William Dixon manuscript

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The William Dixon manuscript, written down between 1733 and 1738 in Northumberland, is the oldest known manuscript of pipe music from the British Isles, and the most important source of music for the Border pipes. It is currently located in the A.K. Bell Library, Perth, Scotland. Very little is known of William Dixon's biography, except what has been learned from this manuscript, and from parish records in Northumberland.

The man[edit]

The only direct evidence for the author's identity comes from the manuscript itself, giving his name and two others, Parcival and John, who may have been his sons. It also gives dates from 1733 to 1738. Many of the tunes in the manuscript were, and some remain, current in Northumberland, or are named after places in the region. Baptismal records for that county show that a William Dixson was christened in Stamfordham, Northumberland, in 1678, and that Parsivall and John, sons of William Dixson, were baptised nearby at Fenwick, near Morpeth, in 1708 and 1710. Julia Say has found that these belonged to a branch of the Dixon family living at Ingoe South Hall, near Fenwick, where some of the family lived until recently. Many of these were buried in Stamfordham church. If this William Dixon was indeed the author of the manuscript, he would have been 55 when he started compiling it, and 60 when he ceased. One son of John Dixon, another William,[1] founded an important coal and iron business in central Scotland later in the century, which was further developed by his son;[2] Julia Say has conjectured that this is how the manuscript reached Scotland.

The manuscript[edit]

Nothing is definitely known of the whereabouts of the manuscript in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, it had been in the collection of one Charles MacIntosh, of Inver, Perthshire. In 1909, he offered it to Dorothea Ruggles-Brise, threatening to put it on the fire if she did not accept it – she pulled the book out, slightly scorched, just in time. She correctly recognised the music as 'a collection of pipe jigs of the border country'.

The manuscript was more definitively identified as pipe music from south of the border by the piper and fiddler Matt Seattle in 1995; previously it had been considered by some [3] as fiddle music, albeit rather odd. He was able to publish a transcription that same year, with extensive notes, as The Master Piper; this has recently been reissued in a third edition. It was transposed up a tone from the source, to suit modern Border pipes, which are generally notated in A.

The importance of the manuscript as a musical source, apart from its antiquity, is the almost unique nature of the music. Almost all of the 40 pieces in the manuscript are long variation sets on dance tunes – one, Dorrington, running to 14 strains. Much of the figuration is similar to early Northumbrian smallpipe music, but the compass of many of the tunes is 9 notes, from F to g, with no sharps or flats, rather than the single octave of the Northumbrian smallpipes of the time. It thus seems that the music was written either for smallpipes with an open ended chanter, like Scottish smallpipes, or else for what are now known as Border pipes. Both of those instruments had effectively died out by the mid-19th century, and their repertoire had survived only in fragments, mostly in adaptations for other instruments, such as fiddle, Northumbrian Smallpipes, or lute.

The music[edit]

In this manuscript was found a large body of music, of considerable sophistication, readily playable on either Scottish Smallpipes or Border Pipes. The musical style is very different from Highland pipe music, despite the many common features of the instruments. In particular, there is no explicitly prescribed ornamentation anywhere, only an occasional direction to ornament certain notes. In contrast, Highland pipe music usually specifies complex patterns of grace notes in detail. Further, the Dixon music tends to avoid repeated notes, and to move predominantly stepwise or in thirds rather than in wider intervals.

The tunes form a substantial and varied repertoire. Some of them are known in other versions in the Northumbrian and the Lowland Scottish traditions – but some of the tunes are not known elsewhere, and all the Dixon versions are distinct from their known parallels. Besides one short minuet, and one song-tune with a pair of variations, there is a selection of dance-music in different rhythms. These include

  • 13 reels, rants or common-time hornpipes, in 4/4 or 2/2,
  • 10 jigs, in 6/4,
  • 6 triple time hornpipes, in 3/2,
  • 9 tunes in compound triple time, 'slip jigs', in 9/4.

