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 ‘regenerative farming’: 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
Donald Gillies moved to the Highlands from Houston, near Glasgow, as a young boy, and while his work has taken him all over the UK, the Highlands has always been his heart-home. He has worked in the construction, haulage and heavy plant service for over 40 years. He has a wide experience in all aspects of material movement and lifting, driving and operating heavy haulage as an HGV 1 Driver, cargo handling equipment, crane operations involving heavy lift planning and supervision in oil industry rig inspection, repair and maintenance work, and construction/plant assembly.
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: transforming an unused glass cutting shop into a theatre space (California); adapting an abandoned canning factory to be used as a mixed-use creative space (California); rehabilitating and managing (five years) the Westbeth Theatre Center, an 18,000 sq. ft. 3-stage venue (NYC); and rehabilitating and managing the ABC Treehouse, an intimate intercultural centre for arts, literature and learning (Amsterdam). She moved to Scotland in July 2013.
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Progress to date..
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 rented a breeding ram to a local farm. At the time of this writing, (March 2019), we have 68 sheep on the farm (ewes, lambs, rams and hog/gets), and have four fields under cultivation, including one given over to a mix of fruit and vegetable crops. Our crops 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. Our sheep graze year round – even in the toughest winters – on grass and tree fodder untouched by chemicals. We do supplement their diet in the winter, and pre-lambing, with feed bought from the local, family owned farm shop. Even their vet treatment is kept to the minimum necessary, but everything necessary to give them a chance at long and healthy lives. In 2019 we welcomed our first day-trip visitors to the farm, and hosted our first campers.
2018 saw us reach many milestones at The Hirsel, and finished with us being approved for our first large scale grant, an Agri-Environmental grant which will help us continue rehabilitating the fields, meadows, bog and woods of The Hirsel. And 2019 will see more big steps forward, as Hirsel Enterprises takes on Donald’s outside consulting work, adopting it as a diversification project. We will also be adding ‘experience tourism’ to the Hirsel’s offerings, in another step toward realizing our ambitions business plan.
We’re thrilled and grateful to have you along with us, as we continue exploring ways to develop the Hirsel into a sustainable working farm and valued community asset. Get in touch via our contact page – or follow our blog and/or our Facebook page, if you’d like to join us our journey.
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 leaving her home of almost 50 years was unthinkable. Setting up an home office, he cut back on work travel, and turned an eye to consultation work, which could be done from his farm office, and 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 them to use that day, helping to clear 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 registered 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 farm 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 and administrative skills, a 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.