The Hirsel is located in an ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’, just outside Ardgay, on the Dornoch Firth. We raise Hebridean sheep, as well as an assortment of crops – choosing Scottish heritage breeds and seeds whenever possible, with an emphasis on living and working with our animals and resident wildlife in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
The Hirsel is a partnership (Hirsel Enterprises) between Donald Gillies and Donna (DuCarme) Gillies. Vat number: 259.4491.66 BRN: 230182
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The Hirsel has been the Gillies family home since 1969, when Donald Sr. and Jean moved to the Highlands with their two young sons from Houston, near Glasgow. In the beginning, they ran Cheviot sheep and grew potatoes and turnips, among other traditional crops. Jean continued to manage the farm on her own after her husband passed on, while the two boys grew up and moved away to start their own families. But as she grew older, her activities lessened, with more and more of the farm falling into disuse and ruin. Until, around her 90th year, ill health finally forced her to stop altogether. (We think that’s a pretty good run, by any standards!) By that time, the woods and scrub had encroached on the grazing areas, ditches and drains had clogged, and the arable fields had turned boggy.
At that time, her eldest son – also named Donald – was also at a turning point in his own life. A temporary return home turned permanent when it became clear that Jean could no longer stay on the farm alone, while at the same time, leaving her home of almost 50 years was unthinkable. Setting up an home office, he cut back work travel, and turned more steadily to consultation work, which could be balanced with his duties (shared with his brother and a great social care team) caring for Jean. Back on the farm full-time for the first time since he was a young man, he surprised himself with an interest in rehabilitating the neglected fields, which had become boggy and overgrown. By the time Donna joined him on the farm in June 2015, he was a born-again farmer, nearing the first hay harvest the farm had seen in 30+ years. His first gift to her was a pair of wellies, and she put then to use that day, helping to clean out the farm’s main drainage ditch! That October, the first batch of Hebridean ewes were brought onto the farm – a rag-tag bunch of nearly feral ‘muggles’, as they were nicknamed – and the Hirsel had a home-flock again for the first time in over 30 years. The following February, a small batch of pedigree ewes and rams joined them, and in April 2016, their first lambs were born. Jean, at first doubtful about the duo’s determination to resuscitate the farm and flock – understandably, given her own struggles to stay afloat over the years – became an enthusiastic supporter as she saw the fields and flock coming back into productivity. She saw the sense in tailoring the Hirsel’s products for smaller, more sustainable niche markets, rather than trying to compete in the commercial sheep industry, as she had done. An accomplished craftswoman herself, she was intrigued by the idea of ‘adding value’ to Hebridean fleeces – nearly worthless otherwise – through spinning and felting them. In May 2017, just a couple of months before she left us, she held a lamb in her lap for the first time in over 30 years. Her delight, and her renewed belief in the Hirsel’s future, was clear.
With Donald’s background as an HGV and heavy machinery operator, and a heavy lift designer (http://www.cadgelift.co.uk/), and Donna’s as a performing artist and arts administrator (https://donnaducarme.com/), they may seem an odd partnership at first glance. But his ability to improvise, invent, repair, and operate almost anything with moving parts, combined with his steadfast belief in risk assessment… and her organizational skills, tendency to think ‘outside the box’ (sometimes waaay outside!), combined with an overabundance of optimism – allow them to compliment and support each other in ways that work exceptionally well for The Hirsel. And they share the most important thing of all: a shared vision and love for our farm, and all – winged, rooted, and 2/4-legged – who live on it.
In September of 2015, we brought in our first harvest – a mix of hay and haylage which would see us and our first batch of Hebridean sheep through the winter. Those ewes gave us our first batch of lambs in the spring of 2016.
In 2017, we sold our first breeding ram to a farm on the west coast of Scotland, and sold our first batch of Hebridean Hogget to local customers, as well as via a local butcher. In November 2018, we took a batch of ewes and lambs to the Dingwall livestock mart for the first time – and earned the best auction prices for females of our breed that day. We’ve sold a breeding ram and more ewes to farms down south, and have a breeding ram on rental locally. At the time of this writing, (November 2018), we have around 70 sheep on the farm (ewes, lambs, rams and hogs), and have four fields under cultivation, including one given over to a mix of fruit and vegetable crops. We are organic in all but name, working with green manures and natural fertilizers such as seaweed and manure, and opting for companion planting and other natural pest control options, in lieu of pesticides. We’ve welcomed our first day-trip visitors to the farm, and hosted our first campers this summer.
2018 has seen us reach many milestones at The Hirsel, and while we continue to rehabilitate the fields, meadows, bog and woods of The Hirsel, and investigate ways of making her into a working and sustainable farm again, we’re thrilled to have you along with us. Get in touch via our contact page – or follow our blog and/or our Facebook page, if you’d like to follow our journey toward building a sustainable, green, and (fun-)loving farm.