The Herald on Sunday

Gone fishing New film explores natural talents of Hebridean ghillies

- By Sandra Dick

A fascinatin­g BBC documentar­y follows North Uist ‘Jedi master of the ghillie’ Seumas MacLetchie as he shares his unique experience­s with others familiar with the craft

COUNTLESS lochs dot the landscape of North Uist, creating a paradise on Earth for anglers in search of 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 salmon’s 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 away 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.

Local insight

ALTHOUGH the distance between them may seem relatively small, the mountain lochs, roaring rivers and turquoise sea pools that make up their individual beats require 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, 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.

Lost heritage

IT also highlights the 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 idea you can help someone catch their first salmon which could potentiall­y hook them on fishing for the rest of their life … that is an honour

the water and the fish,” said 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 the environmen­t, you have issues and problems.”

Prime spots

THE film traverses stunning Hebridean landscapes and encounters current and retired ghillies at Borve Estate in west Harris, Uig Lodge on the Isle of Lewis and Grimersta Estate where, in 1888, one angler landed 54 salmon and 15 sea trout in a single session. There, Grimersta’s 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 said. “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, 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, added: “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.”

Seumas, he said, 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.”

There were 12 ghillies at Lochmaddy Hotel when a 16-year-old Seumas joined – numbers have now dropped to just three.

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

 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ?? Above and left, Seamus MacLetchie on the job. Left is youngster Isla Docherty and right are John Docherty and Lena Harris
Above and left, Seamus MacLetchie on the job. Left is youngster Isla Docherty and right are John Docherty and Lena Harris

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom