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THE GUGA HUNTERS - ISLE OFLEWIS - WESTERN ISLES
The Guga - A delicacy for the people of Ness - Isle of Lewis - Western Isles - Outer Hebrides
It should be of no surprise to realise that sea birds have been eaten for centuries - in fact since our ancestors lived in caves. Cormorants, Gulls, shags, fulmars and indeed gannets. There was a time when seabirds were actually a well desired food at the dinner table. Gannets or "guga" - which are the gannet chicks are still eaten by a few of the islanders - particularly islanders from the Ness area - where the men are called "guga" hunters.
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Guga Hunters of Ness - Isle of Lewis - Western Isles

The Isle of Lewis is a place where the culture and traditions of many hundreds of years have been passed down the generations. Many traditions and habits still prevail today - which is perhaps why the island and the islanders themselves are really interesting. The islanders are lovely people with a quiet nature. Many still speak Gaelic as well as English - and there are many traditions that are local to the specific areas of the Western Isles. One of these is the "Guga Hunting" which is carried out by the men of Ness situated at the most Northerly point of the Tip of The Isle of Lewis.


 


The Bird Preservation Act - Tastes Change.
The bird preservation act which came into force in the late 1800,s is partly to blame for the tradition of eating seabirds to die out. Also many of the people living in the south of Scotland lost the taste of the seabirds oily meat. Since about 1875 the gannet has rarely graced the tables if either citizens or of the kings tables.

National and EU Legislation
Ness is a little different from the majority of places - in that the tradition and eating of gugas is still carried out by a few locals. The residents of Ness along with their representatives in Ross and Cromarty council fought and managed to get the approval of the law. EU legislation allows the Ness men to hunt the guga.

Protection of BIrds Act 1954
A clause was added to the protection of Birds Act in 1954 which gives them the right to sail to "Sulasgeir" to hunt the guga. They are allowed to take 2000 of these birds once a year. The Houses of Parliament agreed that the people of Ness - "Niseachs" as they are called were different to other people around Britain - in that the gannets played a central role in their lives.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - the organisation whom you might expect would oppose the keeping up of this tradition also gives its blessing to the people of Ness - it is generally recognised that the actions of the guga hunters are no threat to the existence of the birds out on the rock.

Annual Trip to Sulasgeir.
Every year - since the sixteenth century or even before that time men from the Ness district set of to sail to a remote rock - or small island called "Sulasgeir".

The Men catch "guga"
The men catch 2000 "guga" or gannet chicks - the gannet chicks that are almost fully grown. They return two weeks later with the 2000guga - which they have caught, killed, pickled and salted.

There is a lot of skill and the art of hunting and bring back the guga is a real art - traditions that have been passed on through the generations for centuries,

Catch Pole and Rocks Used to Catch and Kill the Birds
The gugas are killed using a long pole with a spring loaded jaw on top. The guga is snatched from its nest and passed straight on to another man who strikes it dead with a single blow from a rock

Head Removed - The whole Process is Pain free and Quick
The bird is then passed to another gentleman - who will remove the birds head taking care to leave its long neck. The entire process is actually made as quick and painless as possible.

The birds are killed in this way - and the whole process is dealt with in half an hour.

BIrds Harvested - Plucked - Highest Points on The Island

A short while after this the birds are harvested or collected together. The birds are then plucked by the men after rigor mortis has taken place. This is usually carried out at one of the highest points on the island. The choice of place is actually because the wind is stronger at the highest points - thus allowing the plumage to easily be stripped off.

Men are Silent - Working Fast to Prevent The Birds Decaying
The men work speedily and in the main - in silence as the job needs to be carried out before decaying begins.The birds are placed into sacks which are attached to a pulley wire.

gannets diving filmstrip

Next - The "Factory "
The next stage is the so called "factory". Peat fires - so placed depending on the direction of the wind are placed on stone hearths in several parts of the island. The breeze, fans the flames which makes certain that any remaining feathers are singed off the birds. One man cracks the young gannets wings whilst it is held above the fire for a short while - too long and the bird's skin will be burned - too little and the bird would have "stubble". The fat of the young bird is dripping and feeds the fire. The down is scraped off - and any feathers left on are blow torched off.

Cleaned - Bird Split from End to End - Cuts made for Salt
The birds are then cleaned again and "split" end to end, removing the neck, tail, rib cage, stomach etc. Cuts in the flesh are made to create pockets for the salt and pickle that preserve the birds. The gugas - or young gannets are then built into the shape that resembles "brochs" - or round towers - built on a foundation of stones covered by plastic sheets. The tower is protected during the evening by tarpaulin.

