To be a flute-maker is to be an endangered species. Flute-makers in Scotland go back to the 17thcentury but now there is only one left. George’s flutes are in demand across the world so what makes them so special? He is an expert in woodwork, a silversmith and also makes his own tools. In the last 40 years he’s made around 1,200 beautiful wooden flutes. George is a senior philosophy student in the Edinburgh School.
Scotland’s Last Flute-Maker
George Ormiston, Bo’ness, Scotland
Coming from a family of musicians and singers, I was attracted to the sound of the wooden flute and began to play when I was sixteen. That was about the same time as taking up an apprenticeship in engineering. Both became real passions, and the combination led me to make my first flute at about the age of 27.
Most flutes at that time were from the 19th century and beyond repair so I was aware of the demand for new simple-system wooden flutes. On completing my engineering studies, I spent some time with a company in Germany which made recorders. I developed skills in making woodwind instruments and became acquainted with different types of wood.
My inspiration has been John Mitchell Rose. He was born in Edinburgh in the late 1700’s and made his first flute as a young man. It’s his design I chose to base my instruments on and I have been improving on it ever since.
In all that time I’ve had one aim in mind: to make a high quality, reliable instrument which would allow players to improve their standard of playing.
Where do you get the wood?
The choice of wood is important as each one produces a different sound. When I started, and after a lot of searching, I eventually found a family-run Tanzanian sawmill which could supply African Blackwood (Grenadilla). Any wood we bought from them was perfect. This is now a protected species, as is the leadwood we have used more recently, so we have been trying to source other woods. The only European wood we have used is boxwood.
I have always believed that the wood comes to you. You get a feeling from a piece of wood; you know whether it will make a good flute – you just know!
I once had a young man who came to the workshop with his father to commission a flute. As I was talking to his father, the young man walked about the workshop picking up pieces of wood and tools; just holding them and looking at them. Some years later he joined me in the workshop and I taught him the art of flute making. Again, it was just waiting to be discovered.
What skills does a flute-maker need?
To produce a flute takes six years. You have to give the wood time and allow it to be part of the creative process. This is the way it was done in the 19th Century. This requires patience. So in the workshop there are several flutes at various stages. It requires me to be tool maker, flautist, silversmith and engineer all at the same time.
A six-year process
The wood is first left for a year to season. It is then rough-turned and left to rest for another year. After that a 10mm hole is bored through it and it’s left for a further year until it’s time for a second turning. After another year it gets a final bore. I can then see it taking shape. But it has to be left for another year before the holes are drilled and the silver keys and ferrules (rings), which I also make, are added to complete the piece.
The sound from a wooden flute has always been my preference over a metal flute. As there is no reed, the musician has direct contact with the wood through the breath – it’s like the breath of life. The tuning and type of sound you get from a flute depends on what’s inside. The bore is as much responsible for the difference in sound between wooden and silver flutes, as are the two types of materials.
Precision work of the flute-maker
The bore of a wooden flute is conical, not cylindrical and so the dimensions are critical. It is vital that the tool you use, the tapered reamer, is ground to a precise taper. Over the years I tried many reamers until it became obvious that I would have to make my own. Then I had to craft different reamers until I got the sound I was listening for.
The undercut is also important (cutting away of the inside of the mouth hole). It makes the instrument immediately responsive. This, combined with a comfortable stretch for the hands, means the flute is suitable for both beginners and proficient players.
Precision is the key element but to me, the appearance, playing quality and reliability of the flute are of equal importance.
Who are your typical customers?
The flutes are sent from the workshop to customers all over the world. Just now I have one going to Quebec. About half are made to special order. There has also been a revival of interest in Scottish traditional music and more young people are picking it up.
One of our flutes was played in the theme music for the film Apocalypse. And we made the flutes seen in Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of ‘The Magic Flute’. Musical luminaries in the classical, rock, folk and jazz world have bought my flutes. We haven’t needed to advertise since the 1980’s and there is no shortage of people on the waiting list. We try to keep the price as low as we can to enable as many people as possible to purchase them.
Flute-maker meets the School of Philosophy
My wife, Jutta, helps me with the business and one day she received an invitation for us to demonstrate flute making at Art in Action. Whilst setting up our area at Waterperry, we experienced something unlike anywhere else we’d been to. It was in the attitude of the volunteer staff, their care of the demonstrators, the stillness and fine attention with which they approached any task. This was an aspect of working that we had talked about between ourselves.
Later, at a dinner which was laid on for the 200+ demonstrators, the organiser spoke about why we need craftspeople to keep civilisation alive. He said the raising up of humanity was possible through our work. Afterwards we enquired about the organisation. Jutta and I knew that this was what we had been looking for. We always knew there was more to life than what we had.
We discovered there was a branch of the school in Edinburgh and signed up for a course in philosophy. That was 32 years ago and since then, the philosophy has been fundamental in our lives, our reference point.
The last flute-maker in Scotland – how does that feel?
When I addressed the British Flute Society in Manchester, I mentioned Krishna, who chose the flute over all other instruments. It is a clear example of the wooden flute having been around for a very long time!
Since childhood I have always had the feeling that music, I mean sound, is very special. It gives an important impulse to everything and everyone, and enriches life so much. I still find this, after many years of playing and making flutes. It is always a joy to hear a recording or go to a concert and listen to someone who plays one of our instruments.
So many players, whether at home or on the stage, have shown a deep appreciation for the instrument they have received. Even going so far as to say it has changed their life. Well, it’s actually the sound, I would say.
Every flute I make leaves the workshop with a blessing. At the end, when the flute is completed in the workshop, it’s put in its case, the case is closed, and surrendered through the pause. And we move on to the next flute.
As for being Scotland’s last flute maker – I hope that won’t be the case. Maybe someone will take up flute making while I’m still around to help.