Making Drone Reeds that the MacCrimmons Must Have Played

By Yves Tyson

From the middle ages until today the problem for pipers has always been in finding good drone and chanter reeds. Perhaps less of a problem these days, but still the subject you will hear most pipers talking about are their reeds. Compared to a a few centuries ago we have it easy, but I think it fascinating to look back at how our forebears coped with the issues of good material and good manufacture of reeds.

We know that in Brittany, for example, pipers made their own reeds taken from different strange raw materials such as rye straw, boxwood, cow’s horn, cane and elder trees. The latter are better known for toy whistles it must be said but are able to give nice sounding drone reeds too.

Before the arrival of cane from the south of France or Spain or the Mediterranean area, pipers made drone reeds from this wood, a wood that is native to the British Isles and western Europe. I suspect that pipers in Scotland from the MacCrimmon era onwards would have used this same wood for their reeds.

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The trees were not always easy to find in Highland Scotland but were available and once located the near hollow stems made them ideal for drone reeds. In the days before reed manufacturing companies and online mail, pipers had to be self sufficient. Without reeds they couldn’t play. Slim, straight and small branches from the elder tree were the answer. A sharp knife, a small boring tool and some waxed thread and they were playing again.

I have made such reeds to fit the three drones of my pipes. I wanted to show that it was possible, to prove my theory that pipers of the old time did the same in Scotland.

In the picture above you can see the making of the reed from raw twig to finished reed. Firstly I cut the piece to the correct length. Next I trim off the bark and then I remove the pith.

I then seal one end with sealing wax and taper the other for the reed seat. Finally I carefully cut the tongue and fit the bridle and hemp. As you can see I use rubber bridles which I suppose is cheating a bit but is certainly quicker than waxed thread and the reeds work just as well.

Tenor drone reeds are of smaller diameter, as readers will know, and this makes them a bit more difficult to make and to set up; bass drone reeds are easier and give a great sound and volume.

That’s why two years ago for ‘Pibroch by the Sea’ at Cancale, Brittany, I have played His Father’s Lament for Donald MacKenzie with a mixed set of reeds, cane tenors and an elder bass fitted to my Duncan MacDougall pipes.

The pipes were steady and resonant throughout and that encouraged me to use elder reeds again last year. This time I used a full set of elder and though I played a smaller tune, Corrienessan’s Salute, the pipes were again very steady and resonant.

The warmth of the timbre from these reeds seems to work very well with lower pitched, vintage, chanters and I think are particularly suited to a long piobaireachd.

The difficulty for the elder reed maker is matching the reeds to individual reed seats. When ordering it is a good idea to supply correct measurements. Each reed can then be made to size.

Anyway, despite the huge progress made with synthetic reeds, I find it a real pleasure to play in the old manner with a sound that must have been close to what pipers from the 18th century had.

Making and using elder reeds means that my tone is something that I have manufactured for myself. I am self-sufficient and in control of my instrument, not dependent on any other reedmaker. It is a real privilege for me.

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6 thoughts on “Making Drone Reeds that the MacCrimmons Must Have Played

  1. Making your own reeds are ONLY of interest to pipers who want an authentic sound. Today’s pipers don’t care about that and don’t want to waste their time.

  2. Yves makes some great reeds, and they suit my preference for low pitch perfectly. Thanks for the article!

  3. Undoubtedly reeds were made from some indigenous woods to Scotland and Elder does grow here. There are various types of Elder and of course at times Elderberry Wine has been a popular home made brew. It seems whistles can be made of the stems. The pith is reamed out and it is then in a tube form. Whistles are mouth blown. Care has to be taken with the stems of Elder as it is apparently toxic and can cause illness. Drone reeds are not mouth blown, but in testing them perhaps a researcher might mouth blow them. He/she should do some research on this lest they become quite or even seriously ill, which is an expensive way of getting the bagpipe to sound authentic.
    Maybe there is a way of overcoming this toxicity? A few drams maybe???
    Duncan Watson

    1. Hi Duncan
      Yes, you are right when saying that elder stems could be toxic but there are two different types of elder tree, the one to make reeds is called SAMBUCUS NEGRA which provide good syrup, cake and marmelade and the other called YEBLE greatly toxic is not available for reeds because stems are soft.
      So when I make elder reed and after boring the tube it is important to blow out all dust correctly because mouth blown testing is a little allergenic and if dust is swallowed, cough will last a long time.

  4. Hi Bob,
    Thanks for the your comment, you’re right it is crystal tube found in DIY store next to my village. As you can see, a reed maker is often a handyman.
    Elder reeds need to be played with a low pitch from A430 to A442.

  5. Thanks, Yves, for a really interesting and informative article. It looks like the bridles are made from PVC tubing (?) -so long as you can get the right size, they are ideal !

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