• Ian Gordon

The Ghillie – Could anyone do that job???


Experience is something described in a dictionary as – "Having practical involvement in an activity, event etc, having gained knowledge through this; an event or action which one learns.” Adding to this, we all know that experience can also be had from spending time with people who have had experience in any given field.

So what is the general perception of a Ghillie?

The most common perception of the river Ghillie would be that of someone who – Assists and offers guidance to visiting anglers during their time fishing and offers advice on tackle, along with where and how to fish. Generally, they will impart information relevant to a particular part of the river. When this is done they may be found either in the fishing hut, or running up and down the river-bank in their 4x4. So there it is, job description summed up in a couple of sentences! On the face of it this would seem a fairly undemanding and straightforward roll. Anyone who enjoys salmon fishing could turn their hand to this!


Bob Harold landing another fish for a Client. Bob had a brilliant rapport with fishing guests.


To a certain extent this must be true, as this type of Ghillie can be found on many salmon rivers. There’s an old saying in angling, “there’s a lot more to fishing than catching fish”. A similar thing could be said of the aforementioned Ghillie, in actual fact, there’s a lot more to this than just that quoted above!

Having started fishing at the age of eight, and seriously salmon fishing since around thirteen, I have been fortunate enough, not only to have had many memorable days fishing, but much more importantly, met and worked alongside some of the country's most experienced salmon fishers and Ghillies. The difference between being in the company of amateur and professional is like that of night and day! I benefited greatly from spending most of my working life on an estate where my input was generally valued by my employer and their agents. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all too many of my professional colleagues, who, all too often find their input and advice falling on the deaf ears, particularly of agents, who in many cases, simply don’t understand the true value of that advice and experience. So out of touch, I’m sure many will actually ponder on what I’m talking about here, whilst those it affects will know exactly!


Jimmy Milne, Ghillie, Wester Elchies, River Spey. One of life's great characters.


The face of salmon fishing has been and will continue to change. Beats which in the past were reserved and fished only by their owners, are now commercially available to anyone. In essence, it has become part of the tourism revolution. A revolution which has brought with it higher levels of expectation, not only relating to quality of fishing, but the standard of service and a higher degree of professionalism. A recent study [2003] carried out by, Caledonian University Glasgow, showed that Game Fishing contributed around £11.7 Million annually to the Speyside economy, and that fishing in general was worth more than £110 million over the same period to the Scottish economy. Looking at the figures above, notwithstanding the environmental factors, it is quite clear that, economically, there is a great need for our industry to be run in a professional manner. The past 30 years has seen a general decline in numbers of Atlantic salmon, with Scottish rivers faring no better than anywhere else. *This, at a time of booming economic prosperity*, has meant that people can now afford to fish, but become frustrated by the apparent scarcity of the king of fish”. This in turn has lead to a boom in fishing elsewhere in the world, along with alternative species, which in its self, exerts more pressure on the economic well being of or river; so what does all this mean for the Ghillie? Today, given less fish and greater prosperity, things tend to be different to that which was found in years gone by. In the past, there was no need for PR or marketing the river. The abundance of salmon did this work itself. The internet is proving a useful tool for marketing fisheries in the 21st century. Websites such as Fish Tweed/Spey/Dee and Tay provide up to date information regarding – river conditions, availability, catches etc. The latter, being text daily by Ghillies to a central computer which then updates the website. All very 21st century.


Robert Mitchell, Ghillie Macallan Estate. Has done no other Job since leaving School. A true Professional.


*Fishing tenants in the 21st century may take fishing to entertain corporate clients, which is a far cry from what happened before, when fishing was generally by invitation of the owner or lease holder. Now, in most cases at least, it is business, with high levels of expectation. Entertaining our customers is paramount.  A fundamental part of the Ghillies job is to ensure that, clients are return home with nothing but positive remarks to make regarding all aspects of their holiday. In this respect the ghillie is not only a representative of their estate, but Scotland and, salmon fishing in Scotland.