Brine Diluted by Too Much Rain
If there was too much rain on the birds - this would dilute the brine - making the preservative qualities of the salt less. If it gets too weak - more is added. Each day the tower of birds grow larger Quite a sight are the 2000 birds. It stand until the trawler to take the men home comes into sight - when the tarpaulin is removed - and the birds are taken down to the landing place where birds are placed into the schutes - the cargo of birds then taken to the fishing boat - then stored in the hold for the journey home.

No Evidence That the Guga Hunt Affects Scotland Population of Gannets

There really is no evidence to suggest that the annual guga hunt made by the men of Ness in any way affects Scotland's gannet population at all. In fact the numbers of the gannets or "Solan Geese" as they are called has steadily increased over the last 20 years

No Comparison to Fox Hunting and Such Sports

Some have expressed their opinions saying that guga hunting is similar to that of fox hunting - however the "guga hunt" is not the callous destruction of birds to provide trophies for the rich to adorn their walls - instead the Ness people say that the guga hunt is carried out by working men - and is an integral part of their community, culture and traditions. Modern people are so out of touch with nature and where their food actually comes from and how it gets to their tables - they find the idea of the hunt abhorrent. Of course in past eras - hunting and eating birds was a necessity - and whilst this cant be said of today's times - the annual guga hunt really does mean so much to the people of Ness. Should the numbers of gannets start to fall - there is no doubt that the men of Ness would cease the practice.

Strengthens Character - Tests Mind, Spirit and Strengthens Body
To the younger men of Ness who join some of their elders - the fortnight spent on the Island of Sulasgeir will strengthen their characters, as well as resting their and spirits as well as the obvious physical strengths that are to be gained from the experience. It is said that the "Niseach's (men of Ness) - when they eat these birds, feel "rooted" and at one with the people that have gone before them and have a great sense of community. For as long as these feelings exist in the hearts of the Ness people - the tradition will continue.

(Click Image for Larger Pictures)
Gannets Head Close up - Showing The Amazing Eye   Gannets Flying   Gannets Flying
Gannets Eye - Close Up
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Gannets Flying
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Gannets Flying
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Showing the amazing eye of the gannet.

Three gannets flying together - Butt of Lewis - majestic birds

 

Western Isles birds sightings - a gannet - Isle of lewis

         
Gannet Diving  - Garry - Isle of Lewis - Western Isles Bird Sightings   Gannet - Butt of Lewis - Western Isles Bird Sightings  
Gannet - Butt of Lewis - Western Isles Bird Sightings
Gannet - Isle of Lewis
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Gannet - Isle of Lewis
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Gannet - Isle of Lewis
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This gannet was making a spectacular dive at Garry beach - Sept 2009
 
The gannets, watch for fish from a great height then gains height to 30m (100 ft)
 
This gannet was gaining height perhaps ready to make the spectacular dive for fish
         
Gannet - Butt of Lewis - Western Isles Bird Sightings   Gannet - Traigh Mhor  - Western Isles Bird Sightings   Gannet - Butt of Lewis - Western Isles Bird Sightings
Gannet - Isle of Lewis
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Gannet - Isle of Lewis
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Gannet - Isle of Lewis
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The gannet in flight - Butt of Lewis - Western isles birds
 
This gannet looked great when it began its spectacular dive downwards - Traigh Mhor
 
Another gannet in flight - bird sightings Western isles
         
Gannet - Butt of Lewis - Western Isles Birds Sightings
  Gannet - Juvenile - Traigh Mhor  - Western Isles Bird Sightings  
Gannet - Butt of Lewis - Western Isles Birds Sightings
Gannet - Isle of Lewis
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Gannet - Isle of Lewis
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Gannet - Isle of Lewis
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The graceful birds - this gannet just flying high - August 2009

 
This juvenile gannet seemed to be a little lame and was taken off to be cared for ny the animal welfare persons along with a young dolphin that had been washed ashore
 

Just starting to dive for food this lovely gannet - like a rocket

Bird Overview -Gannets
Family
Boobies and gannets
Latin name
Morus bassanus

Population
Common Similar Species Fulmar, Herring Gull
Description
The gannet is one of the largest seabirds in the world. Adults are large and bright white with black wingtips. With its long black tipped white wings, long dagger shaped bill - orange and yellow on the adult birds and its pointed tail it is very distinctive. The young are dark brown with finely spotted underparts and it takes three or more years to get adult plumage; immature birds can be a mix of dark and light markings. The gannets have blue eyes surrounded by bare, black skin.
Size
Goose size ( 87-100cm )
Habitat

