Article MT102

Tunes for the Salmon Fishers

John Hall and the music of Spittal



Spittal is a small fishing village on the south side of the Tweed Estuary in Northumberland.  Berwick-upon-Tweed, England’s most northerly town, lies a mile or so away, on the northern side of the river.  The village is so-called because it is the site of the medieval leper hospital of St Bartholomew.  John Hall, c.1895.  Photo courtesy Gordon Blackett of Spittal.The River Tweed is famed as a salmon river and Tweed salmon have been sent to be sold in London for centuries.  The fishing waters are still called by their ancient names.  The Callet, Crab Water, The Bull, and Back of the Walls, lie on the Berwick side of the Tweed, while Crow’s Bat, Carr Rock, Far Seas, Middle Sea, and Hud’s Head, are some of the areas on the southern side of the estuary.  Some local families have owned the right to fish these areas for generations.  In Spittal, one family, the Halls, have been fishing Far Seas and Hud’s Head for as long as anyone can remember.  James and William Hall are listed as living in Spittal in an 1806 Berwick town directory and one of their descendants, John Hall, carried on the tradition until his death in 1939.

John was born in Spittal on 27 September, 1866, the son of Thomas Hall, a fisherman, and Margery Hall, formerly Carr.  As well as being a fisherman he was the landlord of The Red Lion Pub, in Main Street, Spittal.  He was also a fiddle-maker and fiddle-player who would entertain his customers with his playing and singing.  Willie Bell Heckles, a retired farmer and horse breeder, remembers being invited into the Red Lion to sing - ‘mumlin’ they called it - when he was a young boy.  Groups of children were invited into the pub each 14th September, when the ‘score’ money was paid out to the salmon-fishers.  Willie remembers John Hall playing his fiddle and poking fun at Tammy Spence, the local dust-cart man who also played the accordion, by singing:

Tammy Spence he had no sense,
He bought a fiddle for eighteen pence.
And all the tunes that he could play,
Was ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’.
Arthur Frederick Temple, who now lives near Leicester, remembers being taught to play the fiddle by John Hall.  "I well remember playing the fiddle with him and being taught two tunes.  One was a waltz called Open the Door for Dinah, which may well have been a popular tune of the first world war period, and the other, more likely one of his own compositions, was a tune about a racehorse.  At one point it involved tapping the belly of the violin with the heel of the bow, which Pa said represented the horses hooves coming over the jumps.  I would guess that occasion was during the summer of 1938 or 1939."

John Hall was known as ‘Pa’ to his family and friends and his wife was known as ‘Bobba’.  It seems that John was something of a collector.  During the ‘bare-foot days’, between the Wars, there were few jobs in Berwick and money was scarce.  Many of his customers would bring small items into the pub to sell in exchange for beer money.  Often they would bring in musical instrument, including fiddles, which John would hang up around the bar.  Sometimes John would repair and resell a fiddle or two, and sometimes he would make his own fiddles, which he also occasionally sold.  Surviving fiddles bear a label that reads, ‘Made by John Hall. Spittal’ and at least one is dated - 4th May, 1908.

How was it then, that John Hall took up the fiddle?  A granddaughter, Winnie Ewart, believes that John Hall was self-taught, but this may not be the case, as there was certainly a tradition of fiddle-making and playing in the area at the time of John Hall’s birth.  One relative, William Hall, possibly the person mentioned in the 1806 Directory, was somehow involved in music-making and at least two of John’s mother’s relatives were renowned fiddler-makers and players.  Perhaps the best known was John Carr (b.14.5.1839 in Spittal - died 1918), who received his first lessons in violin playing at the age of nine from his father, George Carr, who was apparently considered one of the best strathspey and reel players in the Borders.  John also received some lessons in violin-making from local makers James Thomson and Robert Harvie.  In 1848 Thomson was living at Murton Square, East Ord, a collection of miner’s cottages, now demolished, which is less than two miles from Spittal, and some of his fiddles are still played in the Borders today.  It may be that he is identical to a John Thompson who was making fiddles in nearby Crookham in 1832.  Sadly, I have been unable to trace Harvie.  John Carr later moved to Falkirk, where he opened a music shop in 1885, and became the ‘principal violin professor’ in the district and leader of the Falkirk String Band.  Like his father before him, John Carr also excelled at playing strathspeys and reels and is known to have composed some dance music.

