Bagpipe Society Logo
Promoting the Bagpipe Revival since 1986

The Bagpipe Society

Billy Purvis, Union Piper

Without wanting to enter into the discussion of the Irishness of the Union pipes raised by David Ward (Chanter Winter 2005), I would like to correct a small mistake in Dirk Campbell’s response to him (Chanter, Spring 2006). The source of the mistake, however, does not appear to lie with Dirk but with the generally outstanding Folk Archive Resource North East (FARNE) website. His article is illustrated with the splendid engraving from the FARNE archive of William (Billy) Purvis (1784-1853) playing the Union pipes.

Dirk says that Billy Purvis was “otherwise

By Clive Matthews

known as Blind Willie”

presumably on the basis of

FARNE’s entitling the

print “Portrait of Blind

Willie playing the Irish

Pipes”. Indeed, the only

other picture of Billy in

the archive is similarly named: “Portrait of Blind Willie in costume”. This appellation, however, is simply wrong: Blind Willie was another William Purvis altogether. Blind Willie was born in Newcastle in 1752 and was best known as a fiddle player. In the words of Bruce and Stokoe, the editors of the Northumbian Minstrelsy, “This eccentric character never enjoyed the faculty of sight, and many still living remember the sonsy [good-natured?], contented, and sightless face of Willie as he trudged the streets without a covering on his head … His happy, contented nature made him a universal favourite with all ranks of society; and he had his regular places of call, where he was always welcome and duly served. At the inns and public houses of the town Blind Willie’s presence in the taproom was a sure attraction, and his voice and fiddle in harmony, singing some quaint local ditty, gave never failing delight to his appreciative audiences.” He died in 1832. The following picture (right) of Blind Willie, also taken from FARNE, is based on a much larger group engraving called “Eccentric characters of Newcastle upon Tyne”.

Those interested in Blind Willie’s life may find further details in a couple of articles: David Harker’s “The making of the Tyneside concert hall” (Popular Music, Vol. 1, (1981), pp. 27-56) and James Gregory’s “‘Local characters’: Eccentricity and the North-East in the nineteenth century” (Northern History, Vol. 42, (2005), pp. 163-186).

The piping William Purvis (no

relation to Blind Willie) was a very

different character. Born near Edinburgh, he

was brought up in Newcastle where he

became a call boy at the Theatre Royal. He worked for a while as a conjurer, clown and a virtuoso performer on the Northumbrian pipes before setting up a travelling theatrical booth around 1818 which mainly worked the fairs and race-meetings of Northern England and lowland Scotland. In this booth the company produced pantomimes,

melodramas and cut-down versions of Shakespeare interspersed with songs, dances and music. Billy acted as master of ceremonies dressed in grotesque clown pantaloons, skull cap and glasses. He was most famous for “stealing the bundle” a routine in which, with many humorous asides to the audience, he robbed an unsuspecting bumpkin of his possessions. Purvis became so well-known and loved that two biographies of his life were published.

Aside from the FARNE image of Billy Purvis, Hugh Cheape in his recent book Bagpipes (2008) – a book which has much sensible discussion on the Irish provenance of the Union pipes – suggests that the piper in Walter Geikie’s “The Reel o’

Tullochgorum” (pictured left) may also be him, although it is unclear on what basis.

A picture of Billy playing the pipes

on stage (right) also appears in Thomas Arthur’s The Life of Billy Purvis (1875).

This engraving is clearly a direct copy

of Sir David Wilkie’s well-known painting “The Bag-Piper” of 1813 (here shown below in the beautiful engraved version by Robert Charles Bell).

The identity of Wilkie’s piper is

unknown; could it be Billy Purvis? It is not too hard to see some facial resemblance with the union piper but Purvis would have been a much younger man than that depicted when Wilkie painted the original. En passant, it is worth noting that the unconvincing positioning of drones and chanter is, perhaps, another example of an artist manipulating bagpipe -reality in order to produce a better compositional structure as I have previously written about.