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The centuries-old journey to harvest a controversial and divisive Hebridean seabird delicacy

17 January 2018

The men from Ness with their haul of guga

Every August ten men from Ness in the north of Lewis set sail on an expedition that their fathers and grandfathers took before them.

They travel for almost 40 miles across the North Atlantic to the remote, uninhabited island of Sula Sgeir where they spend 10 days harvesting up to 2000 young gannets, known as guga.

“I’ve smelt the guga since I was a year old,” says leader of the hunt Dods Macfarlane on Sulaisgeir. “I was destined to go.”

It’s repetitive back-breaking work for the men, who scale the island’s wind-battered cliffs from dawn until dusk.

Each bird is lifted from the rock by a grabber on a pole, and then clubbed on the back of the head.

A controversial practice

The guga hunt receives an annual licence from Scottish Natural Heritage that allows them to collect the birds, but the practice is not without its critics.

Animal welfare charities have in the past raised objections to the hunt.

“Some people say we are cruel; hunting the birds,” says Dods. “[But] from when you catch the bird until it’s killed, only takes 2-3 seconds.”

The guga meat is salted on Sula Sgeir and on return to Lewis, where it’s washed, repeatedly boiled and served only with potatoes.

But even back on land, the debate continues, as guga seems to split people firmly into two camps: you either like it or you don’t.

For some, it tastes like salted mackerel, while others have described it as “somewhere between rotten leather and fishy beef”.

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