The Hirsel, a traditional hill farm for modern times.
Set in a designated “area of outstanding natural beauty” in the Scottish Highlands, the Hirsel is rich with the history of the families who have farmed it for generations, and nestled in a landscape enriched by the broader history of the Highlands community and way of life. The old drovers’ roads that wind through the hills and through our fields, and the Pictish ruins on nearby hills – even the rise of Cnoc na Cuaiche on the Hirsel itself, with its suggestion of mysterious ruins underneath – speak to the centuries of humans living and working in the surrounding area. But modern knowledge of how to live and work on the farm today, along with our regenerative agricultural practices, also place the Hirsel solidly in the company of the many small, modern Scottish farms leading the way into a sustainable future for our rural communities.
The Hirsel’s current and planned projects reflect this marriage of old and new, of respect for ancient knowledge enhanced by modern practice.
Traditional farm activities of raising and marketing livestock and crops are being carried out as near to organically as possible (all the practices, none of the paperwork!). Using ‘green manures’ and organic fertilizers, paired with companion planting and natural pest control, we utilize ancient knowledge which was threatened with being lost for a while, in the rush to chemical aids. But we are not ‘stuck in the past’ – our methods are enhanced by studying and using the latest techniques in natural methods of improving soil and animal health. Rotational grazing and planting, grass improvement by over- or under-seeding, species-rich meadow improvement, heritage livestock chosen for their ability to thrive on native foliage, as well as for their assistance in weed control and fertilization… these are many of the techniques we use in what is now being called ‘regenerative’ farming. Not just sustaining what we have, but improving upon it. Our success is measured by the color and texture of our soils, by the health of our animals, and by the abundance of wildlife that has come to share the Hirsel with us.
But in these days, when small farms are under increasing financial pressure, and cannot survive by farming alone, diversification is key – the Hirsel is active in this area, too. In the summer of 2018, we trialed a camping site, and after considering the feedback – positive and critical – from our guests, will be adding (Scottish weather-proof) huts to our accommodation opportunities. Always mindful of our goal of highlighting the history of our farm and the area, these huts will be styled to fit into the traditional design and working life of a highland hill farm. Visitors will be offered the opportunity to experience myriad facets of our life here on the Hirsel, even getting a little ‘hands on’ occasionally, if they like – or they’ll be welcome to simply ‘check out’ of the hustle and bustle of modern life, relaxing into the quieter rhythms of life in the Highlands, while enjoying the splendid views. These huts will also serve as housing for workshop leaders and students, when we begin the education programming now in development.
We are also investigating ways to better offer our products for sale here on the farm, whether through farm-gate sales, setting up a farm market, or becoming a food hub for the area’s producers. The rising interest from consumers in provenance and animal welfare, as well as the growing reputation of Scottish produce and heritage products, offer many options to us, and we are sure to find one that fits into the Hirsel’s future.
Finally, we are actively looking into ways that the work we’re doing, renovating the Hirsel and turning her into a productive working farm, can last beyond our own involvement. How the Hirsel can contribute to the success of our local community for years to come. More news about these projects to come…
The Hirsel is not unique: hill farms and smallholdings are sprinkled throughout Scotland. What are unique are many of the opportunities available to farms like us at this time, in our efforts to regenerate our business, and make of it a successful and valued enterprise. Stay tuned for developments…and thank you for joining us on this journey!
The Hirsel is a partnership (Hirsel Enterprises) between Donald and Donna Gillies. Vat number: 259.4491.66 BRN: 230182
Donald Gillies moved to the Highlands as a young boy, from Houston (near Glasgow) and while his work has taken him all over the UK, the Highlands has always been his heart-home. He’s worked in the construction, haulage and heavy plant service for over 40 years. He has wide experience in all aspects of material movement and lifting, driving and operating heavy haulage as an HGV 1 Driver, crane operations involving heavy lift planning and supervision in oil industry rig inspection, repair and maintenance work, and construction/plant assembly. He resettled permanently on the farm in 2013. Donald’s ability to drive and repair anything with wheels and/or a motor, and his natural inventiveness, comes in handy on a farm where DIY often saves the day.
Before coming to the Hirsel, California-born Donna Gillies (nee DuCarme) enjoyed a cross-disciplinary career in the arts, onstage and behind the scenes. She participated in the creation or rehabilitation of multiple cultural venues: helping to transform an abandoned factory into a artists’ compound, and an unused glass cutting shop into a theatre space (California); rehabilitating and managing (five years) the Westbeth Theatre Center (NYC), and the ABC Treehouse (Amsterdam). She settled in Scotland in July 2013, and joined Donald on the farm in 2015. She now has her sights set on the Hirsel’s old barn as a workshop and learning facility…but that’s a story for another page…