Two thirds of the world’s gannets nest in the UK, with the largest northern gannet colony found in the famous Scottish islands of St Kilda near the Isle of Harris and Lewis. They spend most of their lives over water. Gannets nest in dense colonies on cliffs

Food
Fish

Voice
On the breeding site their rough throaty hard barking can be heard.
Breeding
Gannets pair for life and breed annually, occupying the same nest each year. The pairs of gannets have a series of entertaining displays to keep their bond strong - including a mutual "fencing" of the bills combined with bowing.

The male builds a nest out of seaweed, feathers, grass and earth - and all kept together with the birds droppings, making the pile12 inches high but reaching as high as 6.5 ft over the years.

Just a single egg is laid and it takes 40 days to hatch. It is incubated under their large webbed feet. The adult gannets feed the chick regurgitated fish. The adult gannets make very long round trips of 250miles or more just to find food for a single visit. After about 80 days the adult birds just cease to visit and after another week the young birds who have "got the message" leave to begin the long road five to six years to breeding maturity.
Misc. Info
Gannet - a Glutton
The gannet's supposed capacity for eating large quantities of fish has led to "gannet" becoming a disapproving description of somebody who eats excessively - a glutton! Each young gannet eats about 30kilos (65 pounds) of fish before it leaves its colony.

Young Gannets have Eaten so Much - Unable to take off

The young birds after 13weeks of eating - jump off the cliffs and flop-glide to the sea below - they are actually unable to take off again for a week or more until their excess fat reserves have been used up.


Glide - then Dive
At sea they flap and then glide low over the water, often travelling in small groups. The only thing that stops their slow glide and relaxed flying is when they spot some food. When this happens the gannet then gains height to 30m (100 ft) or more above the surface of the sea and then after checking - the gannet tumbles into a spectacular nosedive, closing their wings at the last moment and making a huge splash on impact. They look to me almost like those paper rockets we used to make as kids - only much more spectacular of course.

Gannets Adaptations
Gannets have a number of adaptations which enable them to dive in this spectacular way.

a) they have no external nostrils
b) they have air sacs in their face and chest under their skin which act like bubble wrap, cushioning the impact with the water
c) their eyes are positioned far enough forward on their face to give them binocular vision, which allows them to judge distances accurately

The Typical lifespan is about 17yrs - although some gannets have been recorded to have reached 37 years.

St Kilda - Containers
The inflated dried stomachs of the gannets were used on St Kilda as containers.





The Folklore that tells How the Gannet came to Be into Existence - Ceyx and Alcyone
It is said that Alycone who was the daughter of Aeolus, the king of the winds was married to Ceyx - and that he was quite obstinate and was intent on taking a long trip to consult with an oracle on a state matter. She argued with him that the journey was too dangerous and the seas too stormy. However, the end result was that he went anyway.

Ceyx didnt come back

Ceyx didn't return - he died at sea with the rest of his crew - he was said to be uttering her name as he died. Alycone didn't accept or know for definite that he was dead and night after night she went to the temple of Hera and prayed for his safe return

Hera took pity on Alycone and sent an "apparition"

The goddess Hera got Morpheus the god of sleep to assist her and she arranged for an apparition to appear before Alcyone in the shape and form of that of her late husband who told her that he had died and that her name had been on his lips as he drowned. He asked that she accept this and send him her tears - he didn't want to step into the shadows without them. She held out her hand and asked him to wait for her and said that she would go with him - but he faded into the darkness and was gone.

She Found His Body

The following morning it is said that she walked on the beach and that she saw floating towards her coming to rest on the sand - his body - she held him in her arms and wept and wept. The sight of her - was seen by the gods who took pity and from then Ceyx and Alycone were given new lives - transformed into birds. Ceyx was granted the white wings and yellow head of the gannet - whilst Alycone was given the beautiful colours of the kingfisher.

Gannet and Kingfisher - Ceyx and Alycone

As you probably are aware the gannet frequents entirely different waters to that of the kingfisher - the gannet has the ocean as its habitat and the kingfisher inland riverbanks. It is said however that on lovely still days the two birds meet above the ocean - how romantic is this story?
 
Feedback - All comments welcome Chris@GcwWeb.com