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Ghillying and Beat Owning Royalty. What can they teach us?

A recent interview with Scotland's most experienced Ghillie [See links at bottom] was a lovely reminder of not only the past, but a time when guests catching salmon and the overall experience was much more important than purely just numbers in the book.  

It also reminded me that salmon have a much greater value than many people now seem to think.  

Having spent the last 20 or more years seeing salmon numbers decline and many ghillying jobs being filled by retired people taking up ghilliying as something of a fun thing to do, catching a few fish in their old age. I have to say, as someone who’s life has been about guiding and putting “guests” onto fish, seeing this on the river and how it helps devalue fishing in general really hits a raw nerve. Whilst many may see it as an inevitable part of the overall decline in salmon numbers, personally I do not.  

Helped by the interview with Sandy, I remember as a young inexperienced Ghillie, a time where, personally, I could not get to the river quick enough, it would seem like every moment I could was spent fishing. At this time, we had plenty salmon, and salmon fishing was slowly shifting from a pastime enjoyed by owners spending time with their friends, salmon fishing the basis for this coming together. However, by the 1980s this was changing, and the business of salmon fishing was moving further away from this “idyllic relaxed holiday with friends” to one purely of business and numbers of fish caught. Sales, value, and perceptions were all now becoming based purely around how many fish were in the book, so increasingly, all across Scotland and the UK at this time, the success of a beat was being measured, not by overall enjoyment of the experience, but by numbers alone. There is also a competitive side to salmon fishing and through the 90s, as communication evolved then it seemed like the race to the top accelerated, with beats showing most salmon in the book being the most sought after. It must be remembered, at this time there were plenty salmon to go round. Take salmon out of the equation and the this very quickly turns into a race to the bottom!  

Looking back, the only reason Salmon Fishing was a viable business, was the fact that there were enough fish to satisfy the number of rods fishing! The early 2000s saw more people fishing for salmon than ever before. Why? Because it was both available and cheaper.   

A Salmon Fishing party
Sir David and Lady Wills with the Knockando Ghillies

Salmon Fisherman and his Ghillie Knockando House
Sandy Milne and Martin Wills

At Knockando things were quite different. Sir David Wills, a man of foresight, was someone who always saw the bigger picture and part of this was how people's actions affected others. As a young Ghillie I could not grasp the fact that sometimes he would want the Ghillies to fish, whilst at other times we should not pick up a rod. One such time I remember a Saturday afternoon, it happened to be my birthday, 20th May, I caught many fish here on my birthday, but this particular year, there was no fishing. Although he had only one guest remaining, the Ghillies were not to fish until “all” the guests had gone. As a mad keen 24-year-old, I could not understand it, so asked Sandy. He said, Ian, think about it! What would happen if each Ghillie went out, caught two fish each and the guest returned with nothing? How would this make the guest feel? How, as a host, might Sir David feel? Slowly, the penny began to drop and I began to understand. 

Salmon Fishing Ghillies in the 1970s
Knockando Ghillies with a fisherwoman in the 1970s

It reminded me too of another guest of Sir David’s. Col Gibbs, who, one day in Early September, was fishing as the only rod on my beat. Almost impossible to believe now, but that morning, he made nine casts, catching six salmon with nine casts. The fish progressively got bigger, 6, 12, 16, 17, 18 and 25lbs. As the sole rod on the beat, he spent the whole morning playing fish, and me, an extremely excited young ghillie netting them. The final one of those was hooked at 12.45 and lunch with the remainder of the party was 20 minutes' drive away! The fish taking almost 30 minutes to land meant we were now extremely late for lunch. Our arrival was greeted by everyone in the group super excited with his catch. However, Sir David quietly shepherded me aside and in his eloquent manner, explained (and reinforced by Sandy in this interview) that being punctual for lunch was always much more important than a 6th fish! Those were all lessons taught to me by masters of their art/craft and leading me to a much deeper understanding of the saying “There’s much more to salmon fishing than catching fish”!  

Glenfarclas Whisky on the the river Spey
The best of Speyside

The good Colonel was the only rod fishing because Sir David knew the game of salmon fishing better than most. His aim was always to provide his guests with the best experience he could, and he knew that each day on any beat provided the chance of “X” number of fish in a particular beat and only in the absolute best conditions would rods have a “bonanza”! Bonanzas are never an everyday occurrence in Salmon fishing, and even with great conditions, without the presence of good numbers of new fish, only if rods fishing unfished/rested pools will they have the chance of catching multiple fish. This is exactly why when fishing Knockando, especially laterally [late 90s], when the decline became apparent, Sir David fished the 11 rod beat with just five. Look at all the best beats in Scotland. I need not say anymore!  

Last week I interviewed Sandy Milne, Ghillie at Knockando for more than 50 years. Thos who have watched and listened to this have really loved the interview. For those with little time, you can listen to the podcast in the car here - 


For those with time, you can see it here on You tube - 

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I ghillied a bit, after my first retirement, on Tweed, Alta, Jokenga and Tyne, amongst other rivers. When on posh Tweed beats I always wore Hunters, those old shooting, knee-length wellies so that I always had an excuse not to fish, for the reason you state. But one day, on a big water, I had “ one of those “ - a guest who was blind to applying techniques which would work. Whilst his pal listened and had 25 back-Enders for his week; Mr Stubborn had zilch. Finally, he threw the rod at me in a good pool, I tried to get out of fishing but he insisted, I’d to use 3 mends to get his fly down and was…


Same goes today back for lunch on time, Mr Corry Graham sadly no longer with us, taught me a lot on salmon fishing and etiquette, a lot to be said for the old ways.

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Yes, its good to be prompt and for others to see they are important to you.

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