Jamie Allan, a celebrated musician and friend of the aristrocacy, but also thief, bigamist, and deserter, who died in a Durham prison cell awaiting deportation

There was a time some 200 years ago when a particular Northern musician was as famous throughout Britain as Robin Hood is today. His name was Jamie Allan, sometimes known as James, Jemmy and Jimmy, a celebrated Northumbrian piper and sometime villain, born in about 1734 at Swindon near Rothbury, in Northumberland.

THE Victorian chronicler John Sykes wrote of Jamie Allan’s passing, a long way from his childhood home:

“13th November, 1810. Died in the house of Correction (under Elvet Bridge) at Durham, where he had been confined upwards of seven years, under sentence of transportation for life, James Allan, a character wellknown in most parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in Northumberland, where he was known by the name of Jemmy, the duke’s piper, and was in early life a great proficient on the pipes. He was capitally convicted of horse-stealing at the assizes held in Durham in 1803, and received sentence of death but was afterwards pardoned on condition of transportation for life; but on account of his age and infirmities, his sentence could not be carried into execution. He had nearly completed his 77th year and for the greatest part of his confinement was afflicted with a complication of disorders. Had the chequered life of this notorious character been prolonged a little, he would have regained his liberty as the first signature of the Prince Regent officially addressed to the city of Durham was a free pardon for Allan – but death had removed him beyond the reach of royal clemency.”

Jamie’s father, William “Will” Allan, born in Bellingham, Northumberland in 1704, probably came from a farming family and was not, as has often been reported, born a Gypsy, although his first wife, Betty, is described as having been “somewhat of a Gypsy stamp”.

Although not a Gypsy himself, Will obviously enjoyed the company of those travelling folk and was probably an itinerant tinker, travelling around Tynedale mending pots and pans, making bone spoons, as well as brooms and baskets, and fishing, at which he was such an expert that he became water-keeper of the River Coquet.

He was never fond of work of any sort but kept a famous pack of terriers and was an expert player on a variety of bagpipes.

As young men, he and his brother James moved to Swindon where Will settled with his family, which eventually numbered six children, of which Jamie was the youngest but one.

Their home was in some old, deserted miners’ cottages that had been occupied by a band of Gypsies.

He was never fond of work of any sort but kept a famous pack of terriers and was an expert player on a variety of bagpipes.

When Betty died, Will Allan took up with and married the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.

Two of the pipe tunes he composed are Salmon Tails Up The Water and We’ll A’ To The Coquet And Woo.

Will is recorded as having died, aged 75, in 1779 while playing the tune Dorrington Lads and was buried in Rothbury churchyard, although his headstone was never finished after the stonemason who was creating it died before it could be completed.

Will Allan’s musical ability and death are commemorated in Robert Roxby’s 1809 poem The Lay of the Reedswater Minstrel, in which Wi;l’s surname is spelt Allen:

When a’ the bets were lost and won,
An’ when the rustic race was o’er,
The couples donn’d their dancing shoon,
And Allen’s drones began to roar.

A stalwart tinkler wight was he,
And wee’l could mend a pot or pan,
An’ deftly wull cou’d thraw a flee,
An’ neatly weave the willo wan.

An’ sweetly wild were Allen’s strains,
An’ mony a jig an’ reel he blew,
Wi’ merry lilts he charm’d the swains,
Wi’ barbed spear the otter slew.

Ne’er mair he’ll scan wi’ anxious eye,
The sandy shores of winding Reed,
Nae mair he’ll tempt the finny fry,
The King o’ Tinklers, Allen’s dead.

Nae mair at Mell or Merry Night,
The cheering bagpipes Wull shall blaw,
Nae mair the village throng delight,
Grim death has laid the Minstrel law.

MANY adventures are ascribed to Jamie Allan although few can be verified but, like Robin Hood, he is always regarded as a romantic figure, despite his obvious faults.

