Traditional handcrafted drums by Carolyn Hillyer


I have been making drums for 30 years and teaching drum making for more than 25 of those. My intent has been to catch the spirit of the wild and the song of the ancients into these drums, anchoring the resonance of sacred land within the body of the drum. It has been a huge honour and great delight to birth and bear witness to the birthing of so many drums into the world and to be part of the drum journeys of so many people during this time.

All skins used in the making of my drums have been sourced and prepared with scrupulous attention to the integrity of the process involved. Everything has been created using old, and sometimes very ancient, techniques; nothing is machine-made or mass-produced. Dartmoor red deer skins come from a family-run deer forest on the moors, wild horse skins from the Dartmoor feral pony herds, reindeer skins from a traditional Swedish Arctic tannery, salmon skins from wild river fish. All skins used have been a bi-product of another sustainable purpose (killed for food or due to environmental pressures of overpopulation) and would otherwise be wasted; no animal was ever killed just to provide skin for a drum. I see drum making as a reparation, a way of returning some beauty and honouring to an animal whose life has already been taken.

The sourcing of skins for drum making with care has been a crucial aspect of my drum road journey. This has not always been an easy process but with tenacity and the help of a handful of dedicated people, it has been possible over many years to source and prepare the skins with prayerful tending. In 2021 I decided to finish tanning hides for drums; the work is heavy and I was ready to stop. This means I now have a finite resource of drum skins remaining. I would not want to make or teach drums with skins I have not personally prepared so, inevitably, I will now no longer teach drum making or accept drum commissions.

My drum road has been a wondrous and profoundly inspiring experience and will continue through the many drums I play in concert and in the recording studio, the offering of drum prayers in wild places, the sharing of drum circles and ceremonies, and in the drums that I will quietly craft until all the skins are used.


In 2018 I travelled to Arctic Sweden to participate in an exhibition at the Ájtte Sámi Culture Museum in the northern town of Jokkmokk, called TRUMMA FÖR TRÄD / Women Drum For Trees, with northern traditional drum maker Gun Hofgaard, curation and filming by Cedar Shaw, Sámi songs and music by Nina Nordvall Vahlberg. This exhibition, combining the work of four women from two cultures and landscapes, enabled our drums to honour trees as the foundation of life, crucial in our continued survival on this earth. The meeting of northern reindeer skin drums with the red deer and wild pony drums of Dartmoor celebrated the place where two ancient herding traditions, each born of their raw landscape and deep ancestry, found common ground and shared understanding. I created a special collection of drums for the exhibition which included: Weaver’s Drum, Copper Moon Drum, Wild Horse Drum, Grandmother Drum, Forest Drum, North Drum, White-Horse-Hill Woman Drum and the Drum Fish which is formed from a set of tiny salmon skin drums created from one fish. The exhibition sat at the heart of an international gathering of women, When Women Drum to the North, created and hosted by myself and Cedar Shaw, a week of workshops, presentations, experiences and ceremonies shared by forty women from Britain, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.







My dear sister Gun has died, March 2023. She lived much of her life in the Sámi region of northern Sweden. She was our first friend when we arrived for the first time onto the Arctic winter ice in 2004. Her drum making process was infused by the northern landscape and I am honoured to have had the chance to braid some of my own drum journey into hers when we exhibited our drums together. She lived, taught and created her work in her lakeside forest studio and cabin.She was also a wise herbalist and wondrous gardener, tending an abundance in her garden under the Arctic midnight sun. She will be profoundly missed by her partner Stefan, her family, her many friends and all the women who have travelled on our northern journeys to spend time with her. Thank you sister, for everything that you gave to the earth.

Our daughter Cedar made this film about her drum making process, which formed part of our exhibition:

Cedar also filmed their mountain journey to gather herbs:

Here is a short clip of Gun drumming on the frozen lake by her home:

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