At your beck and call? Not likely. Richard Donkin explains what you should expect of the modern gillie
Richard Donkin considers gillies and what you might expect from them
ARE GILLIES worth the candle? I’m aware that to ask that question in a magazine devoted to trout and salmon fishing is akin to Punch cartoonist H M Bateman’s “The man who lit his cigar before the Royal toast”. It just isn’t done. But it is. It’s a question discussed frequently among fly-fishing friends, though never in the earshot of the gillie. It’s sometimes muttered at the end of a fishing trip when someone will always ask: “What’re we giving the gillie?” Cut to that scene early in the Quentin Tarantino film, Reservoir Dogs, when one of the gangsters, sitting around a lunch table, asks the others to chip in for the waitress. There’s a silence as Steve Buscemi, playing “Mr Pink” says: “I don’t believe in tipping.” Pressured further by his friends, he says: “I don’t tip because society says I have to. I mean, I’ll tip if someone deserves a tip, if they put forth the extra, I’ll give them something extra, but I mean, this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds.” A fierce debate ensues about how hard waitresses work, how it’s one of the few jobs available for women. “This is a hard job,” says Harvey Keitel. “So’s working at Mcdonald’s,” says Buscemi, “but you don’t feel the need to tip them, do you?” H M Bateman, himself a keen fly-fisher, would have found rich inspiration in such exchanges, not that he needed to look much beyond the river for his observations of snobbery and the aspirational middle classes. He tended to steer clear of lampooning gillies, however, possibly through an innate sense of self-preservation that seems to have eluded me. Scottish gillies, then – what do they do and are they worth the extra expense on an already costly fishing trip? My salmon-fishing year is divided about half-and-half, gillied and non-gillied. I often enjoy a gillie’s company, but sometimes I prefer my own. Should I feel guilty for that? The gillie’s job has been around a long time, steeped as it is, in the semi-feudal relationship between the gentry and their servants. The word itself is Gaelic for servant. Is that what a gillie is? Not in my experience, though the best gillies I know retain a service ethic, so long as we know that they’re not to be treated as dogsbodies. The beauty of gillieing is that the role tends to be fashioned by whoever is doing the job. It’s also defined by the employer and that is the beat-owner. Paying anglers need to understand that. The term “your gillie” is just an expression. Don’t go thinking you’re the gillie’s boss, or that you know best, however much you think you know. Unless he’s just arrived at a beat, he’ll know the water intimately at all levels. To ignore his advice is just plain stupid. Gillies want us to catch fish because they know it has an impact on the success of the beat, its reputation (and by implication, theirs) on the river and the price that may be charged for the fishing. The job has changed. In the old days, when salmon fishing was only for the rich, an angler might have a gillie constantly by his side. The gillie would set up the rod, choose the fly, the pool and sometimes the fish. I’ve known them do the casting and hooking, too, passing the rod to the so-called fisher for the fight. A lot of that has gone. More and more, fly-fishers are adding to their knowledge and experience, often tying their own flies and finding satisfaction in reading the water and conditions. They’ll monitor water levels online, check catches and read everything they can to supplement their approach. Ask many gillies today where they learn their stuff and they’ll tell you “from other guys who come here”, particularly the Scandinavians who have added so much to tactics on Scottish rivers. Some gillies are becoming celebrities in their own right, recognised by tackle makers as master casters or fly-tyers of repute. A few have their own businesses that can deliver a good living. Vestiges of feudalism remain in tied cottages, branded tweeds and arcane rules on the river, but gillies should expect decent wages and while tipping may be a welcome supplement, employers shouldn’t view it as a component of income. The work that gillies undertake for paying rods depends very much on what a client seeks from them. If you need some instruction, a good gillie should be able to help with your casting, but he’s not your nanny. Put simply, a good gillie should enable you to catch more fish. Now what is that worth when salmon are proving so hard to come by? In these days of catch-and-release, gillies are also there to keep us honest and to protect the beat. They’re there to remind us of the etiquette we may often forget. They’re there to make the whole thing work. Gillieing is a special job and at its best the role is almost indefinable. So don’t be a Mr Pink and grumble too much about gillies. Salmon fishing would be so much diminished without them.
“Vestiges of feudalism remain in tied cottages and branded tweeds…”
Richard Donkin is a journalist and has fished in Norway and Iceland. His favourite river is the Aberdeenshire Dee