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 shaped by the broader history of the Highlands community and way of life.
The old drovers’ roads that wind through the hills and past our fields, the ancient farm tracks that go down to meet them, and the ruins of old farm cottages and even older, unexplored, ruins on Cnoc na Cuaiche, evoke echoes of the people who have lived and worked on this land for centuries before us. The rusting wires of derelict fencing dug from the woodland floor, the midden revealed by a fallen tree, the deep and winding drainage ditches, and the thick patches of broom and gorse, reveal a tale of a cycle of working and abandonment of the farm by its many owners through the years. And then too, the newly repaired fencing around the fields, the stacked bales of hay, and the lambs bouncing through the meadows, speak of a modern commitment to renovation, repair, and regeneration. If the fields and fences could talk, they would tell familiar tales of Highland families living on and loving this land, and having to leave it to find work elsewhere. The ongoing change happening in field and steading today tells the story of our passion for making our living here.
We feel all of this, every time we walk through the fields, woodlands, and meadows of the farm. When we wade through the bog, searching for a lost lamb. We feel the history here, but also the responsibility to the future – the need to rebuild in a financially and ecologically sustainable way, to break the cycle of care and abandonment that has been the story of this farm now known as The Hirsel. We walk a balance between rebuilding in a way that honours our heritage, while facing the modern pressures on small family farms – all farms, actually.
This balance is seen in our choice of livestock: heritage breeds – native to Scotland, when possible – that can thrive outdoors year round on the mixed terrain that makes up the farm; that are often happier sleeping under the trees in all weather, than in the man-made shelters on offer. It’s seen in our choice of apple varieties in our young orchard: all but one are heritage varieties which have either been developed in Scotland, or grown here for generations.
And it’s seen in the way we care for the farm, and the types of diversification projects we support.
Traditional farm activities of raising and marketing livestock and produce are being carried out as near to organically as possible, using ‘green manures’, plant based fertilizers, our own animal manure (returning nutrients to our soils), companion planting, and natural pest control, instead of commercial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. We allow margins to go wild, and are transforming our grass fields, one by one, into mixed species meadow to support our resident wildlife, and encourage more to take up residence here. We work with techniques learned from our readings into regenerative agriculture, agroecology, and permaculture – mixing and matching tools to suit our mixed terrain and our long term goals. Our diversification projects – like the planned wool mill – are designed to support our farm’s long term viability, without impinging on our farm’s health or annual life cycles.
Our success at these balancing acts, at achieving our goals, will be measured by the health of our soils, woodlands, and animals, by the abundance of wildlife that has come to share The Hirsel with us, the ability of the farm to support us… and in the desire of future generations to work and protect the The Hirsel long after we are gone.
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 industries 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). But her love of the wild mountains and forests of her childhood never left her, and she felt at home immediately on joining Donald on the farm in 2015, where all the skills learned from a wide ranging creative career have turned out to be useful on a farm too.