John Carr’s brother, Richard Carr (died 1922), left Spittal to work in Sunderland and Gateshead-on-Tyne, but returned to Spittal in his later years to live across the road from the Red Lion.  A few of the older people still remember him making fiddles up to the time of his death.

John and Bobba Hall had three children, Tom, Madge and Kate.  During the 1920s and ‘30s some musicians got together to form The Spittal Band.  Tom, who became a guard with the railways, played fiddle in the band for a number of years, although it appears that he was not so keen a musician as his father.  Recently, the band’s double bass was rediscovered.  It had been made by the Carr Family.  Tom also played in a dance-band with another Spittal couple, Andy and Barbara Yourston, who played the fiddle and piano,

‘Bobba’ died in the early ‘30s and John decided to retire from the Red Lion.  He moved in with his son and daughter-in-law, who lived at 42, Main Street, Spittal, a few doors up from the pub.  Tom continued to fish from Hud’s Head and John was often to be seen with him, acting as the ‘Gaffer’.  John Hall died a few years later, on 8 July, 1939, at Tom’s home.  When he left the pub John took his fiddles with him, storing them in two kists.  After his death the chests were passed between various members of the family until Arthur Frederick Temple eventually bought them.  Most of the fiddles were cracked and damaged, but one or two were still playable and one was given to John Hall’s great-grandson Gordon Blackett of Spittal, whose daughter continues to play it.

John Hall’s Tunes

Following his death, John Hall’s fiddle-making equipment and his manuscript tune books were kept in an old fishing shiel on the coast above Hud’s Head.  Over the years the shiel began to deteriorate and collapse.  Children began to play in what was rapidly becoming a ruined building.  They also used pages of music to start fires in the building.  About six years ago Joshua Alan Thornton, a Spittal resident, visited what was left of the shiel with a member of the Hall family.  Josh noticed a small manuscript tune book lying on the floor and asked if the family wanted it.  They did not and so he picked it up and took it home with him.  Josh asked various people if they were interested in the tunes, but nobody seemed to be too impressed.  In the end, he gave the tune book to the local museum in Berwick.  I moved to Spittal about three years ago and was told of John Hall and his manuscript by Peter Thomas, a Tweedmouth potter and musician.  At the time I was occupied with other things and it was not until this year that Gillian Hunter, another Spittal resident, passed a copy of the tune book to me.

We can get some idea of the date of the manuscript by the comment written, in John Hall’s handwriting, above one tune.  ‘Pipe Tune.  Wrote Christmas morning, 1916.  Ar(ranged) by John Hall, Spittal’.  There is also mention of the fact that John Hall’s Harp Hornpipe was called The Fouley Hornpipe by William Hall, who may be the William Hall mentioned in the 1806 directory.

There were forty tunes and the first thing that I noticed was that I knew five of the tunes from their respective songs.  These were My Nannie O, Auld Robin Gray, The Exile of Erin, Roslin Castle and Mary of Argyle, and I knew that the words to the first four had appeared in chapbooks printed c.1825 by J Marshall, ‘in the Old Flesh Market, Newcastle upon Tyne’.

