Robert Reid – two generations

The fame of the family rests predominantly on the work of the renowned pipemaker Robert Reid (also spelled Reed). This website will focus only three generations of the family. The famous North Shields pipemaker is identified here as Robert (III) and his father as Robert (II); his paternal grandfather was also called Robert but is not included in this account.

  • Robert Reed (II) ( 1761-1826) – a cabinet maker, player of the “big pipes” (border pipes) and possibly also a pipemaker
  • Robert Reid (III) (1784-1837) – piper and the renowned pipemaker
  • James Reid (1814 – 74) – son of Robert (III), pipemaker, piper, musical instrument seller, Assistant Piper to the Duke of Northumberland
  • Elizabeth Reid (1818-c1890) – youngest daughter of Robert (III)

ROBERT REED (II) 1761-1826, was christened at Stamfordham on 24 Sept 1761, being listed in Nonconformist Presbyterian records. His father, a stonemason, appears is the 1762 militia lists as living in Stamfordham.

He may have been apprenticed to a John Reed of Newcastle, possibly a relative, a cabinet-maker listed in Whitehead’s Directory of Newcastle of 1778.

He is probably the Robert Reed who married Margaret Coulson on 19 Nov 1780 at Chollerton in the parish of Simonburn. Margaret was baptised 02 Nov 1761 in Stamfordham the Presbyterian church … then again at Ovingham on December 9th, in the established church. Margaret shares what seems to be a strong Presbyterian background with Robert, being baptised in the established church at Ovingham, probably for legal reasons, only after being first baptised in the Presbyterian church at Stamfordham. This must have been a deliberate decision on her parent’s part and argues a degree of conviction. Robert and Margaret seem to have grown up together in Stamfordham, their families members of the same non-conformist church, and to known each other all their lives.

After their marriage Robert and Margaret probably moved to Newcastle where Jonathan, their first son, was baptised at St John’s on 28th October 1781 (he died in 1783), their second son Robert (III) was christened there on 11th April 1784, and their third son, George, was christened in 1789 at St Andrew’s.

Writing to Mr Kell in 1857, James Reid stated that his grandfather, i.e. Robert (II), played “big pipes” which were made by the Youngs of Alnwick. In the same letter he uses ambiguous phraseology to describe either his father or grandfather playing with James Allan “when they Rid the Fairs”. Given that Robert (II) was about 25 years younger than James Allan and Robert (III) was about 50 years younger than Allan it seems more likely that it was Robert (II) who “Rid the Fairs” and played pipes with Allan. There is also the possibility that they both played with Allan in the later years of the 18thC.

Robert (II) is believed to have died in 1826, in North Shields.

ROBERT REID (III) 1784-1837 is a man about whom very little is documented. It might be assumed that he learned piping, and possibly some pipe-making, from his father and it is thought, largely on stylistic grounds, that he may have learned smallpipe-making from John Dunn of Newcastle, before developing his own distincive and seminal style. John Dunn was a professional wood-turner and apart from making pipes he did work for Thomas Bewick. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, given their interest in piping and the fact that Thomas did business with Dunn, both Bewicks might have met the young Robert Reid through Dunn. Robert moved to North Shields by at the latest 1802, when he married Isabella Smith at Christ Church on July 25th;

Robert Reed + Isabella Smith marriage - Christ Church register - 25 July 1802 - crop

They already had one daughter, Mary, born on 21st August 1800 and baptised in her mother’s name at Christ Church on 2nd October 1801. After their marriage they had a further five children:

  • Christiana, born 4th August 1807, and baptised in a Presbyterian church on November of that year by Alexander Armstrong, protestant dissenting minister. Christiana was not an uncommon name in the 18th and early 19th centuries and conventionally is taken to symbolise “follower of Christ”, being also the name of Christian’s wife in the second part of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, a popular protestant text. This christening was in “the Scotch church”, a congregation based firmly in the Presbyterian order and part of the Anti-burgher secession with strong links to the Scottish presbyterian secession church of Kelso. The presbyterian church in Stamfordham adopted a similar secessionist stance. The North Shields congregation migrated between various premises before finally building a church in Norfolk Street but at this time probably had a chapel on Ropery Banks in North Shields;
  • Margaret, born 9th August 1809, and baptised on 3rd September in the same Presbyterian church. The choice of Margaret as a name may indicate that she was named after her paternal grandmother;
  • Isabella, born 28th November 1811 and baptised on the 5th January 1812 in the same Presbyterian church. It is a fair assumption that she was named after her mother. The registration of her baptism is the same form as those of her elder sisters, except that the minister is now James Pringle;

Isabella Reid birth and baptism record 1812 - crop

  • James, born 20th January 1814, but no baptismal record has been traced. This may be because the Presbyterian records are incomplete in this period.
  • Elizabeth, baptised 2nd December 1818 at Christ Church. In the parish register her father Robert is clearly identified as a musician:

Elizabeth Reid baptism - Christ Church register - 02 December 1818 - RR given as Musician - crop

