Guga Hunters - Ness - Isle of Lewis - Western Isles - Outer Hebrides
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.
Traditions - Isle of Lewis - Guga Hunters
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
Protection of Birds Act 1954 - Ness men permitted guga Hunt
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 & Rocks Used to Catch & 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 - Whole Process is Pain free & 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.
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.
Gannet in Flight - Close up of Head
Gannet near St Kilda - Boreray
Gannets Nesting at Boreray - St Kilda
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 chutes - 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.
So powerful the adult gannets