Question – How, during a week with little or no fish, do you keep these people, not only entertained, but also ensure they return the following season? How, given that we now have fewer fish, do you ensure clients who have paid thousands of pounds, leave, taking with them only positive thoughts of a happy time spent on the river? It’s not as if Scotland is now the “only” destination. Salmon anglers have lots of other very good fishing options in the 21st century.


Three Ghillies, Myself, Jimmy Grey and Sandy Smith at Jimmys retirement doo.


Part of the answer to the above question lies within the old adage of “there’s a lot more to fishing than catching fish”! "“experienced” Ghillies will use this time to good effect, perhaps by entertaining customers with some great funny stories, or helping clients with their casting or fishing technique. They will also talk about new developments in tackle and how, it is being designed to make things easier for people fishing only one or two times in the year. They will also impart information about what is being done, at national, as well as local level, to try to arrest the decline, generally focusing on the positive rather than the negative. All this requires the professional Ghillie to have answers to literally hundreds of questions. Only if the Ghillie is au fait with regard to all fishing related matters will they hold the attention of their clients during difficult times. Given the same scenario, the amateur will become irritated. He knows that given these difficult conditions, his basic fishing knowledge is not enough and he doesn't have the communication skills required to make good of the bad situation. His client, who by Thursday has had enough of his obvious failing, will, in all probability, never return, leaving the way open for yet another poor soul to be sold short, thus spreading the bad news, and we all know what they say about that! There are many other examples of how the professional, through experience, will approach things from a different angle. For instance, canoeing, along with other water sports is becoming more popular. Our amateur, when seeing a group of paddlers descending the river, may start shouting, swearing and being generally abusive. The professional on the other hand, may chat to the group leader, explaining what line they should take to cause least disturbance to the salmon pool. Thus ensuring the next time they descend, they know the proper route. He will also inform his own clients of both law’s and by-law’s regarding paddlers on the river.


Colin Reid, Head Ghillie Brae Water, River Spey. Shortly before his retirement.


Fly-fishermen are by nature highly competitive, which leads to all sort of small, but potentially large problems on the river bank. If, for instance we have a scenario whereby three of the four anglers have been successful, it’s Saturday morning and it happens to be the angler with most experience that is yet to score. He does not wish to be taken out on a boat, or seen to be pushed into the best pools, as this is seen as being too easy, thus undermining their confidence. But you are desperate for him to catch a fish. Given scenarios such as these the Ghillie must now become a diplomat. For me, this was epitomized by Former American Secretary of State, Mr. Cyrus Vance, who at the end of his week's fishing at Knockando, commented “if only we'd had some of you Guy’s during that damned hostage crisis, it would have been over in half the time”!

Another misconception is that the Ghillie fishes all the time. There are people who choose our profession because they think that they will do nothing but fish, fiddling around in their Retirment catching salmon. Last year I personally caught six salmon, four of which were caught whilst fishing as a guest of a friend on another beat. What we have to remember is there are not as many fish as in the past. Our job is to maximise the chances of our clients catching a fish. Experienced Ghillies will always state the importance of “resting” a salmon pool, especially now. During any 24-hour period, only 8 should be spent fishing. Three rods fishing for 8 hours = 24 hours of fishing pressure. It needs to be a good-sized beat [4 decent pools or 1 mile both banks] to withstand this type of pressure. More than this is too much and unfair on a paying guest.


  Myself with Glenda Powell, both very happy after her catching her 1st Spey Salmon.


Throughout last year I landed eleven people their first fish, thus ensuring, even given a difficult year, these clients will not only return, but will also talk to their friends about their experience. I am positive, that on at least half of these occasions, the client would have left empty handed had the water not been rested.