The words to My Nannie O are by Burns, while the Reverend W Leeves (1748 - 1828) was responsible for writing the tune to Lady Anne Barnard’s poem Auld Robin Gray, which ends:

I gang like a ghaist and I carena to spin,
I darena think o’ Jamie, for that wad be a sin;
But I’ll do my best a gude wife to be,
For Auld Robin Gray is kind unto me.
The Exile of Erin begins with the verse:
There came to the beach a poor exile of Erin,
The dew on his robe it was heavy and chill;
For his country he sigh’d, when at twilight repairing
To wander alone by the wind-beaten hill.
Roslin Castle, which appears in the same Marshall chapbook as The Exile of Erin, was usually called The Howe o’ Glamis when it appeared in mid-eighteenth century collections, such as Volume IV of the Caledonian Pocket Companion (1752), although it was previously titled The House of Glams in McGibbon’s Second Collection of 1746.  The tune was once thought to be the work of James Oswald (1711-1769), while the words were by one Richard Hewitt of Cumberland, who had once acted as amanuensis to the Scottish poet Dr Blacklock (1721-1791).  The bucolic song begins:
T’was in the season of the year,
When all things gay and sweet appear,
That Colin, with the morning ray,
Arose and sung his rural lay.
Of Nanny’s charms the shepherd sung,
The hills and dales with Nanny rung;
While Roslin Castle heard the swain,
And echo’d back the cheerful strain.

Mary of Argyle turns up in a number of Scottish collections, and Harry Lauder made an influential recording of the song on 5 March, 1926 (HMV D-1229).

One other titles, O Nannie Wilt Thou Gang Wi Me is also suggestive of a song.  One tune, The Black Bird, is related to the following verse:

I heard a fair lady was making her moan
Cries: My blackbird most loyal has flown
In England he’s deemed and highly esteemed
In Scotland he seemeth a stranger to be
Still his fame shall remain in France and in Spain
All bless to my blackbird wherever he be.
The Blackbird was originally a term used to described King Charles II of England, but later came to refer to James Stuart, the ‘Old Pretender’ (1688 - 1766).  The Blackbird was clearly popular with Irish musicians and three variants of the tune are to be found in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (tunes 199-201).

One tune, Hill’s Hornpipe, is presumably by James Hill, who wrote The Rights of Man Hornpipe which is also in the Hall collection.  It is thought that Hill was born in Scotland between 1813 and 1818, possibly in the area around Dundee.  His wife, Sarah, was from County Durham and an 1841 census return shows them living at Bottlebank, Gateshead.  Hill’s occupation was then given as ‘musician’.  He appears to have been an active Tyneside musician in the 1840s, but is believed to have died sometime in the early 1850s, although his memory lingered on in the region:

Time canna kill oor Jamie Hill,
His lilting tune South Shore
Still gars my feet, age-cramp’d fast beat,
Gude time upon the floor.
Another tune, Glenlivet Whiskey Highland Strathspey, which is also known as Minmore Schottische, comes from the pen of J Scott Skinner, ‘the Strathspey King’, who was born in Banchory, Kincardineshire, in 1843.  The tune appeared in the Elgin Collection of 1884 and the following anonymous verse is sometimes printed with it:
Scott Skinner made anither tune,
The very dirl o’t renched the moon.
Till ilka lassie an her loon
Commenced to dance fu frisky-o.

John Hall, as befitted a publican, appeared to like tunes associated with whisky as we also find the Talisker Whiskey Bagpipe Strathspey and Furintosh Whiskey Strathspey in his collection.  The latter appears as Ferintosh Whiskey in James Hunter’s The Fiddle Music of Scotland (1979).

The slow strathspey Dean Brig o’ Edinburgh is another early tune, this time one composed by Archie Allan of Forfar (1794-1837), who originally called it Miss Gray of Carse.  Allan, a fiddler, is believed to have once played in Nathanial Gow’s band (Gow being a son of the famous composer Niel Gow, 1727-1807).

