Modern Scots ghillies often work with game birds
In modern English, ghillie is a word commonly used in Scotland to describe a person employed as a gamekeeper or hunting attendant. It’s also a style of camouflage used in the military and by hunters to blend in with the environment. Though the word ghillie is rooted in the hunting practices of the Highlands, it has become associated with many facets of Scottish culture and the term has evolved in meaning over the years to describe mythological figures as well as styles of traditional dance and related equipment.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ghillie comes from the Scottish Gaelic gilly, and was a name given to male servants of Highland Chiefs. A similar Irish word, giolla, means youth.
Originally, ghillie was the name given to a young man who would guide the Highland chiefs on hunting expeditions; it was later generalized to describe any young man who would assist with hunting or fishing activities. The term gilliewetfoot was developed because the young servants would often carry the chiefs across rivers. Later, this term was used in a derogatory way by lowlanders to describe the servants who always accompanied Highland chiefs.
Modern Definition and Usage
The clan system that made the Highlands of Scotland famous in history has changed in modern times, but ghillies still serve as outdoor recreational and hunting guides. Ghillies are now often hired as fishing guides on private properties in Scotland to take visitors on their fishing expeditions, as well as look after the general health of the river and the game-fish within. They may also be called upon to work with game birds on an estate. Ghillies are expert outdoors-men who have a wealth of knowledge and experience hunting, fishing and reading the great outdoors.
Outside of Scotland, the world ghillie is most commonly associated with military and hunting nomenclature. A ghillie-suit is a camouflaged piece of clothing that often uses pieces of foliage in its construction. Coming from the historical association with hunting in the Scottish Highlands and the rarely-seen mythological creatures of the forest, ghillie suits are aptly named as they are one of the most effective means of camouflage used by the military and hunters. Ghillie suits provide a three dimensional camouflage and, in addition to their base materials, will often have features that allow hunters or snipers to attach pieces of native vegetation, making them blend in with the surrounding environment when motionless.
Ghillies, or Ghillie Dhus, are a mythological creature from Scottish folklore, and became popular amongst immigrants to America in the 1800’s. Ghillie Dhus, Scots Gaelic for “black-haired lad,” are small creatures with light green skin that live in trees and protect forests around them from destruction. Ghillie Dhus are said to wear camouflaged clothing made from bits of moss and grass, which complements their shy, reclusive demeanor in folklore.
Scottish ghillies are also a soft shoe without a tongue, worn for traditional Scottish Highland Dances. They are usually black in color with decorative laces and slightly larger than the foot as they are often worn with the thick socks of the traditional Highland garb.
The Ghillie Callum, also called the sword dance, is one of the most famous traditional Scottish dances dating back to the 11th century, in reference to a bloody Scottish battle made famous by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The dance was also performed before battles in Scottish history. Soldiers would lay two sword across one another and dance between the blades. A dance completed without touching the swords was a good omen for victory, but touching the swords could forecast defeat and death. The Ghillie Callum is still performed over swords at Highland games around the world.