Guga Hunting – A Non-Contaminated Tradition

Written by Neil Gow on . Posted in food

Guga Hunting – A Non-Contaminated Tradition

Flandrin and Montanari assert, Every culture is contaminated; every tradition is a child of history, and history is never static. Looking at this from a present day semantic perspective this would appear to hold true.

Todays current events become tomorrows historical ones. From a global perspective the statistical probability that what occurred today will repeat itself tomorrow, a veritable ground hog day, is so small that the assertion history is never static can be made with a high degree of assurance. By defining tradition as the passing of elements of a culture or religious beliefs from generation to generation, especially by oral communication, a case can be made for the parental role of history in the formulation and nurturing of a cultures traditions.

Assuming that not all contamination is malicious, the current level of globalisation and social interconnectedness has driven the possibility of culture isolation to the furthest extremes of the Amazonian rain forest or Papua New Guinean highlands. Given this assertion that nothing realistically can be fixed or unchanging, we need to accept culture and tradition as a moveable element, à la Flandrin and Montanari, dynamic and open to contestation.

Doing so however requires a new definition of culture and tradition. Rather than gauge a tradition and its underlying cultural drivers by its levels of historical stasis it needs to be defined in terms of the impact of internal and external influences over time. Put another way, having agreed that change is inevitable, have sufficient elements of the tradition and the cultural genesis been carried through unchanged to the present day to defend contestation? Are the ideological mechanics of the food tradition and the cultural drivers the same? Has sufficient purity been retained?

One significant challenge to defining tradition in this way is that it is often not easy to dissect many macro-istic traditions.  The level of flux and the degree that discrete influences (social, political, religious, economic, logistical etc.) intertwine make discerning discrete impacts very difficult. To simplify the task, a geographically isolated and very socially-oriented event can be used to both illustrate the definition at work as well as provide a real world example of a food tradition.

One such food tradition is the Guga hunt by the men of the community of Ness or Niseachs. Ness, at the Northern end of the Isle of Lewis off the coast of Scotland, is the most North Westerly community of the European Union and has a population of approximately 1300, 75% of whom are able to speak Gaelic.

Guga is the Gaelic form of gannet, and refers specifically to the meat of an almost fully-grown gannet chick. The flesh of this bird and a much wider range of seabirds graced the tables the length and breadth of Scotland from Royalty downwards.

While Guga was, and still is, considered an acquired taste it was at one time a favourite with the wealthy as a “whet” or appetiser between main meals. Today, having fallen victim to changing social attitudes and legislative constraints, the eating of this bird is reserved for and preserved by the Niseachs.

What makes Guga Hunting tradition exceptional

However what makes this tradition all the more exceptional in this day and age is not just the rarity of the activity but the nature of the harvest itself. Every year, ten selected men from Ness sail Northeast to a remote uninhabited rock called Sulasgeir in the North Atlantic. For two weeks, in total isolation, these ten men work, through highly unpredictable weather, to catch the birds nesting on the two hundred foot sheer cliffs of the island.

Living out of stone botheys, hundreds of years old, and working under extremely primitive conditions, the men prepare and salt the birds on the island and transport them back to Ness to share with the community. Each of the ten is allocated a quota to sell and the demand is often so high that the birds need to be rationed to ensure everyone that wishes to can partake of the delicacy – “A food has no meaning if a man does not give it meaning by willingly eating it” (Tremonlières 1970: 286). In 2009, a single Guga fetched £16 ($30).

Guga Hunting Tradition – Video

The actual origins of the hunt are obscure.  One of the earliest accounts written by a clergyman, Donald Munro, dates from 1549 but the tradition is thought to have been in existence for centuries before then. Like many food-based traditions Guga hunting is thought to have originated from a nutritional necessity.

