A leader in Scotland on Sunday, remarkable both in its six-line brevity and in its esoteric subject, caught the eye yesterday. Glasdelphia was agog with Pittmania and Tripoli was slipping from Ghaddafi’s feverish grip. But this leader was about a topic so obscure that few Scots can know the story—whether an unassuming man from Port of Ness and nine chosen others can continue do what his Nessmen forebears have done since they were subjects of a Viking Earl of Orkney.
For the last two decades, Dods McFarlane has led the annual guga hunt to ‘The Rock’ in late August. Gugas are this year’s gannet chicks ready to fledge. Fed, to a bouncing 3kg or more, they make a meal rich in fat and protein. After the 1869 Preservation of Seabirds Act, 1930’s evacuation of St Kilda left Ness as the last place to harvest birds. Even the new 1954 Act preserved their right to take 2,000 guga.
As you can imagine, such practice sits ill with crusaders of RSPB and SNH. They see this as wanton destruction of the natural habitat by cruel methods. I may be wrong in this but I imagine that the 99% of Scots who have either never seen the business end of a gannet or who class any hunting with Scotland’s exclusive shooting estates would side with such well intentioned environmentalists. But they shouldn’t.
Before explaining why, let me say that gannets are magnificent—the largest seabird in the North Atlantic, a graceful, two-metre wingspan carrying a teardrop-streamlined body, tipped with penetrating golden eyes and a wicked 10cm beak. As embodiment of natural elegance or an exercise in distance flying aerodynamics, they are hard to beat. They are also fearless and devoted parents, migrating to Africa only after their one chick has fledged and left. No one who knows gannets would go near without expecting fierce attacks from those beaks. Other birds may fly off but gannets will fiercely defend nest and chick against all comers—including other gannets.
The combination of fierceness with protection means that gannets are not a threatened species. Bass Rock went from 10,000 to almost 140,000 in fifty years. What IS a threatened species is the group of men that Dods leads forty miles out from the Butt of Lewis to spend a week on Sulasgeir (‘Gannet Rock’ in Norse) collecting the haul. It is an epic of fortitude, skill, teamwork and understanding that is—quite rightly—seen as a rite of passage by the young men of Ness. Nothing expands understanding like exposure to nature in the raw; nothing binds people together like shared danger. Both are now rare in our over-cultured Western lifestyle.
The trip to Sulasgeir is full of both.
Leaving in the dark in a local trawler, they land at dawn on the bare rock and offload water, peat, supplies and precious few personal items in Geodha a Phuill Bhain, the most sheltered corner that passes for a harbour. Landed and alone with themselves, they drag everything 50m up to the waist of the bare island to where the shells of beehive bothies stand. Using tarpaulins, fishing net and stones to weigh the roofs down, they make them watertight. All this is done in the middle of 30,000 gannets pecking at them and 20,000 fulmars who spit a pungent, clinging oil at anyone who comes near them.
For the next week, teams of surefooted hunters scramble the cliffs of Sulasgeir—one roped for safety uses a fowling pole to snare a mature guga by the neck, lift and swing it to the other team member on steadier ground who kills and releases its limp body. These men are not free climbing in bare feet at 2,000ft above the sea, as St Kildans once did. But it takes guts and skill that few would find in themselves.
As the gugas are brought to the ‘village’ another team plucks the feathers and still another passes the plucked bird through the flames of a peat fire to singe off any remaining down. Then each guga is spilt open, gutted and placed neatly in a circular pile resembling a broch, a special pickling liquid poured in the middle to preserve them and left to percolate for the balance of the trip. After a week, everything is dismantled and lugged back down to the returned trawler.
One or other passage, whether to or from, is always rough, the seas being those of the wide Atlantic. Yet the ten return home, not as heroes but simply as men of integrity, contributors, proud of what they have done with little fuss, bonded together through their ordeal on unforgiving rock under fierce weathers and the interdependence they share. There are no fanfares; there are no media. On the pier at Ness the gugas are apportioned evenly and made ready for sale, along with crabs, lobsters and what long lines have caught.
It matters little whether you share their taste for this delicacy (“somewhere between chicken and kippers” is the description). Unless we all go vegan, factory farming will fill our supermarket shelves with meats and meat products. We define that as ‘humane’ because it conveniently supplies us with cheap food. Does that make us so civilised that there’s no place for modest ritual of man against nature, that allows successive generations to relive their common history. As well as gugas, each Nessman fills his store of tales to relate as a source of pride in who he is and where he is from. By what right should pencil-pushers in Inverness or Edinburgh be able to take all that away?