Robert’s pipe-making has been thoroughly explored in other places; in summary, though, he was probably making small pipes when the simple or keyless chanter was the norm, and may have been training or working with John Dunn while Dunn developed Peacock’s four-keyed chanter. Working independently during the early 19thC Robert developed six- and seven-keyed chanters and by the end of his life in 1837, assisted latterly by his son James, he had developed a fourteen-keyed chanter accompanied by five drones, allowing playing in several major and minor keys. Essentially, he had developed a new and complex musical instrument from the early keyless, diatonic, three-drone small pipes. Robert’s work is characterised by high quality turning and craftsmanship, fine finish, and refined aesthetic judgement in terms of proportions and appearance. Robert used techniques of key-making and other technical aspects that are consistent with conventional woodwind instrument-making of the time, and his aesthetic is consistent with late 18thC practice.

In addition to small pipes Robert made Union Pipes, the precursors of today Uillean Pipes. Eneas Mackenzie wrote of the fine tone and tuning of his instruments. The fourteen-keyed chanter forms a significant theme in Fenwick’s manuscript.

Although his pipemaking is now well documented, very little is known of Robert’s actual piping. His son James stated that he played “big pipes” (i.e. border pipes) with James Allan, and it might therefore be assumed that his repertoire included a border pipe tradition as well as small pipe tunes. His daughter Elizabeth added commentary to tunes she sent to James Fenwick which now provide a glimpse of his repertoire. For example, against “The Dorrington Lads” Fenwick writes, “As played by Robert Reid & his son James, also his daughter Elizabeth Oliver. Mrs Oliver, in a letter to me dated August 8th/83 says “most likely the same copy that poor Will Allen was trying to play when his spirit was called home to a more blissful rest.

On 24th January 1823 Robert Reid played pipes for the twentieth annual supper of the Burns Club at Miss Lowsey’s Bridge Inn at Bishopwearmouth, in Sunderland:

Robert Reid plays pipes at Burns Club at Bishopwearmouth - col 4 - Durham County Advertiser 01 February 1823 - crop

Both Robert (II) and his father Robert (III) were alive at this time, and without corroborating evidence it is not possible to be certain about which was playing.  The spelling REID, however, seems to be more associated with Robert (III), and despite the unreliability of spelling in reportage of names, we might make a tentative assumption that this refers to Robert (II).

The detailed article states that he played throughout the evening after each recitation or song, and lists these; they include several Burns works which have tunes associated with them, and it is easy to speculate that Robert might have adapted his repertoire to the occasion and played those Burns-related tunes, including perhaps;

  • Scot’s wae hae wi’ Wallace bled
  • Corn Riggs
  • My Nannie O
  • Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonny Doon
  • The Birks of Aberfeldy

On p.471 of the 1828 edition of “The Life of James Allan” it is stated that James Allan stole the horse in the crime that led to his final imprisonment (1803), “after playing some time at sign of the Dun Cow, on the Quayside, Newcastle, with Mr. Reed of North Shields“. A footnote on the same page states, “Mr. Reed of North Shields often played with Allan, the father of our native music. His mechanical dexterity in the construction of the small pipes, as well as his scientific and superior execution, are so well known in the north of England as to render any further eulogium superfluous.” This clearly refers to Robert (III) and was published nine years before he died and within living memory of James Allan himself, and so might be assumed to be accurate. It is very frustrating to modern historians, however, that “no further eulogium” was ever written or deemed necessary.

Robert died on the 13th January 1837 and a brief notice of his death appeared in the Newcastle Courant of 20th January on the day he was buried in Christ Church churchyard. The parish register shows that his home was in Dortwick Street at the time of his death:

Robert Reed Burial Entry - Christ Church Parish Register p54 - 20 Jan 1837 - crop

On the following day, Saturday, 21st January 1837, a slightly longer announcement appeared in the Newcastle Journal. Note that although both newspaper reports give the 14th January as the date of his death, his headstone (probably more reliably) gives the 13th January:

Robert Reed death announcement - col 7 - Newcastle Journal 21 January 1837 - crop

At North Shields,  on the 14th inst. aged 53, Mr. Robert Reed, piper, and as a maker of such instruments, he was known from the peer to the peasant, for the quality of their tone and elegance of finish.”

Robert’s headstone can still be seen, although was moved from its original position in a rationalisation of the churchyard in c.1952, and now stands hidden behind a sturdy beech hedge. The inscription on the headstone suggests a family with a strong sense of identity, who maintained a family memorial over a period of 24 years after the death of the first daughter to die:

“Robert Reid, Musical Instrument Maker of North Shields, died Jan. 13th, 1837 also his daughter Mary died Mar. 11th 1823, also his daughter Margaret Nimmo, who died Dec. 28th, 1843 also his daughter Christiana McDonald died Dec. 3rd, 1847, also 2 of her children, died in infancy.”

The next generation of Reid pipers is described in the page on James Reid and Elizabeth Oliver.

Follow this link to the page about the Reid family repertoire.