The remoteness and agricultural sparseness of Ness put, and still does to a degree, significant limitations on its ability to sustain a community. While contemporary options to augment the diet are significantly wider, those over 100 years ago were not, and seabirds were, as they were for many other cultures, an obvious choice. Preserving the birds with salt, a tradition carried through to this day though somewhat unnecessary with the advent of refrigeration, enabled this harvest to carry the community through the long and bleak Northern Scottish winters.

Of all the influences on this tradition, the social element is one that has perhaps changed the least over time. While the physical dependency on the actual Guga itself may have gone, the underlying social element appears to be as strong as ever in a number of key areas. Firstly, the event itself remains very much a rite of passage and sole preserve for the selected young men of Ness.

There is a very strong generational and communal bond for those who have participated and those who continue to participate. In deference to many such rites, once an invitation is extended in the community to participate (and there is no shortage of volunteers willing to accept) the individual will typically continue the tradition until they are no long physically able to participate in the harvest.

The current leader of the harvest has participated in the tradition for nearly 40 years and easily recounts tales of his great-grandfather’s participation. As well as the emotional bond that forms there is the additional fraternalism of those that undertake perilous acts.

The journey to the island itself requires a significant degree of physical courage, not forsaking that required to toil on 200 feet cliffs in unpredictable weather for extended periods. Once on the island the men undertake the work required under a quasi-secretive ritualistic basis. All the roles are physically demanding and are assigned based on age and experience, with a distinct hierarchy.

This hierarchy is formulated by the age of the tradition itself, and while the tools and foods that accompany the men may have changed, activities themselves are still deeply rooted in history.

While the physicality of the tradition is centered on the ten men’s two-week trip to the island, the social element is also particularly strong in the actual community of Ness. While the local population has declined by over 50% in recent years as the younger generation depart for the mainland and in turn are supplanted by “white settlers”, the bond seems to be ever more important in what defines and keeps the Ness community together.

The final rite of passage being to acquire a taste for the Guga itself, the act of cooking and eating the bird extends the bond of the ten men of the harvest to the entire community reinforcing their sense of identify beyond the use of Gaelic as first language, typical of the Northern Isles of Scotland – a point towards “Mary Douglas’ consideration of a meal as a kind of structured language”.

In recent times many food related traditions have fallen victim to bureaucratic intervention or well intended but misdirected policy making – unpasteurised cheese making being a case in point. The net effect is potentially severe compromises of historical identity or the complete severing of a cultural connection. By active political campaigning the Guga hunt has to date escaped the ever increasing net of government regulation and legislation at both a national and European level. The island of Sulasgeir is unique across the European Union in that an annual cull is allowed.

Each year the men of Ness are licensed to kill 2000 young birds during their two-week harvest. This number is set each year by the Scottish Executive, and while the hunt itself continually attracts the attention of animal lobbyists, to date they have been unsuccessful in forcing a change. One consistent issue for the protagonists is the nature of how the birds are killed – from this perspective the tradition stands the test of time as the implements used today have changed little over time and are continually held up to be the most humane and effective way of killing the birds.

The externally mandated control of the number of birds harvested has brought about a subtle if not significant change. Previously the men had to brave working roped together on the sheer cliffs to catch the nesting birds.

In recent times, such is the size of current population, that a large number of birds can be harvested on the flat topped crags of the islands as no room is left on cliff faces. Interestingly, this change is viewed as “taking some of the fun away”, as working the cliffs is still is seen as an intrinsic part of the harvest.

The northern part of the Western Isles, particularly Harris and Lewis, have been described as the last bastion of Calvinism in Britain, with large numbers of the population belonging to the Free Church of Scotland or the still more conservative Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Neither of these churches has a prescribing influence over what its adherents eat, unlike the overwhelmingly Catholic southern Island, but they have had and continue to have a very strong influence on Sabbath-based activities.

In the age of increasing secularism in mainstream Judeo-Christian cultures, such as the UK, it is noteworthy that this influence extends to the two weeks the men of Ness spend on Sualsgair. No work is permitted on a Sunday and the men pass the day in quite reflection and a layperson service is performed in Gaelic.

