Heather Mitchell - the frilly ghillie

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Heather Mitchell was one of Scotland's first ever female ghillies. Now, 23 years later, three generations of women have followed in her footsteps.

In a car park full of 4x4s, it's easy to tell which one belongs to Heather Mitchell - there is only one Jeep with a bouquet of wild heather attached to the front grille.

The first thing you notice about Heather is her olive green moleskin hat, with a band of frilly tweed and a peacock feather plume, which hides shocking pink hair. The second is her hearty laugh.

As we drive from Stranraer train station to the best fish and chip shop in town, I get to hear the reason behind the pink. 'I was seriously ill at the beginning of this year and it has made me become aware and live life to the full.'

Heather tells me as she orders two large portions of onion rings and chips for our tea: 'I've been on a diet ever since, so this is a much needed treat!'

We reach her farm cottage, near Stoneykirk, at 8pm and tuck into our fried feast before Heather introduces me to the Highlands.

Her cottage is heated by a woodburner in the living room and has a wooden floor. Animal skins, trophy heads and paintings by Heather and Landseer decorate the walls.

'I was first introduced to Highland ponies and deer stalking when I got a summer job at Rhidorroch House estate in Ross-shire,' she says. 'Riding out at first light to join the stalking party, on ponies that were born and bred on this terrain, was phenomenal. The combination of scenery, history and passion turned my head and I knew then that I could not go back to training racehorses in Yorkshire.'

Heather was 27 when she bought her first property on the Black Isle in Inverness-shire and, although she had a spell back in England during the past 23 years, her heart has been firmly rooted on the Scottish hills from that first stalk.

Ilya & Mayfly

We walk a few hundred yards down a farm track to an old cattle shed, which is now home to Heather's ponies. Ilya is already inside, tucking into a haynet, but Mayfly - Heather's new deer pony in the making - is still in the paddock.

Ilya is the last of Heather's original four deer ponies - there were Oscar, Snipe and Moonshine too. She is in her 20s now. Ilya went lame in recent years while hunting, which is why Heather made the decision to buy Mayfly.

'I remember our first season on the hill,' Heather tells me. 'Ilya carried home 30 stags that year at Lochinvar and other estates. I was so proud of her as it was a huge learning curve for the both of us.'

Heather learned a lot about deer management at Lochinvar. It was after this that Heather, Oscar and Ilya moved to Gruinard estate, where Heather worked as a ghillie - or chief body collector, as she likes to call it.

'I've had to gralloch stags,' she says. 'But it was a rare occurrence, as by the time I arrived with the pony that side of things had been done. Part of my job was to finish dressing the stag in the larder though.'

Heather and I walk back to her cottage for an early night. Tomorrow we are travelling to a local stalking spot to get Mayfly used to the stalking saddle and terrain.

Stalking & demonstrations

Scottish Sporting Gazette

We load up Heather's trailer with hats, midge nets, plenty of layers, gloves, boots, sunscreen, midge repellent, homemade flavoured vodka and a packed lunch.

There's a lot of kit, but the horse trailer has a small living compartment at the front with a fold-down bed, kitchen and toilet. It's not the Ritz, but Heather likes the fact that she can travel anywhere and be self-sufficient in her role as a freelance ghillie. Ilya and Mayfly are loaded last and we hit the road to an area near Newton Stewart.

During the drive, Heather tells me why she fell in love with the 'short, fat and hairy' Highland ponies. 'Their temperament is kind and calm, which is perfect for long days on the hill when there is a lot of waiting time. They are so sure footed, they can read the ground better than me,' she says as we pull into a forest track behind Creetown.

Heather makes a little corral for Ilya out of electric tape and posts, and then begins work on Mayfly - also a mouse dun. She is a fan of this colour because it blends into the hill better. Heather only bought Mayfly two weeks ago and is still getting used to riding her, let alone training her for the 2014 season. 'I'm used to riding one-handed up a track. Now I have to get used to dressage, as Mayfly is trained to Medium level.'

Heather and Mayfly recently competed in their first dressage competition and were placed third - and you can tell Heather is excited to own and be training such a versatile mount.

Mayfly is relaxed as we walk along a forestry track and onto the hill. She has progressed far in her initial training and has already smelt a deerskin and had the dummy stag on her back. Today is all about terrain - as a good deer pony not only has to accept a stag on its back, it also has to be instinctive about where it puts its hooves.

'I think the most important part of being a ghillie is reading the ground and understanding the capabilities of the pony,' adds Heather. 'Anyone that doesn't know ponies thinks you can just go in a straight line. But that's not the case. I can get everywhere with my deer ponies, eventually.'

But it's never just a case of straight A to B. Mayfly is proving a natural, so we head back to the trailer for the drive back to Stoneykirk.

Hats, bags & watercolours

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Being a freelance ghillie is a seasonal job - Heather is out on the hill from August to October 20 each year. So finding alternative income streams is a necessity.

During the winter months, Heather sits by the woodburner and makes bespoke tweed hats and bags. She also takes on watercolour commissions of pets. But her most recent venture is turning out to be a real favourite.

Heather gives talks to women in Scotland. Being a female ghillie, she knows how hard it is to gain respect in a male-dominated profession - and why a good sense of humour is key.

'I was in front of a group of business ladies from town and thought it was going to prove hard to get a laugh out of them,' she says while unloading Ilya and Mayfly. 'However, after five minutes they were all laughing out loud and a lady at the end of a row actually wobbled off her chair, which made everyone laugh even more! It just goes to show that you never know who you are dealing with, so always show your best.'

Showing your best is what Heather is all about. She has cultivated an array of creative talents and is doing work she loves. Not only that, but she is to the world of ghillies what Lee Miller was to war reporters - an inspiration to other women who want to push the boundaries in a man's world. I have been lucky enough to meet a handful of Scottish lassies in their 30s, 20s and late teens that are making their mark as ghillies on some of Scotland's most prestigious estates. I am in no doubt that this change is down to women like Heather Mitchell.


Words and photographs: Melissa Volpi

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