GUGA by Scott Hatton - Guga le Scott Hatton
Some 40 miles north of Lewis lie two remote islands, North Rona and Sulasgeir. Rona is the larger of the two islands and boasts a green salt-seasoned sward. It was once populated mainly by residents who looked after sheep placed on the island for fattening. Sir James Matheson, who bought Lewis in 1844, once offered the island to the Government for use as a penal settlement, a kind of British Devil's Island. The offer was refused. But it is Sulasgeir, which has a special place in the seafaring history of the men of Ness on the Isle of Lewis. Though often called an island it is, in fact, little more than a large sea rock. There is scarcely any soil on Sulasgeir. That lack is made up by the rock's role as one of the most important breeding grounds for gannets, with some 9000 breeding pairs on Sulasgeir, which they share with other bird species such as kittiwakes, guillemots, puffins, Leach's petrel and fulmars. The rock's name sula (solan goose) and sgeir (rock) gives the clue for the importance for Ness.
One of the earliest accounts written about the Western Isles was by Dean Munro, who visited the islands in 1549. His description of Sulasgeir mentions that the men of Ness sailed in their small craft to "fetche hame thair boatful of dry wild fowls with wild fowl fedderis". How long before 1549 the Nessmen sailed to Sulasgeir each year to collect the young gannets for food and feathers is not known, but it may be assumed that it was a tradition for centuries. That tradition is still carried on today. A report written in 1797 says: 'There is in Ness a most venturous set of people who for a few years back, at the hazard of their lives, went there in an open six-oared boat without even the aid of a compass'. Excellent seamanship was certainly essential for the success of these expeditions - rowing across miles of turbulent Atlantic was no pleasure cruise.
The flesh of the young gannet or 'guga' is regarded as a delicacy in Ness today though, for others, it is an acquired taste. Even so, it was a popular meat in earlier times in Scotland. In the sixteenth century it was served at the tables of Scots kings and was a favourite with the wealthy as a 'whet' or appetizer before main meals. In the autumn of each year, a hardy team of Nessmen set sail for Sulasgeir to kill around 2000 young birds and bring home their catch about two weeks later, to meet an eager crowd of customers, who snap up as many of the birds as they can. The demand is often so great that the birds have to be rationed out to ensure that each person does not go without a taste of guga.
The annual cull of birds has been the focus of attention of bird protectionists, who recently have tried to ban the cull completely. But tradition dies hard and the Sulasgeir trip still goes on, with a special dispensation written into the 1954 Wild Birds Protection Act by a Statutory Order, which allows the Nessmen to continue their taste both for adventure and for the guga.