On Scotland’s formidably wild Isle of Skye, there were hoof trails everywhere at first light. Trails in the mud, trails curving across the moorland, trails on the far side of the burn where they vanished into the murk of the pine forest. To the east, the land swooped uphill onto the ruggedly beautiful shoulder of Sgùrr a' Mhadaidh Ruaidh, with a vantage point over the Trotternish peninsula. West, and downhill from where Mitchell Partridge was standing, the loose contours of Glenhinnisdal valley dropped to Loch Snizort and the Isle of Skye’s coastline. There was a feeling of waiting for the stag rut to begin.
“Look, deer on the hilltop,” Partridge whispered, lifting his binoculars, one hand resting on a stag horn staff. “With the wind, they hear us coming, so it’s not ideal conditions for stalking. But I’m an optimist. The last time I was here it was lashing down and I was soaked all day!”
Partridge is a full-time ghillie – a Gaelic word whose meaning lies somewhere between “manservant” and “attendant” – who inhabits another Scotland from the one that most travellers see. Nicknamed Skye Ghillie, he spends his days out on the land, stalking and shooting deer, grouse, pheasant and other game birds, either with a camera or firearms (and for meat, not trophy hunting); or down by the riverside, hooking flies onto a rod to catch and release pink salmon or wild brown trout from the slow-running waters.
“My forbears have done this job for hundreds of years,” said Partridge, watching the deer disappear over the horizon. “It’s in my blood, and to an extent, I’ve not had any other choice but to be a ghillie. Besides, my name couldn’t be a better fit for this line of work. It’s like being a GP called Dr Scalpel!”
Many places have their old ways, their living traditions, and the story of the ghillie is one that’s woven into Scotland’s natural and cultural landscape. Theirs is a tale that goes back to the late 16th Century, when Highland chiefs needed attendants and manservants to do the toil, slog and heavy lifting. Indeed, by virtue of Scotland’s distinct cultural geography (now with myriad private estates and only 3% of rural land in community ownership), this tradition hasn’t taken a foothold anywhere else – in part because no other country has the land-ownership rules that could sustain it. Across Scotland, vast swathes of land are tightly in the grip of private estates, with ghillies employed to both manage the wilderness and guide travellers through it. In nature, they open a window into a wild new world.
The story of the ghillie is one that’s woven into Scotland’s natural and cultural landscape
Farther up the hillside, along a boggy sheep trail, Partridge stopped in front of a tumbled-down shieling (shepherd’s hut). It was a further sign of another life lived and where ghillies and deer stalkers would shelter in centuries past. The scent of the glen was laced with wood smoke, and with two-year-old border collie Ghillie at his heels, it could have been a vignette from a hunting party in 1820, not 2020. Particularly so, because of Partridge’s regimental dress code. He could hardly have been more spectacularly turned out.
At once old-fashioned and yet exuding sartorial savoir-faire, the ghillies’ bespoke uniform is inseparable from their cultural roots. Partridge’s historical “ghillie suit” was made up of a three-piece estate tweed outfit from neck to grubby boots. Besides a thick wool waistcoat, jacket and breeches, he wore a forest-green tie and coarse-wool checked shirt, with pinned leaping salmon and stag head brooches, a spruce-green fishing hat and mud-flecked gaiters.
“This isn’t a country life fashion shoot for Vogue,” said Partridge, who now works as a freelance guide for travellers wanting to experience Skye’s private estates and hard-to-reach places. “It’s tradition, pure and simple, and it’s a kind of camouflage to help us hide within our surroundings. But it’s practical, too. The wool is cooling to wear when it’s hot in summer, and I never get cold even if I’m soaking in winter. As a parka is to the Arctic, a tweed jacket is to Scotland’s wild places.”
How the story of Scotland’s “manservants” has changed over the past five centuries is all the more curious. For a long time, ghillies were the right-hand men of the Highlands, responsible for knowing the weather conditions for stalking, where the best fishing spots were, and what the height, flow and character of each river would be. Graft was ingrained in their DNA and they became so indispensable that they were soon joined in the hills by “ghillie-weetfit”: wet-foot ghillies. Their duty? To carry their chiefs across rivers and peaty moorlands so they wouldn’t get wet feet.
