Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A Tartan Question

Northumbrian Pipes

My friend Richard plays the Northumbrian pipes and also makes them. Recently he was given a set of old pipes which are Border or Lowland pipes.  They are over 100 years old.  Richard is going to make a copy of them and donate the originals to a museum.  However, he is trying to find out as much as he can about them. The pipes were carefully packaged with the fragments of a tartan cover.

As a weaver I was particularly interested in the fragment of tartan which came with the pipes.

First of all I need to describe the Northumbrian Pipes. Here is a picture of a set of pipes that Richard is restoring at the moment. He supplied the descriptions of the different types of pipes.
The Burleigh set of Northumbrian Pipes made by David Burleigh of Longframlington c. 1976

This shows a set of "standard" Northumbrian small-pipes which is currently undergoing restoration by Richard.  These are typical of what most people would understand by Northunbrian pipes.  This layout has the chanter coming out of one stock (the socket that is tied into the airbag), and three drones all coming out of another different stock.  They are bellows-blown so they have a third stock that takes the blowpipe.  They are played with the drones across the chest rather than over the shoulder.  The leather air bag is usually covered in fabric - in this case blue velvet - and it is this bag cover that gives us the fragments of tartan in the sample. 

They have the same general layout as "large Northumbrian Pipes" which have an uncertain pedigree and several names but are most commonly known as "Border pipes".

The Border or Lowland Pipes

This engraving is of a painting c.1822 by Thomas Sword Good (1789 - 1872) of Berwick.
This engraving shows exactly the type of Border pipes that the tartan came from, with two short tenor drones about the same length and a longer baritone drone. The engraving shows the piper as left-handed which may possibly be due to the reversal of the engraving process, although left-handed pipers were not unknown. This is a good representation of Border pipes. 

The Border (or Lowland Pipes) being researched

Lowland pipes in Museum
Played in the North of England and the Lowlands of Scotland from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Border Pipes are quiet enough to play alongside other acoustic instruments but maintain the characteristic skirl of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Like Northumbrian small-pipes, Border pipes are bellows-blown, have three drones set in a common stock which lie across the chest. They have a nine note scale, and usually employ GHB fingering and gracing.  Their repertoire is drawn from Scottish and Northumbrian sources, not least the 1733 William Dixon manuscript which is the earliest surviving collection of bagpipe tunes in the UK.


The Tartan Cover

Fragment of tartan which originally covered the leather bag.
This is the tartan from the set of Border pipes probably dating from 1800 - 1850.  Originally, it
would have covered the leather airbag. As you can see by the picture the tartan is in a poor state.  Some of the holes are for the stock and drones but the material itself is extremely fragile. The scale is indicated by the ruler. 

Unfortunately the photograph that I took did not reproduce the subtlety of the colours.  The colours are: natural( beige/white), light olive and dark olive and a soft red.  (four colours in all). I counted the threads to find the pattern repeat.  The ruler gives an idea of the size of the tartan pattern. 

Pattern repeat:

red              24     24    24                         28
light olive         8     8      60               18       18            60
dark olive                             8       26                26     8  
natural                                      8                            8

Pattern repeat is 356 warp ends.   Selvedge is 8 threads natural which is in a tighter weave
In the book The Tartan Weaver’s Guide by James D. Scarlett  it is noted that 'As late as the 1840 a setting of 52 per inch was normal.' The sett for the tartan fragment appears to be 48 per inch square. 

Identifying the tartan.

We are trying to identify the tartan.  If you can identify the pattern, do let us know.  It would be lovely to present the pipes to a museum with as much information as possible. 

Just a note about tartans in general.  Clan tartans are an invention of the early 18th century.  Walter Scott wanted the Highlanders to pay homage to George IV on his first visit to Scotland in 1822.  One firm of weavers, William Wilson and Son of Bannockburn immediately saw the economic possibilities of selling more of their tartan patterns. They put together a Key Pattern Book so that Highland Chiefs could buy what they required.  Thus tartans became associated with Highland Clans. 

Susan J Foulkes
April 2015

Update August 2016

Richard has developed a web page of his findings about piping in North Shields.

Here is the link:

He will be following up the information about the likely origin of the tartan kindly supplied by Peter. He identified the tartan as probably one of Wilsons' numbered patterns c1820-40; specifically, a variation of the No 43, Kidd or Caledonia, of which there there were several.

He pointed out that my draft is faulty in the methodology used for recording tartans and the shades and he supplied the correct version.
Here it is: The correct method for the setting (per Wilsons') method is R/12 LB8 G50 K8 W8 LB16 R/34 - half pivot counts.
R = red
LB = light blue
G = green
W = white
K = black

Susan J Foulkes August 2016


  1. I have this email for a place that registers tartans maybe they can help:;

  2. The looks like one of Wilsons' numbered patterns c1820-40; specifically, a variataion of the No 43, Kidd or Caledonia, of which there there were several.

    You weaving draft is faulty in the methodology used for recording tartans and the shades. The correct method for the setting (per Wilsons') method is R/12 LB8 G50 K8 W8 LB16 R/34 - half pivot counts.
    R = red
    LB = light blue
    G = green
    W = white
    K = black

    Wilsons' 1819 KPB was an internal document and not a published work. The chief certainly never had access to it, nor would they have understood its drafting. If you are interested I have published a small wook about the 1819 and other aspects of their cloth. Lots more are

    Finally, contrary to the oft cited claim, Rawlinson did not invent the kilt.

    1. Dear Peter

      Thank you very much for supplying this information. I would be very interested to see your small book about this tartan. Although I am a weaver, I have not woven tartans so I am grateful that you have set out the tartan pattern as it should be written.
      I will pass this information on to my friend who is researching the set of pipes.
      Thank you again for taking the time to answer my query.

      Susan J Foulkes


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