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Issue 37 - A day in the life of a ghillie

Scotland Magazine Issue 37
March 2008


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A day in the life of a ghillie

David Fleetwood looks at the role of a ghillie on a traditional Highland estate.

The day starts early for a Highland ghillie. To get everything done, it is vital to take advantage of every single shred of daylight, including dawn. As the dawn chorus begins, the ghillie is pushing through clinging heather and hopping over wet peaty holes following his beat, and managing the estate and its herd.

Today, the ghillie is a gamekeeper’s younger helper, but their connection with the sporting activities of a Highland estate was not always this distinct. Prior to the 16th century, the word referred to the chief attendant of a clan chief, an important and prestigious position. The ghillie was to have a fall from grace during the next few hundred years, and by the 17th century some Highland chiefs had a ‘gilhie-wetfoot’ in their retinue, whose duty it was to carry his master across rivers and burns. This became a term of abuse amongst Lowlanders for anyone in attendance to a Highland chief. Since the Victorians discovered their passion for stalking, the life of the ghillie has had less to do with carrying Highland chiefs across raging torrents and more to do with the management of the landscape and looking after stalkers on the hill.

An early start in the dark would not have been unfamiliar to a Victorian ghillie, who would have to check on the position and condition of the herd just like today.

The ghillie’s year follows the seasons, with stalking between July and January. Outside the season, the ghillie is responsible for the management of the animals and the maintenance of the estate. One of their main tasks was the eradication of predators such as foxes for whom the Victorian ghillie would have set snares and traps. Birds of prey and corvids were also persecuted. Kites and buzzards were shot and poisoned, leading to the virtual extinction of several species. In 1895, an assistant keeper shot a golden eagle that was feeding on a lamb, the bird had a wingspan of seven feet tip to tip.

It is in the management of the landscape that the role of the modern day ghillie is most different from that of his Victorian counterpart. The image of the Highland estate in this period is one of a landscape managed for the shooting of game by a privileged few, and this management involved the slaughter of any animals that came in the way.Today, the ghillie is involved in the management of the estate alongside conservation groups, and many estates have been closely involved in the re-introduction of several raptor species that they had persecuted a hundred years before.

The ghillie also had to guard the deer on the estate against poachers. Especially in the Victorian era, poachers viewed their sport as a tilt against authority and privilege.

Poaching has changed immeasurably since then, and the romantic vision of a Victorian poacher taking one for the pot was replaced in the 1950s by commercial gangs using shotguns to take deer from Highland roadsides. For a ghillie to tackle such gangs was a dangerous act.

The romantic vision of ‘John MacNab’ is also perhaps spurious. In the mid 19th century guidance was issued to estates that if a ghillie recognised the face of a local man he caught poaching he was not to cry out his name, as many poachers preferred to shoot ghillies rather than risk certain conviction and deportation.

During the shooting season the role of the ghillie is still broadly the same today as it was in the Victorian period. Victorian ghillies covered an area around the size of three farms, and they had to know the landscape like the back of their hands. In fact, if there was an illicit still on their beat the excise men held the ghillie responsible. The ghillie was the eyes and ears of the stalking party on the hill, and their success was dependent upon his skill. His eyesight is second to none.

Through binoculars deer are just visible on the far slope of the hill, yet the ghillie lying slightly further down the slope has already spotted two further groups of hinds. Now the ghillie is put to the test. His job is to get the stalking party close enough for a shot.

Stalking skills have remained the same for generations, and the ability to use features within the landscape to allow an undetected approach are paramount. Crawling slowly up the base of a burn has always been dirty, and the modern day ghillie no doubt appreciates Goretex, which keeps out water better than mud-soaked tweeds.

Once in position it is time to take a shot.

The ghillie has to think about managing the herd at this point, he wants to cull only old or weak animals that may not survive the winter. Younger and stronger animals are preserved to keep the whole herd healthy.

Once the ghillie has chosen which animal is the target, he ensures the stalkers shot will provide a clean kill.

The 10 pointed stag had rheumatic knees and was struggling to keep up with the herd, and his quick and painless death was a testament to the ghillie’s skill. Once the beast is dead, the ghillie begins an age-old custom out of respect for the dead animal. The gralloch involves removing the guts of the animal so that the meat is not tainted and allows for the blood to be drained. More importantly for the ghillie (who has to drag the carcass across the peathags), this also lessens the weight of the animal.

Finally the ghillie guides the stalker back down off the hill. The stalker can then enjoy a dram, but the ghillie has to head back up the hill to recover the stag as the winter gloom begins to draw in. The Victorian ghillie would have taken a trusty hill pony with him, the stag transported back to the butchery on its back. This is still the case for some ghillies today, although many now use tracked vehicles.

Before the long day could finally come to an end the stag had to be butchered. The legs and head are skilfully removed; ghillies often race each other to see who can do the fastest and most skillful job. Once the jointed meat is hung in the game larder, the rifles cleaned and locked back in the gun-room.

The day that began with the dawn has finished in a cloak of starry darkness.

The day-to-day life of the ghillie has remained largely unchanged for 200 years or more. Their knowledge of the landscape and intimate experience of the behaviour of deer on the estate are vital to the success of their craft. The ghillie manages and protects the estate and the wildlife within it, and is an integral cog in making the landscape look the way it does today.

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