Possessing an accurate ear, a refined taste and great sensibility to the beauties of harmony, he was taught to play the pipes by his father and was remarkably adroit at learning a new tune.

He was much-admired for the exquisite expression of feeling and simplicity which distinguished his performances and his biographer in 1818 records that:

“He could play on the highland bagpipe but he excelled on the sweet small pipes. He also played well on the Northumberland raising or gathering pipes, called the great pipes to distinguish them from the small ones; and could perform very well on the Union pipes.”

As Rudyard Kipling would have said, Jamie Allan had the gift of being able “to walk with kings, nor lose the common touch”.

Because of his links with the Earl of Northumberland’s family, he played his pipes before royalty on one known occasion but almost certainly did so more than once.

He first played for the Countess of Northumberland in 1746 or 1747 and a reference to the Percy estates soon afterwards records that:

“As the household of Northumberland had anciently three minstrels attending on them in their castle in Yorkshire, so they still retain them in their service in Northumberland.

They wear the badge of the family, a silver crescent on the right arm, and are thus distributed, viz. one for the Barony of Prudhoe and two for the Barony of Rothbury.

They attend the Court Leets and Fairs held for the Lord and pay their annual Suit and Service at Alnwick Castle, their instrument being the ancient Northumbrian bagpipe.”

In 1752, the Percys were: “building at Northumberland House, at Sion, at Stanwick and at Alnwick and at Warkworth Castle. They live by the etiquette of the Peerage, have Swiss porters and the Countess has her pipers”.

At some time before 1760, the countess gave Jamie a very special “pair of small pipes she had procured from Edinburgh, handsomely made of ivory and decorated with silver chains”, which he played at the coronation of King George III:

The Countess in her handes doth take
His pypes of rude, imperfect make.

While marveling at hys wondrous skill,
She bids hym eat and drynk hys fill.

If thou canst cause such musyke break
From pypes of such unlovely make,
What wouldst thou do if thou couldst plaie
On pypes of ivorie, I pray.

The Earle, well pleased, gave him a paire
Of small-pipes of the ivorie rare.
And thus the pyper rose to fame
While longe he bore an honoured name.

In 1769, the Chamberlain of Alnwick appointed Jamie as one of the town’s waits, its official musicians, but later that year he was removed from that post and from his job at the castle, having been convicted of theft.

JAMIE ALLAN was married at least three times, once bigamously, and frequently enlisted in and then deserted from the Army.

In 1803, he was convicted of theft in Gateshead and sentenced to death, but received a pardon from the king on condition that he was transported to Australia’s penal colony in Botany Bay.

It was a country he was destined never to see because of his failing health, from which he never recovered, dying in his 77th year in Durham’s House of Correction, beneath Elvet Bridge, on November 13, 1810, but instead of being buried in Rothbury, as he had asked, Jamie Allan was interred in St Nicholas’ churchyard, in Durham City.

The greatest irony concerning Allan’s death is that nine months before it occurred, a petition had been raised and sent to George III asking for Allan’s release, but the ailing monarch was too ill to action his freedom.

The document, eventually signed by George’s son, the Prince Regent, arrived in Durham four days after the piper’s death.

He left his pipes to two gentlemen of North Shields, the port where he used to spend his winters when he was a free man.

Soon after his passing, the following lines were written to his memory:

All ye whom Music’s charms inspire
Who skilful minstrels do admire,
All ye whom bagpipe lilts can fire
’Tween Wear and Tweed,
Come, strike with me the mournful lyre
For ALLAN’s dead.

No more where Coquet’s stream doth glide
Shall we view JEMMY in his pride,
With bagpipe buckled to his side,
And nymphs and swains
In groups collect at even-tide
To hear his strains.

When elbow moved and bellows blew,
On green or floor the dancers flew,
In many turns ran through and through
With cap’ring canter,
And aye their nimble feet beat true
To his sweet chanter.