The time signatures are not given explicitly, but can be deduced from the melodic patterns and bar-lengths. In the manuscript most of the triple-time hornpipes and some slip-jigs are misnotated, with bar lengths of respectively of 4 or 6 crotchets, when 6 or 9 would follow the melodic patterns. The time signatures have been corrected to 3/2 and 9/4 in the transcription. Such misnotation was fairly common at the time, perhaps for ease of reading. The rhythms are not always straightforward – the 3/2 hornpipes show the characteristic syncopation of the form, generally across the second beat in even numbered bars. As in most other Northumbrian examples of 3/2 hornpipes, the syncopated note is not tied, but a pair of repeated notes. Some strains in tunes of other types, such as 6/4 and 9/4 jigs, are also syncopated.

Dick Hensold has argued that the collection can be split into two distinct parts, one family consisting of the single octave tunes, many corresponding to known Northumbrian smallpipe tunes, or similar in style to known examples of these, while the other, somewhat larger, group contains tunes which use the full nine-note melodic range of a nine-note chanter, with its greater harmonic possibilities. In particular, these use the subtonic chord, G major in Matt Seattle's transcription. Most of the tunes in either group have strains based on two chords, typically G major and A major for the nine-note tunes, but several, notably "Dorrington", are significantly richer, with one of the two chords varying from strain to strain.

One tune from the smallpipe group, Gingling Geordie, has been placed online at the Dragonfly Music website, at http://www.dragonflymusic.co.uk/tunes/gingling_geordie.pdf. It is a good illustration of the style and inventiveness of the Dixon tunes, and it compares well with later versions. Several of these, and two 17th century versions, can be found on the FARNE archive; more modern versions, since its use as an election song in 1774, have been known as Wylam Away. It is worth briefly discussing the musical form of the dance tunes – they are all (except for a single minuet) 'long variation sets'; sets of four or more strains, based on the same underlying harmonic pattern as the first, (typically only 2 chords), and all variations ending in a common melodic 'tag'. The tags of different tunes are clearly recognisable, and the most important feature of the harmonic scheme is how the underlying chords fit with the drones, and the rhythm of the resulting concord and dissonance. As an example, in Gingling Geordie, typically for smallpipe tunes, the underlying chords are the tonic, A major, and supertonic, B minor – the latter is dissonant against drones sounding in A, and here each strain reaches this chord at its midpoint.

Melodically, strains are constructed from simple standard motifs, maybe repeated, in Gingling Geordie these lead into the supertonic at the end of the first 2-bar phrase, and the tag in the tonic at the end. It should be stressed that in some tunes the harmonic pattern is shifted, so the tonic chord does not necessarily fall at the end. A lot of the melodic motifs are 'floating' in that they are used in several different tunes – perhaps at different pitches to fit a different harmony. The importance of this structure to the player is that these motifs lie well under the fingers on Border Pipes, so the music is technically not as difficult as it sounds, either to play or to learn. The effect for the listener, though, is one of structured improvisation.

Modern response[edit]

The publication of the music in 1995 led to a very significant response – Border Pipers now had available a much larger body of traditional music appropriate to the instrument, and this led to considerable discussion in the community about how it might be approached. In particular, the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society's 1997 Collogue was devoted wholly to the Dixon music and related questions. The talks given there have since been published by the LBPS as Out of the Flames. In 1999, Matt Seattle released a CD, also called Out of the Flames, DGM 9907, in which several of the Dixon tunes were recorded – many pipers and others have released recordings of Dixon tunes since then. Matt Seattle maintains a 'Dixxxography', of all recordings of the Dixon music, at http://forums.bobdunsire.com/forums/showthread.php?t=114867. Currently, there have been 37 recordings, including 23 of the tunes. The recent third edition of The Master Piper includes, inter alia, a much fuller discussion of the relationships between the Dixon tunes and those in other published and manuscript sources. Many of these relationships have been greatly clarified since the first edition appeared.


  • The Master Piper – Nine Notes That Shook the World, William Dixon (1733), edited Matt Seattle 1995, Dragonfly Music, ISBN 1-872277-23-3;

3rd edition, edited Matt Seattle 2011, ISBN 978-1-872277-33-2.

  • Out of the Flames, compiler Roderick D. Cannon, Lowland and Border Pipers' Society 2004, ISBN 0-9522711-1-7.


  1. ^ http://www.theglasgowstory.com/image.php?inum=TGSA03582&t=1&urltp=story.php?id=TGSCG02
  2. ^ http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/mlemen/mlemen027.htm
  3. ^ David Johnson, Scottish Fiddle Music in the 18th Century, Mercat Press, Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-84183-083-4.

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