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The End Of an Era

Catherine Wills - My Employer During my Time at Knockando.

On this day in 1985 I learned I had secured a job as a Ghillie on the Knockando Estate. Although a keen salmon angler, I had had no experience of Ghillying at all, which, unbeknown to me, but as it turns out, would place me as the front runner for the job with the Estate owners. The Wills Family, had made it clear to their head Ghillie, Sandy Milne, they wanted a young man who they could both influence and train to their standards. What happened next for me would totally shape the rest of my life in the most positive way imaginable.

At that time, the Wills family consisted of Sir David and his wife Eva, their daughter Catherine and their youngest son, Martin.

No one could foresee the Sadness that would envelop the family when, seven years after finding my dream job, we lost Martin Wills aged 39 to cancer. As David and Eva’s only son, this was a massive blow for everyone. He was such a nice person and would have made a fantastic Laird and landowner. A bitter loss for Sir David, Lady Wills, and Catherine, as well as for his friends and everyone in the wider community, Martins premature death saw the estate go into a period of change, which, after Sir David’s death in 1999, saw the reins passed to Catherine, who, with the help of her cousin Christopher, did an amazing job and a credit to both her Brother and Father, running the estate in the way they had visioned and in keeping with strong family principles.

Almost 30 years after the loss of Martin, I awoke the other morning to the news that, after her own battle with cancer, Catherine had sadly passed away. With Eva’s passing earlier this year, and no children this marked the end of an era. An era which, as mentioned earlier, had shaped, and had a massive impact on my own life. Next to my immediate family, those were the people who provided me with all the good fortune I have and have had in my life. The wisdom of Sir David Wills will remain with me forever. The humour of their son, Martin was legendary, just so much fun. The loss of Catherine Wills, I know, heralds a change for me too. My own relationship with the river Spey has lost another link. The only part of the original team now remaining are my two Ghillying colleagues from those early days, Sandy Milne, and Sandy Smith.

The last time I spoke to Catherine was at Lower Pitchroy where I found her in an unusually reflective mood. Her mind was on the lovely times she had with her friends at Knockando over the years. She talked about happy days fishing the river and the sadness of losing friends and family. Her Father had instilled in her a massive passion for the river, it’s future, and importantly, the future of salmon fishing. It’s value to the wider community was much bigger than any individual. Her father always referred to time as “the old enemy;” it ticks along and for the most we don't afford it enough value. I look back at my time as the personal Ghillie of Dr Catherine Wills and being the best times of my amazingly lucky life but the “old enemy” marches on, stopping for no one...

The most lovely memory and picture I have of Catherine, is of an August evening on left bank of Polarder, my favourite place on Lower Pitchroy, our beat. To my surprise she had never fished the pool from this, much more challenging, side. Such was the confidence of my youth, I told her she would “definitely” catch a salmon and that, for me, this was the most special of places. As someone who now hosts salmon fishing groups all over the world, I now look back at these 90 minutes through her eyes. Both Catherine, her father and Martin were the most incredible hosts. My own father had this gift too. I am so fortunate to have learned this art from the best.

That evening on the left bank of Polarder gave up 2 lovely salmon to Catherine and is etched in my mind, a lovely 90 minutes before she had to return to her hosting duties. As well as the two fish landed, we had two others come and check out the fly. I knew if we stayed, we would have another. I remember the look of pure happiness on her face as we left the pool that night. This is the picture I have and how I will remember Dr Catherine. Smiling, content, whilst at the same time, so like her father, conveying a message. Leaving when she did, made it clear to me that the welfare of her friends/guests was much more important than catching another salmon. Pure Class, and said everything not only about her, but about the whole Wills family.

She was a shy, reserved, and sensitive person, who, due to fate dealing a cruel blow, took the reins, got the bit between her teeth and did everything in her power to make her father and family proud.

All I can say is, job done. Sleep easy and thank you. Thank you for providing me with 100% stability for my family and I during my time at Knockando and beyond, also, for the amazing memories of fun days and nights on the river with you and your friends.

Lower Pitchroy Knockando River Spey
Polarder Lower Pitchroy

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