Logistically, the harvest has evolved over time. Where once the men rowed the 40 miles in open boats they now make the overnight trip in a fishing trawler, though this change is less than 50 years old. While this more modern transportation method has diminished to a degree an element of the rite of passage to the island, the unpredictability of the North Atlantic is still not something to be taken lightly.

The accommodation on the island and the tools themselves have changed little in generations and while blowtorches make easier work of preparing the birds, the fat from the gutted birds is still used as the main source of fuel for everything else. In this and many other small details an historical linkage exists to the first days of the Guga harvest over a thousand years ago.

One slightly ironical twist to the evolution of the tradition is the escapist element shared by modern day participants. To many, the two weeks on enforced isolation are seen as a welcome break from the pressures of work. Even for a community still highly agrarian and singularly free of the majority of the “rat race” pressures that are the bane of many members of modern society, the Suaslgair trip allows these men time out from daily lives and delivers an almost therapeutic experience.

A modern external influence unbeknownst to prior generations of Niseachs and of Rapport’s three contesting food ideologies, a more spiritualistic one has supplanted nutritionalism, though without the inherent focus on restriction and abstinence.

By way of examining the recurring impact of each major influence in turn it has been possible to identify what changes and divergences have occurred and the magnitude of their impact. This analysis contends that this tradition is not contestable and a significant degree of “purity” has been retained. Aside from the historical precedent as a nutritional supplement, the Guga harvest has hardly evolved at all and only in the extent of what is in the control of the community.

While forsaking open rowing boats and certain modern world amenities the experience today bears a remarkable resemblance to that written in 1549. Arguably the brevity, obscurity and isolation of the event is a major contributing factor – Guga is not found in the Slow Food Ark of Taste – but the cultural contamination that Flandrin and Montanari speak of has had little impact in changing this tradition.

The parochial nature and acquired taste of the tradition has preserved it from globalisation and an ethnic label, “ethnic cuisine only becomes a self-conscious, subjective reality when ethnic boundaries are crossed” (van Ber Bergehe’s 1984:395). In fact the reverse is true, faced with a dwindling community and an ever-increasing number of incomers, the Guga harvest is held to be a defining aspect of the community and a preserver of its cultural identity. A view upheld by the British Parliament in its 1954 legislation – “the Niseachs are different to other people around Britain, in that Gannets play a central role in their life.”

References 

[1] Flandrin, JL & Montanari M 1999, Conclusion: ‘Today and tomorrow’, in JL Flandrin, M Montanari & A Sonnenfeld (eds), Food: A culinary history from antiquity to the present, Columbia University Press, Chichester, p. 55

[2] Murray, S Wanless S & Harris M P, 2006, The status of the northern Gannet in Scotland in 2003-04 p.27, Scottish Birds – Journal of the SOC Volume 26, June 2006

[3] Murray, DS, 2008, The Guga Hunters, Birlinn Limited, ISBN: 9781841586847

[4] Monro, Sir Donald (1549) A Description Of The Western Isles of Scotland. Appin Regiment/Appin Historical Society. Retrieved 3 March 2007. First published in by William Auld, Edinburgh 1774

[5] Jones, M 2007, Feast: why humans share food, Oxford University Press, Oxford; New York, pp. P42

[6] Murcott, A 1999, ‘Scarcity in abundance: food and non-food.’, Social Research, vol. 66, no. 1, pp. 309

[7] Rappoport, L 2003, ‘Chapter 4. The McDonaldization of taste’, in How we eat: appetite, culture and the psychology of food, ECW Press, Toronto, pp. 107-130

[8] Van den Berghe, P 1984, ‘Ethnic cuisine: culture in nature’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 387-397.

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Neil Gow

Neil Gow

Neil lives in Sydney, Australia and enjoys just about everything gastronomic. Originally from Scotland he has worked in most places at various times until settling in Australia in 2000. His work takes him to Asia and India including trips to the US and Europe. Useful research as he is currently studying for his Masters in Gastronomic Tourism.

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