Natural Scenery

Gone fishing: New film explores the traditions and craft of the Hebridean ghillie

COUNTLESS lochs dot the landscape of North Uist, creating a paradise on earth for anglers in search of sea trout and the king of fish, salmon.

Without the guiding hand of an expert ghillie, however, hopeful anglers would, in the words of one, “spend your day rowing, and not fishing”.

Expert in every element of their beat – from the impact of the wind speed on the salmons’ behaviour to most importantly, the precise spot to land that whopper – the craft of the ghillie may seem to be all about bagging the biggest fish.

But, as a captivating new BBC Alba documentary shows, the catch of the day is almost a sideshow for the unique experiences shared by angler and ghillie as they while away the hours with just nature’s glory and each other for company.

And, while the day to day lives of the well-off high-fliers who sweep into west coast island estates can be a world from that of the humble ghillie, it transpires the bond – and confidences – they often share surpasses any wealth or social backgrounds.

Against a backdrop of mesmerising Hebridean scenery, the BBC Alba film follows North Uist ghillie Seumas (James) MacLetchie as he ventures beyond his own familiar beat spanning dozens of lochs and sea lochs, to meet fellow ghillies on estates in Lewis and Harris.

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Although the distance them may seem relatively small, the mountain lochs, roaring rivers and turquoise sea-pools that make up their individual beats requires expert local knowledge of terrain, weather patterns and waters only acquired from years spent in nature and the company of other ghillies.

Despite the differences, however, the film uncovers entwined stories of camaraderie between anglers and ghillies, respect and deep affection for the landscape.

Seumas, a ghillie at Lochmaddy Hotel on North Uist for more than 40 years, said: “The Hebrides have a reputation of being fantastic places to go, but behind the estates are these people who live there and take clients there.

“The film is a nostalgic journey through the Hebrides about people who live in that environment, who respect it and appreciate it. It’s about their love of the land.”

Trusadh – The Ghillie’s Story, also examines how ghillie culture has shifted from days when tweed-suited ghillies were expected to keep a respectable distance from well-to-do visitors – including eating lunch separately – to present days, when they often forge lifelong friendships with guests.

It also highlights the unique role they have in keeping an eye on the changing environment, and the desperate need to ensure their craft and a slice of heritage is not lost.

“Ghillies are really silent ambassadors for the environment. They are continually looking at the health of the water and the fish,” adds Seumas.

“Fish are a good indicator of health of a system, but everything is intertwined, the sea eagles, the fish, the water temperature.

“Ghillies know if you take something out of that equation, and as soon as you remove ghillies from environment you have issues and problems.”

He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather who worked as a ghillie at Grimersta Estate on the Isle of Lewis, and who enthralled him with tales of fly fishing on the lochs or by the edge of Grimersta River.

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He also remembers watching North Uist island elders flounder fishing, using hay forks to spear fish and even catching them by hand, which taught him to understand the tides, the keenness of eye and the patience required to catch a single fish.

He says today’s anglers – many of whom travel from across the globe to experience fly fishing in Hebridean waters – are seeking more than an impressive catch.

“They go out to fish for the pleasure of going in the boat with someone. They look at everything around them, they look at the eagles, the deer. There’s no mad rush to catch a fish – to catch a fish is a bonus.

“It’s the experience of being out in these wild places.

“A lot come for the nostalgia, they’ve been coming for 30 or 40 years, and it’s the friendship and connections they have made as well as the environment that attracts them.

“Eventually they became your friends, and you are no longer really a ghillie, you are taking friends out on a boat,” he adds.

“You hold your own counsel on boat. Conversations that take place between men on boats can be quite personal, you become a confidante, you advise and mediate or you just listen to someone else’s story. That’s very important.”

The film traverses stunning Hebridean landscapes and encounters current and retired ghillies at Brove Estate in west Harris, Uig Lodge on the Isle of Lewis and Grimersta Estate where in 1888 one angler landed an incredible 54 salmon and 15 sea trout in a single session.

There, Grimersta full-time ghillie, Peter Ratcliffe, tells how the role is more than simply guiding guests to prime fishing spots.

“The real pleasure is when you introduce people to fishing for the first time,” he says. “The idea you can help someone catch their first salmon which could potentially hook them for the rest of their life… that is an honour.

“Sometimes it’s the reverse, it’s the last fish you have helped people catch.

“We had a member last year who died, and I won’t be able to go out this year without remembering his reactions, some of the fish he caught, the time he broke his rod in half and the fly that got caught in his finger.”

John Docherty, of Lochmaddy Hotel, who also works as a ghillie, says: “Ghillies are worth their weight in gold.

“If you are going to go into a boat but don’t have a ghillie and expect to catch sea trout and salmon, you are going to spend your day rowing and not fishing.

“Mastering a boat when it’s blowing 30 or 40mph takes a special kind of ghillie. They have to encapsulate so much knowledge, they are not just fishing and knowing about one beat. In North Uist especially, they have maybe 100 beats. That takes a lot of knowledge.”

Seumas, he adds is “like a Jedi master of the ghillie – there’s not a part of water on North Uist that he doesn’t know something about.”

While there were 12 ghillies at Lochmaddy Hotel when Seumas joined as a 16 year old, numbers have dropped to just three.

And while the film ends on a positive note with ten-year-old Isla Docherty, who has aspirations to become a North Uist ghillie, there are concerns that a distinct role in island life may be tottering on the brink of being lost.

“When I was young when there were young boys out rowing guests on the lochs and loving fishing. Now we are struggling; the average age of a full-time ghillie is probably 50 or even 60.

“Estates have to get young people involved to learn land management skills, and to have these skills passed on,” Seumas adds.

“Ghillieing is one of those Scottish traditions that’s part of our heritage.”

Trusadh – Sgeulachd a’ Ghille/The Ghillie’s Story is on BBC Alba on Monday, November 15 at 9pm.

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