and listen to pipers jamming on the front porch of the town hall, or the picnic area next to the water. The event accommodates folks of varying budgets: camping for the full time musicians; to fancy Inns and meals for well heeled doctors, lawyers, and computer consultants. A well stocked country store next to the town hall made sandwiches from 6 am till 10 pm, and had just about any supplies needed, from fresh pastries, to sweaters, and Vermont made products.
The Saturday night dance included American contras and squares, Breton dancing, and a French Canadian band with quadrilles. The Sunday night concert included piping in many different ethnic traditions and configurations with other instruments. There were plenty of interesting events for pipers and non pipers alike.
For more information contact: Alan Jones, P.O. Box 130, Rouses Point, New York 12979, or visit the web site
Written by Ryan Thomson, 1997