Crawford Little celebrates the lives of history's finest salmon-fishers. This month, the early professionals who knew their rivers better than anybody else
Crawford Little remembers gillies of the golden days
HE HAD A BIG heart and a constitution of iron. Second to none at other sports and pastimes in the North, his soul was chiefly in fishing and most of his time was spent in the water without waders. Admired by many, respected by all, trustworthy to a degree, good at fishing, excellent at fly-making…” That is how George Kelson described the gillie, Jock Scott, who invented the famous fly that bears his name. He was just 15 when he entered the service of Lord John Scott, acting as his gillie, valet and even his sparring partner. Would such regular contact have made Jock less of a servant and more of a companion? One would like to think so. By the middle of the 19th century, the salmon-fishing scene was being transformed. Proprietors still let their fishing rights to locals who harvested the salmon with net and coble, or further upriver with rod and line, leister, or various traps and nets. However, visiting sportsmen discovered that, for a small charge, the lessees might let them fish with rod, line and fly. Toffs were happily paying to do what others were paid for. “What a hoot!” as the late Bill Currie might have said. Novice amateurs relied heavily on the professionals. And with the rapid growth in the leisured classes, many lairds recognised that salmon fishing for sport might yield better returns than operating their rights as a purely commercial endeavour. Or that their friends and acquaintances – influential or otherwise – might appreciate an invitation to fish as much as to shoot grouse or stalk deer. So, there was an increasing demand for professionals both to advise and supervise the visiting sportsmen. Because while advising the fishers, the gillie was also there to ensure, on the laird’s behalf, that they played by the rules, didn’t under-report their catches and so on. “He will know the river to the very last stone and eddy, and knowing it, he will be ready and able to guide your wading steps and searching fly,” wrote R. N. Lockhead. “He will not, however, be a school-master, seeking to bend your style and inclination to his will, but ready to appreciate your whims and fancies, for salmon fishing is your pleasure and not your livelihood.” The gillie’s work might be seasonal or full time. For example, on many of the rivers in the West Highlands and Islands where the best of the fishing might be confined to a couple of months, gillieing could provide a supplementary income for a man who spent the rest of the year working his croft. The full-time jobs were on rivers with longer productive seasons and typically on the larger sporting estates. But regardless of where and how they plied their trade, gillies naturally came in all shapes, sizes and temperaments – including those who could make or mar the sportsman’s experience. The best of them were – and still are – experts in the ways of fish and fishers. If asked, they provided advice on tactics and techniques. Above all, they worked hard to ensure their fishers were in the right place at the right time to find a taking fish. Expert advice required an intimate knowledge of the beat, the pools and the salmon’s behaviour according to the water height. As J. Hughesparry wrote in Fishing Fantasy: “Even on the river that one knows well, each pool has to be treated separately, and all one can do is keep an open mind and learn what is possible from the specialists, always remembering that the more one is willing to learn the better chance one has of becoming one of the few who can hold their own on any and all rivers.” Sadly, few gillies left written records of their days and ways. One who did was Frederick Hill, a gillie at Carlogie on the Aberdeenshire Dee. His slim book Salmon Fishing (1948) gives a glimpse of how familiar a gillie might be with his pools, and the sort of information that visiting fishers would need in that quest to be in the right place at the right time. “The first pool is the Long Haugh which runs from south to north. It fishes well until about midday, then goes off when the sun is shining straight down the pool; but by late afternoon the sun is now well down the opposite bank and
“Sadly, few gillies left written records of their days and ways”
there is again a good chance of catching a fish. It is a very long straight pool with plenty of fish in it when the height on the gauge is 1ft 6in. The first 40 yards does not fish well until the river falls to 1ft or under. This part of the pool is very fast-running water with no holding places for fish off the stream. The remainder of the pool all fishes well at 1ft 6in while the lower half of the pool can produce fish at a height of 2ft 4in. Over this level the pool is useless. The fishing is very straightforward with an over-all depth of water of 5ft to 6ft. The wading is very easy.” You might never have seen the Long Haugh, but with Frederick Hill’s description to hand you’d already know when to fish it if the sun is shining, and where to fish it according to the water height. Certainly, with the water running at 1ft 6in, you’d feel far more confident here than in the Coronation pool. “It does not fish well from the Carlogie side. Only an occasional fish can be got in very low water. The pool varies every season with the amount of gravel brought down from above.” It seems its only redeeming feature was that, “It is a good place for sea trout in July.” That aside, when the water level had fallen below 1ft, and with the fisher having covered the first 40 yards of the Long Haugh, Frederick might have hurried him away to the March pool. “This is a small pool which comes in order when the river falls to 10in; 8in is ideal. The angler must wade out to the edge of the stream and cast well over until the fly is almost touching the opposite bank … It is a very tricky little pool to fish but a grand place at the proper height of river from mid-april onwards. In June and July it is specially good during any very warm spell in low water...” Some modern gillies have learned to keep such knowledge to themselves. And who can blame them? Well into the 20th Century there might have been just one or two fishers on a beat that now takes six or more, and who change from day to day. What is the gillie to say when he knows that just two or three of his pools will fish well in the current water conditions? What should he say to the eager fisher he is sending to the Coronation pool, because it’s all that’s available? “It does not fish well from our side. Only an occasional fish can be got in very low water. But off you go and I’ll see you back here at lunch-time…” Changed days and ways, and none the better for it when one thinks of how things were in the past. I remember being hugely impressed when I heard, as a youngster, that Delfur (on the Spey) fished five rods allocated to four gillies. Three rods got a gillie to themselves while the head gillie – Willie Main at that time – looked after the remaining two. A century ago, George Mccorquodale’s 13 miles of the Spey was typically fished with just three rods, each accompanied by a gillie. Imagine the freedom! Individual fishers could concentrate exclusively on the right pools at the right times. Pools that might have been rested for days and possibly weeks. Or play golf or catch up on some letter-writing if the conditions were less than perfect, because there was always tomorrow or even next week for those who were able to fish for months and sometimes the entire season – or at least the best of it. This lack of pressure meant that on many beats there were ample opportunities for the gillies to have a cast – particularly if fish arrived early in the season, or after the start of shooting in August. Indeed, they were often encouraged to fish hard because a fish on the bank was there to sell in order to defray the costs of running the beat. So, one hears that Tulchan gillie John Cruikshank had 22 Spey springers in one day. And in 1932, when Dalchroy produced 880 salmon and grilse, the five gillies accounted for 329, with Flockhart having 101 of them. Over the years, the same gillies accounted for a number of 30lb-plus fish. What can one say? Golden days indeed…
The far bank is Carlogie, on the Aberdeenshire Dee, where gillie Frederick Hill described the best water heights and sun positions to fish each pool.
1923: Gillie John Jellis and Doreen Davey with her 59½lb salmon – the record rodcaught Wye salmon.
CRAWFORD LITTLE started fishing with a bent stick before he went to school and has fished for salmon at home and abroad for more than 50 years. He has written seven books, including Success with Salmon, The Great Salmon Beats, The Salmon & Sea Trout Fisheries of Scotland, and The Salmon Fisherman’s Year.