Highlands & Islands

Gaga for guga: Ten things on Scottish island delicacy

Gannet Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Guga are the chicks of gannet, a seabird found around the UK's coast

The first World Guga Eating Championship is to be held later but, for those not in the know, what is it all about?

1. Guga are gannet chicks. About 2,000 of the young seabirds are taken from the tiny island of Sula Sgeir, about 40 miles (64km) north of Ness on Lewis, to be eaten as a delicacy.

Done in August, the harvest is Scotland's last surviving guga hunt. It has taken place for centuries.

Modern hunts are permitted under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Sula Sgeir has about 9,000 to 10,000 pairs of gannets, according to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). The government agency has described the annual hunt as "sustainable".

2. Gannet can be found elsewhere in the UK. The biggest mainland colony is at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire.

Troup Head on the Aberdeenshire coast is home to another large colony, while offshore the birds gather in numbers on St Kilda, the Northern Isles and Bass Rock in Scotland and Grassholm in Wales.

The RSPB estimates that the UK has 220,000 nests.

Their scientific name is Morus bassanus and the birds are members of the boobies and gannets family.

Image caption The hunt on Sula Sgeir is permitted under the Wildlife and Countryside Act

3. Ten men from Ness take part in the Sula Sgeir hunt. The hunters spend 10 days harvesting the chicks.

Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil has said the hunt has "legendary status" and was similar to activities on Iceland and the Faroes that perhaps started at the time of the Vikings.

4. But the hunt has its critics. The Scottish SPCA has described the method used to kill the birds - a blow to the head - as "cruel" and "barbaric".

The animal welfare charity has made frequent calls for the harvest to be banned.

Responding to calls in 2011 for it to be outlawed, hunt leader John MacFarlane said grouse shooting caused birds greater suffering but the SSPCA was not calling for shoots to be banned.

Mr MacFarlane said guga taken were dead within two to three seconds of being caught and struck on the head.

He added: "Rich people can go and shoot and maim birds and deer and nobody says a word about them. Why?"

5. Lady Guga? Aristocracy and a celebrity chef have been among those to have tried the meat.

Edinburgh-born Rachel Chiesley, who became Lady Grange on marrying James Erskine, Lord Grange, encountered guga while living among hunters and their families on Hirta in the St Kilda archipelago in the 1700s.

Lord Grange was secretly sympathetic to the Jacobite cause against the government.

Fearing his estranged wife would expose him to the authorities, he had her kidnapped and taken to North Uist and then remote St Kilda.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Gordon Ramsay cooked guga on one of his TV shows

Erskine claimed she had died and even a funeral was held.

The lady remained in exile for almost 10 years living among the islands' fisher folk and guga hunters. She spent her last years on Skye.

Dr Samuel Johnson, who produced the original Dictionary Of The English Language, is said to have told St Kilda's landlord that he might make his islands profitable if he let it be known they were a place for "naughty ladies".

More recently, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay tried guga on his cooking show the F Word.

In 2010, Musa in Aberdeen was described as the first restaurant in the UK to offer the delicacy on its menu.

However, Lewisians - those living on the isle and abroad in countries such as New Zealand - and other islanders are the main consumers of it, traditionally cooking and eating it at home.

6. The inaugural World Guga Eating Championship takes place in Ness on Lewis later on Saturday.

7. It is to be held in Ness FC Social Club and the competition could become an annual event.

Donald MacSween, one of the organisers, said he expected the first championship to be oversubscribed.

8. The event is being held as a celebration of the traditions of harvesting and eating guga.

9. Contestants must eat half a guga and a portion of potatoes. The winner is the person who can finish the meal in the shortest time.

10. How the meat tastes could be a challenge to some. It has been described as tasting like a cross between kipper and steak or "salty goose" and, less flatteringly, as "rotten leather and fishy beef".

Other descriptions have included it being like a mix of "anchovy paste and high-strength cod liver oil".

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