John Sykes, Victorian Chronicler, writes in his Historical Register of Remarkable Events
“13th November, 1810. Died in the House of Correction at Durham, where he had been confined upwards of seven years, under sentence of transportation for life, James Allan, a character well known 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”.
This is only part of Jamie Allan’s story, which was to be written about in a best-selling biography first published in 1817 and reprinted numerous times over the following years. The virtuoso piper was a ne’er do well, who led a roving life of robbery, deception and general debauchery.
Allan was born in 1734, the second youngest of a brood of six born to Will Allan and his wife Betty. Will was a wonderful musician, but made his living travelling round Northumberland mending pots and pans, making horn-spoons and brooms. He intended his sons to follow the same path, but Jamie was always far more interested in mischief making and playing his pipes. The Allans were much in demand for playing at weddings, merrymaking and kern suppers. Jamie excelled on the pipes as a teenager, spurred on no doubt by seeing his father “admitted into the presence of opulent men on account of his superior musical abilities”.
Jamie made an excellent start to his musical career at Alnwick Castle where he was made Official Piper to Elizabeth Percy, Countess of Northumberland. The Countess held him in such high esteem that she commissioned a fine set of pipes for him, but he was to repay this generosity by drinking, gambling and seducing the housemaids. He left her employ under a cloud, and his biography by Andrew Wight goes on to describe his travels and his “surprising adventures and wonderful achievements in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, India, Tartary, Russia, Egypt and various other countries”. The story is amusingly illustrated in the 1828 edition, with engravings by Cruikshank.
Jamie’s repertoire of tricks included playing to admiring crowds while his cronies picked his audience’s pockets, taking the King’s shilling by enlisting as a soldier and then deserting, and horse rustling. By all accounts a handsome man of many talents, he married three times, but was a poor and unfaithful husband;
“In person he was strong and athletic; and few could excel him in feats of running, jumping, climbing, wrestling, riding or swimming. His whole personal appearance was neat, and his manners insinuating. He was scrupulously nice in his wearing apparel…he always wore very wide and dashing ruffles…few men were so expert in the diversion of fishing; he also surpassed in the art of training dogs…he had children by different women; but he seldom shewed any concern for his offspring”
Jamie’s fortunes took a decided turn for the worse when he played one too many of his tricks and got caught. In 1803 he was convicted of stealing a bay horse, and was sentenced to death. A pardon, commuting the death sentence to transportation to Botany Bay, was signed by the Prince Regent but this arrived too late to be of any use. Jamie was ageing and his health was poor, and he died locked up in Durham’s House of Correction in 1810. Jamie Allan is buried in St Nicholas’ Churchyard, Durham.
Soon after his death, this poem was written in commemoration:
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.
Jamie Allan lives on in the tune bearing his name, still part of the standard repertoire of every Northumbrian piper to this day.