Again, the professional Ghillie will look at the experience of his clients and do as much as he can to ensure that each client, irrespective of their personal ability, is given an equal chance. On a large river, this may take the form of the use of boats to enable a client with limited casting ability to cover fish. This Ghillie will use their skill and experience at any given height of water, to carefully steer the boat over where he knows fish are likely to be lying, ensuring that the clients fly is fished in the right place and at the correct speed and depth. On a smaller river, it may be that the Ghillie will spend much of his time coaching/teaching the client on how to cast and fish the pool properly, in order to present the fly in the proper manner at perhaps only a small area of the pool.

The amateur would approach the same scenario from a totally different angle. They will almost certainly take the easy option of spending time with the more accomplished angler, leaving the angler with less ability to fend for himself. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly - The more experienced rod is generally easier to look after, and the Ghillie himself stands to learn more from fishing with him. In a nut-shell, he is thinking more of themselves than that of their clients. Secondly rowing the boat in a strong current is not only too much like hard work, but it is also something physically they can’t, or simply don’t want to do. Handling a boat in a strong current is something that will only come with lots of practice. Thirdly - Although they may be able to cast themselves, they lack the personal aptitude to properly impart that knowledge to a client. Again, the easy option is to let them fend for themselves. To put all this in another context, who would ever say, “I’m off down to the golf club to have a session with the amateur”? “He’s not the best, but he’ll do”.  

It is truly strange, and I find it both interesting and frustrating, at just how our profession is viewed; not long ago I had a call from a chap who was looking to change his job. Because he was a very keen angler, he thought he would become a Ghillie. He asked if he could come along and spend some time with me on the river. I explained that this would not be a problem and that he would receive in-valuable training. The next question left me almost flabbergasted, how much would he be paid? I thought for a moment and asked him – How many times have you gone to do a training course and expected to be paid by the teacher!

I explained that this course would cost around £1500 pounds, to which he replied, that’s a bit over the top! Maybe on the face of it, I said. However, I then told him a story of a man who had commissioned a painter to do a portrait of his daughter on her 18th birthday - Staggered at the price tag of £5,000, he asked the painter how long it would take. ‘Around a week’, he replied. That’s a good hourly rate, he exclaimed. To which the painter replied, it’s not so very much when you think; to get to this level has taken a lifetime of practice. And the moral of the story – If you want something to be 100% then hire the best, there is no substitute for experience and talent!! 


John Anderson, Ghillie of 40 years. Tulchan, River Spey


The 21st century Ghillie has been described as an ambassador, not only to the sport, but his employer, river, and given the international nature of clients and his country. He is an integral part, a major cog in the wheel, of what is now a multi million pound industry. Given this, it should surely follow that our clients are met by nothing less than skilled, multitalented individuals. 

It saddens me when I read in magazines and web based forums, of clients who have had their day spoiled by individuals posing as Ghillies, who lack the qualification required to carry out their duties properly.

Unfortunately a similar thing can also be said of fishing agents who run our rivers. Given the changing nature of our sport here in Scotland, it seems that many are failing to grasp – 

The true marketable potential, along with true market value of our fishing, remembering that ours is the most famous salmon fishing country in the world.

The political necessity of interacting properly with other river users.

The importance of attracting youth, along with new clients to the sport, and the obligation to provide them with access.

The benefits of “team building” and being seen to work on a similar level as their staff.


Tom Brown, Looking after a client who, without the boat, could never fish.

The power, both positive and negative, of the internet. 

The dangers posed by government Quango’s run by people with political agendas and less than sympathetic toward shooting and fishing. 

A better understanding of the above would provide their employers with long-term sustainability of their fishery.

The days of proprietors scrimping on second rate staff, including agents/factors, should be over. Training should be provided by people with experience of what the job requires today, ensuring that people visiting our rivers are entertained by nothing but the best. Our clients, along with our magnificent rivers deserve nothing less.

This is to all my "professional" colleagues who’s hard work and knowledge, in all too many cases, are grossly undervalued.

*I originally wrote this article in 2005, before the economic crash.

*The economic crash saw a decline in businesses using salmon fishing. 

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