Sunday, 28 February 2016
Gavin MacDonald, Arboriculturalist
“Oh I know someone from Scotland. Do you know John Smith?”
This kind of question is one I am asked more frequently than you’d imagine. Scotland may be a small country but it should be known that I am not personally connected to all of it’s residents. It’s for this reason that I was surprised to discover so many personal connections with Mr Gavin MacDonald. I first came across the chap a few years back through a story in Fantastic Man magazine and since then he’s been on my radar for an interview. It’s not every day you discover someone who works as an arboriculturalist after all. But it wasn’t until meeting him this week that I realised not only do we have many friends in common but he also grew up with my sister’s husband. Maybe Scotland is smaller than I think.
For this ‘meet’ with Gavin, it was important to show the man at work embracing the elements. The only question would be how to portray him in the most authentic clothing. That problem was solved in the form of nobis.
I first found Nobis at the Pitti Uomo trade show in Florence where I discovered a stall with the warmest outerwear I’ve ever worn. As a photographer I know the importance of appropriate clothing and so delved a little deeper into the brand. It transpired that the heat I felt from Nobis was due to a double membrane allowing heat and moisture to escape from my body into the Canadian duck-down filling – the only brand to use that technology. I was hooked from then on.
It crossed my mind that the real test of these jackets would be my homeland. The result: Mr MacDonald and Nobis outerwear brought together in the rural Highlands on a snowy January morning, where we embraced the outdoor elements, climbed some trees and shot the breeze.
What exactly is an Arboriculturalist? Effectively it’s a tree surgeon. I’m a tree specialist and we mainly work on felling trees or removing branches.
It’s quite an unusual job in this age of desk work, how did you get into this line of work? My Dad’s always been a tree surgeon and in school holidays I used to help him out. When I left school I wanted to go to university so I went to study graphic design in Glasgow but after I graduated decided I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk my whole life. It was then that I set up my business.
So you didn’t feel a pressure to go into the family business then? In school I was always artistic and actually felt more of an obligation to go into secondary education. University was great but the money offered for first time jobs is ridiculous. It was the money at first that drew me into opening my own business.
What age were you when you started the business? About 24.
That’s young to be a business owner. Do you think you had a good grasp of what the job actually entails at that point? Absolutely not. When I helped my dad I actually wasn’t doing any of the jobs that I do today. I tended to stick to moving branches. I’ve done about 16 courses since starting which cost about £1000 each so it’s not cheap to learn. At an early stage I asked my Dad to show me how to climb the trees and advance further so he taught me a lot.
Was it hard to start growing the business? The first couple of years were definitely challenging. Sometimes I’d only be working for two days or three days a month but at the same time I was able to fall back on the work with my Dad at home. It’s progressed every year to a stable income.
What qualities do you need to have to make a good tree surgeon? The funny thing is people tend to not know what quality work looks like. They look at a chopped up tree and think it’s done and dusted but if you don’t do the exact right cut the whole tree could die. There’s a lot of skill to it. Every job we do is always perfectly completed so I’d like to think it’s because of that but in reality customers focus on our attitude. My team is happy, chirpy, laid back and good to work with. I think that makes us stand out.
How do you prepare for the job? It’s important to have the right equipment. I always pack a bag with ropes, a harness, helmet and saw but also the workwear is key. I need to wear sturdy boots and a lot of layers, particularly in winter. Scotland isn’t the warmest or driest place! This Nobis jacket is actually the warmest coat I’ve ever worn. Even in today’s snow I hardly felt it through the duck-down coat so that’s quite a feat.
What do you love about Scotland? I’m from the countryside so I really value green open space. I’ve lived in Glasgow for a while and just moved back to a more rural area. I love the calm and quiet we have here and also how friendly people are. I’ve got to be honest, people have a pretty easy life in Scotland.
If someone had never been to Scotland where would you recommend they visit for an outstanding experience? I’d say the Isle of Harris. I try to go up every year in Summer as the beaches there are unbelievable. It has perfect white sand and there’s never more than 5 other people on the beach at one time. It’s also great for surfing and if you get the timing right can get quite warm. Harris isn’t too hard to get to from Glasgow, just drive up to Skye and get the ferry over in only a couple of hours.
Where did you grow up? Kilmore which is outside Oban. It has lots of countryside, sheep and some cows. I had a fantastic childhood experience as we had a big group of friends who would spend hours adventuring for miles in the area.
There can’t be that many customers for a tree surgeon in Oban, how does your Dad’s business compare to yours in Glasgow? Actually my Dad services are a lot of surrounding villages so can travel up to 40 miles for a job. He seems to be the only one operating there whereas in Glasgow competition is fierce as I usually put a quote in against 4 or 5 other companies.
What’s your favourite type of job to do? There are only really two options in my work: climb up a tree and cut small bits off or fell a tree completely with one big cut. I love the climbing part and the bigger the tree the better. I’ve climbed a huge redwood tree up 120 feet in a place called Loch Awe. I had to deadwood it, removing all the dead branches up a single stem.
How can you tell if a branch is going to hold your weight? When I saw you climbing today I couldn’t believe that thin branch held you. It’s amazing what a branch can hold. You can get away with only 2 inches of branch as long as the rope is in at the crotch. It’s really trial and error at first to build experience.
Have you ever fallen? I thought were you pretty ballsy to go up today without a helmet. Nope – I’ve not had any serious injuries either! I know what I’m dealing with now.
Does your girlfriend ever worry about you at work? Not usually though she did ask me to be careful yesterday. She said I had to be extra careful in the wind!
So you also model which must feel like a world away from this business. How did you get into that? It was through Mr Scotland. I’ve played rugby for years and our team was approached to be in an advert for the competition back in 2010. We were automatically entered into the competition and for some reason I won that year. My prize was a trip to New York and a modelling contract which isn’t too shabby.
Did you think at the time that modelling is a career to pursue? I actually hardly worked for the first year so wasn’t really that into the idea but a friend of mine is a photographer and spoke to other agents on my behalf. I switched agencies almost immediately and I’ve worked steadily ever since.
What’s been your most exciting job? I was in Mexico last November to shoot the campaign for Macy’s which was quite a moment. I remember going into the store the first time I visited New York and thinking “this is a crazy place” so it was funny to come full circle. I also did Ralph Lauren in the States which was a dream come true. It was my first casting in the US and I was quite intimidated so was even more grateful to get the job.
You first came on my radar when I saw the Alasdair McLellan spread in Fantastic Man. How did that affect your career? That was actually shot just after I won Mr Scotland so it was a great first job. I didn’t know anything about modelling at that point so Googled Alasdair’s work. It was then I realised what a big deal it was. He actually taught me a bit about modelling.
Do you remember what he told you? Two things stick in my mind: to clench my face as much as possible and to laugh uncontrollably.
How would you describe yourself in 5 words? Adventurous, laid-back, ambitious, romantic and caring.
What’s your star sign? Pieces. What’s that meant to mean? Bit of an air head?
Haha no I think it’s more that your head is in the clouds but your feet are on the ground. A practical dreamer, no? That sounds like me! I do have my head in the clouds quite a bit but I’m also an action oriented person.
What ambitions do you have for 2016? I want to double the business to two vehicles and two sets of men on the ground. Also I’m hoping to get a big modelling campaign under my belt.
Finally, leave us with some words of wisdom? Be yourself and keep warm!