The Guga Hunters of Ness: creating the programme

By Mike Day

Director Mike Day takes us behind the lens of his debut film, The Guga Hunters of Ness, an extraordinary account of an ancient Hebridean tradition.

This wasn't an easy film to make, on any level. Sailing into the restless seas of the North Atlantic, our crew were pushed to the limit. The fact that it was my directorial debut only added to the challenge. A colleague joked that I couldn't have proposed a riskier film without heading into a warzone. In retrospect, I agree.

About the guga hunt

Ness is the last place in the British Isles where young gannets, known in Gaelic as guga, are hunted for their meat. In the UK, the hunting of sea birds was outlawed in 1954. The community of Ness on the Isle of Lewis is granted the only exemption under UK and EU law, allowing them to hold their annual hunt.

Every August, ten men from Ness set sail for Sula Sgeir, a desolate island far out in the Atlantic. Following in the footsteps of countless generations, they leave their normal lives behind, journeying through storms and high seas to reach this most remote hunting ground.

The men live on the island for two exhausting weeks, sleeping in stone bothies, which were first constructed by monks over a thousand years ago. They work ceaselessly, catching, killing and processing 2,000 birds, using traditional methods, before returning home with the rare guga meat so cherished by the people of Ness.

Our journey

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Mike Day Interview

An interview with the director of The Guga Hunters of Ness.

The location posed a logistical nightmare. The guga hunt takes place on the island of Sula Sgeir, 40 miles north of Lewis, in the harsh and unforgiving seas of the North Atlantic. It's one of the most difficult places imaginable to film.

I first heard of the guga hunt while researching a film on Scotland's endangered crofting communities. I'd been interested to discover that the average age of a crofter in the Outer Hebrides is reported to be 70. The old world of the crofters appears to be in terminal decline as younger generations abandon the smallholding tradition.

By contrast, I discovered that the time-honoured tradition of the guga hunt is still going strong. Intrigued by this, I immediately headed to Ness to try and film this unique venture. I found that the people of this remote community, known collectively as Niseachs, take great pride in their homeland and traditions.

Changes in Ness

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Changes in Ness

The people of Ness reflect on their changing world.

The population of Ness has halved in the past 50 years. Derelict houses and dwindling school rolls serve as a constant reminder that this is an ageing community. As numbers have reduced, the Niseachs have faced a new phenomenon: incomers. The isolation which drove locals away has attracted mainlanders looking to escape their urban lifestyles. Due to this migration, English is increasingly spoken in place of the native Gaelic, especially amongst younger people.

Against this backdrop of change, the guga hunt has even more symbolic value; it has come to represent Niseach pride and embody their sense of identity. For the hunters themselves, going to Sula Sgeir is like taking a journey back through time to a land without mobile phones or internet, where Gaelic is the dominant tongue.

Ness has never been an easy place to reside or from where to glean a living. Many of Ness's traditions were born of necessity for survival; none more so than the guga hunt. When fish shoals didn't arrive and crops failed, the guga were always guaranteed to be there as a source of sustenance. This treacherous voyage far out into the Atlantic, to catch the harvest of Sula Sgeir, is testimony to past austerity. It is not, as our crew found out the hard way, an easy journey.

The local fishing industry

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Fishermen of Ness

Ness fishermen reflect on the state of their industry.

The team

I was the first person to be allowed to film the hunt in 50 years. Gaining permission was a challenge in itself. During discussions with the hunters, I agreed to three conditions: not to film the killing, that it would only be me and not a film crew on the island, and that I would be there in my own boat and not stay on the island.

Now, producer Andy Maas and I had to figure out how to pull off this logistical feat. I was living on a boat at the time, moving from place to place in the Western Isles, carrying out film research. It was clear my own boat wouldn't stand up to the pounding seas of the North Atlantic. Raising funds from investors, we chartered a sailing vessel which would allow us to stay out at sea for long periods and provide a place to sleep and an offshore production office.

I invited my brother Matt to skipper the boat. We grew up sailing together and have competed jointly in long-distance ocean races, including the notorious Sydney to Hobart in Australia. I knew I could trust my brother to keep charge of the boat while I was filming on the island. Matt flew back from the Far East, where he was serving on a ship as an officer cadet, to help with the film.

Aaron Sterritt was the next addition to the crew. He was responsible for getting me and the camera equipment onto Sula Sgeir in a dinghy. No easy task in the wild, choppy conditions. Aaron has thousands of miles of ocean-sailing experience; he had recently sailed the Pacific from New Zealand to Panama.

Marine engineer Will Brown completed our team. He has a lot of sailing experience and more importantly is a dab hand with engines. Ultimately, his repairs saved us and the film. Without him the project would have ended in disaster.

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Behind the Scenes

The making of The Guga Hunters of Ness.

Sula Sgeir

Very few people have ever set eyes on Sula Sgeir, let alone set foot on it. The island is scattered with monuments to past generations of hunters, stretching back beyond recorded history. Landing on the island and witnessing the hunt left me awestruck; pushing 'record' on the camera for the first time was an incredible moment.

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On the Island

Sula Sgeir, a desolate island far out in the Atlantic.

A revolutionary filming technique

I shot the film using a revolutionary system: 35mm still photography lenses attached onto an HD video camera. The image from the lenses is projected onto a spinning glass disk in a special adaptor which is then filmed in HD by the camera via a series of prisms and filters. This gave the film a rich cinematic look. Constantly changing the lenses was not easy in the extreme conditions of the North Atlantic, but I think it was worth the effort. I'm very proud of the resulting look.

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Filming the Guga Hunt

Discover how prime lenses enhanced the look of the film.

After enduring gale after gale in enormous seas kicked up by a hurricane off the east coast of America, we came home with an extraordinary film. Many times it looked like we might not make it, but in the end perseverance paid off and we returned to port with the first film of this unique tradition in 50 years.

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