For some reason or other there are a large number of hornpipes in the collection.  Hornpipes were certainly popular at one time, but, as many manuscript tunes were presumably lost when John Hall’s sheiling was destroyed, it is hard to say if this high proportion is truly representative of John Hall’s repertoire, or whether there is a distortion which would have been evened out had more of John Hall’s tunes survived.  But, it could be that John Hall liked to play hornpipes, as the following penciled notes are attached to two of the tunes, ‘a very fine hornpipe’ and ‘this is a fine hornpipe’.  In his notes to the CD Borders Fiddles (Borders Traditions vol. 1, SBD 001D, issued 2000), Dr Fred Freeman mentions that, ‘a fondness for airs and hornpipes’, is a characteristic of the borders fiddle style.  As well as the previously mentioned Harp Hornpipe, Hill’s Hornpipe and The Rights of Man Hornpipe we also have the following hornpipes in the collection.  Click on graphic to see the music full-sized.A Stranger’s Hornpipe, Armer’s Fancy - A Hornpipe, Autumn Leaves Hornpipe, Chas Stevenson’s Hornpipe, Edinburgh Hornpipe, Ferry Bridge Hornpipe, The Black Lark Hornpipe, The Castlegate Hornpipe, The Dabbler Hornpipe, The Sliding Scale Hornpipe, Theresa’s Hornpipe, Whittee Deem Hornpipe and two Untitled Hornpipes.  [The manuscript notebook pages for the Castlegate Hornpipe, Black Lark Hornpipe and the Pio Polka (mentioned below), are shown in the graphic to the right.  Click on it to view full-sized]

There is a region of Berwick-upon-Tweed called Castlegate and it has been suggested that The Castlegate Hornpipe might be a local tune.  But, to be honest, many other ancient towns and cities have areas around their castles which bear the same name.  In the case of Whittee Deem, I may be misreading John’s handwriting, as the Northumbrian piper Joe Hutton called this tune Whittle Dene Hornpipe (on the CD Joe Hutton - Northumbrian Piper East Allen Recordings EAR 015-2).  Joe felt that it was a Northumbrian tune.

This leaves us with a final ten tunes.  There are a couple of reels Ayn Water Reel and Mrs Vans Agnews Reel, a polka, Pio Polka, a waltz, Victorian Waltz and an untitled strathspey, which is shown as being ‘composed by Bylantine of Kelso’.  Present day Kelso musicians have, so far, failed to identify the elusive ‘Bylantine’.  The remaining tunes are Ne Bady Naw-Ne Bady Naw, Sarah Wably, Seven Brothers, The Mountain Daisy and Tweed Silvery Streams is Flowing, the latter, again, sounding as though it might be a song air.

Surprisingly, when Joshua Alan Thornton discovered John Hall’s manuscript there was little interest shown in the tunes by local musicians.  Gradually, however, things began to change and ‘John Hall’s tunes’ are now being heard in sessions around Berwick.  It would be lovely to hear some of the tunes being played again in the Red Lion.  Who knows?  Perhaps one day they will.

Mike Yates 17.10.02

Article MT102

Since writing the above I have discovered two sheets from a printed tune book that had also been found in John Hall's ruined shiel.  These were found by Bob Maddox, who recently left Spittal to live in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and comprise pages 7-10 from an unknown book.  Each page measures 10" x 6" and the pages are damaged in one corner, which means that some of the tunes are incomplete.  The tunes are as follows:

p.7 - Urquhart's Strathspey.  Legget's Irish Reel.  Marmeel Rant.
p.8 - Small Coals for Nailers . Johnny Lad.  Clachnacuddin.
p.9 - Auld Bell Robbie.  Smith's a Gallant Fireman.  Soldiers' Joy.
p. 10 - The Brig o'Dee (Strathspey).  Brig o'Dee (Reel).  Fanny Farquharson.
I would appreciate any assistance in identifying this book.

Mike Yates 29.11.02

I'm happy to say that fiddler and Border piper Matt Seattle has identified the above tunes as coming from Middleton's Selection of Strathspeys, Reels &c. for the Violin, arr. Peter Milne.  It was published in 1870, though it ran to at least 7 editions.

Mike Yates 17.12.04

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