The idea really captured the wider public’s imagination during Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19th Century, when the patriarchal clan system in Scotland had disintegrated and land ownership had migrated to private landlords. The landed gentry would travel north to estates like Ardverikie, Blair Atholl and Letterewe on newly built railways from London. And soon, the Highlands became a holiday hotspot for horse riding, shooting deer and grouse and casting for salmon. Always, ghillies were constant and knowledgeable presences on the land.
One particular estate with a wealth of history is Balmoral, the Scottish home of the Royal Family. This is where the late dogmatic John Brown, Queen Victoria’s devoted and faithful manservant for 34 years, worked the land – and for many, nobody better personifies the role of the ghillie. Those who have visited the estate will have seen Brown’s life-sized statue within its grounds. At its base an inscription reads: "Friend more than Servant. Loyal. Truthful. Brave. Self less than Duty, even to the Grave.”
Working in the shadows of Balmoral on the neighbouring 100,000-hectare Invercauld Estate, Peter Fraser, 71, a life-long fishing ghillie and deer stalker like his grandfather before him, feels the job has evolved over the years from manservant to land manager and sustainability officer. In addition to deer stalking and salmon fishing, he adds tasks such as peatland and woodland regeneration, countryside maintenance, legal species control, sustainable harvest of wild meat, eco-tourism and wider community outreach efforts. The other difference, he said, is ghillies are now as likely to police lochs, rivers and estate forests as they are to educate others about the flora, fauna and play of the Scottish seasons.
[Ghillies] are a lynchpin for Scotland’s rural economy and fragile, remote communities
“Ghillies are outdoor educators,” said Fraser, who is also the vice-chairman for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, which represents some 5,000 ghillies, gamekeepers, stalkers, wildlife managers and rangers. “They are a lynchpin for Scotland’s rural economy and fragile, remote communities. But the number is on the decline, particularly among fishing ghillies. That’s partly because plenty of the country’s estates have shrunk in size, but also because the salmon run has had a lean couple of years.”
Undoubtedly, the ghillie is familiar to anyone who has been to the Scottish Highlands. A big reason is the country’s primeval landscape, which is ripe for the kinds of adventures that ghillies are nowadays better equipped and trained for than ever before. Wild game and fowl, from deer and brown hare to pheasant, grouse and partridge, proliferate in the heather lands and off mountain paths, while rivers like the Tay, Dee and Spey are stocked with a succession of salmon pools. And abiding by strict land management principals, ghillies guide and educate visitors in how to reap the spoils.
But what might not be so commonplace is seeing a tweed-clad woman in this age-old role. Megan Rowland, 27, is keenly aware that she’s a trailblazer in the male-dominated profession and has set up a peer support group for the 50 or so women working on Scotland’s estates. Until recently, it was unheard of that they would occupy the main roles of stalking, game-keeping or ghillieing.
“Increasingly, ‘ghillie’ is an amorphous term and one that’s open to interpretation,” said Rowland, a Sutherland-based deer stalker and land manager. “Historically, it was a man’s world because of the physical requirements of the job, but the mechanisation of many tasks has taken the sheer grunt out of the work. Now I have a quad bike, sled and winch, so I no longer have to throw a deer onto the back of a horse.”
One thing that shines through for Rowland is the often-generational links and deep connections that ghillies have with the land and rivers they manage. In turn, this creates a sense of long-term stewardship and responsibility, and today ghillies are often at the heart of village activity, providing a link between the local estate and community. It’s a point agreed upon by NatureScot, the public body responsible for Scotland’s natural heritage.
“While ghillie visibility may have been lost in some cases, they still play a key role in many parts of rural life,” said Donald Fraser, NatureScot’s head of wildlife management. “At the present moment, for example, deer managers have a vital part to play in the country’s Covid-19 green recovery. Scotland wildlife is extremely important to our tourism sector, deer numbers need to be managed, and with access restricted this year and visitors cancelling their trips, the work to manage deer and their impacts is important in addressing biodiversity loss and wider climate change actions.”
For now, at least, such worries are far from Skye Ghillie’s mind. Back on the stalking trail, the skies began to darken, and Partridge and his dog descended the mountainside to shelter in the glen’s pine forest. A heavily antlered stag came fleetingly into view in the shadows, but as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone. There were no deer today, but it was a fitting ending nonetheless: the ghillie’s knowledge had brought the land to life in ways only tradition and duty know how.