A Portrait of the River Dee

Scottish Sporting Gazette

In her new book, Mel Shand travels the length of the River Dee, photographing and interviewing the people at its heart.

Sitting here, I am trying to pin down why I thought this was a good idea for a book. I suspect it might never be enough to say it's because I felt inspired... but inspired I am by this place, the people and the landscape.

During a discussion in 2012 with my friend and river director, Mark Bilsby, about a suitable way to celebrate 150 years of the Dee District Salmon Fisheries Board, a light-bulb moment occurred: make a photographic record of the ghillies and people who live and work along the river.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Armed with a list of estates and ghillies, I set about devising a series of questions with the aim of getting to the heart of what brought each individual to their particular beat. A Portrait of the River Dee was born.

Over the next 18 months, I travelled back and forth along the 88-mile stretch of river that meanders from the Linn of Dee in the west, to the harbour mouth in Aberdeen, interviewing and photographing everyone along the way.

The Dee is an iconic river running through Deeside, the upper reaches graced with Royal patronage, to the less glamorous but no less romantic harbour mouth of what was once a traditional fishing port and the oldest business in Great Britain.

Every square-mile along the way provided numerous subjects of note, from three generations of ghillies on one beat, to the pool soon to be challenged by a bypass in the name of progress. While photographing the ghillie representative for the Ballater Angling Association, we heard a plop in the water and turned to see a hare seemingly dancing over the top of the river before swimming into deep water and scooting up the far side bank.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

The fishers and their families who come for the sport and the essential Scottish experience are loyal fans of the area, developing a deep and personal affection for a particular stretch of the river. Many regard it as their second home, and all hold their ghillie in the highest esteem.

As a ghillie's wife, I saw the best and worst of our fishing guests. Over the years, we entertained fishers from many parts of the world, both serious and light-hearted in their approaches. When asked what the water was like I was always tempted to answer wet and cold? but the ghillie continuously rose to the occasion. The man with the direct line to the fish could raise the bar of excitement with assurances of what a great week stretched out before them. He rarely tired of the endlessly repetitive discussions of the various permutations of the conditions that led to the ones they landed, and the ones that got away.

The ghillie is generally considered to be a god, and there are 55 of them currently working along the course of the Dee. Then there's the Queen of Bacon Butties and the man with a collection of 750 bottles of whisky, all of which are for sale.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Although renowned for the warmth of our welcome, we sometimes fail to see the richness of what lies before us. Life is so often high-tech and fast-paced, and I was determined to capture a timely reminder of a more traditional way of life and the characters that shape and conserve it.

A Portrait of the River Dee costs ?25 (plus ?5 p&p) and is available from www.melshand.com

Foreword by the Duke of Rothesay.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

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