Dried young gannet chicks will apparently test the stomach of the uninitiated, which is why this pungent delicacy is only eaten (and somehow enjoyed) in a small corner of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. But as academic, blogger and proud Scotsman Fraser McDonald wrote in a recent blog, seclusion hasn’t shielded the practice from misguided global outrage.
Not for the first time, the prospect of eating a pungent young guga has activated the gag reflex. The chick of the Northern gannet might be a delicacy to the people of Ness at the northern tip of the Outer Hebrides, but the spectacle of their recently convened World guga eating championship has provoked disgust amongst the more than 74 000 petitioners from around the world who have called for its prohibition.
To be sure, the piquancy of a guga is not universally appreciated, but the act of its consumption gives us a rare point of connection with the social lives of our prehistoric forebears. Not that this cuts any ice with the protesters.
In one of the more restrained remarks on the petition site, Jeannine Bolink from the Netherlands posted this as comment #71654:
“Stop this insane, monstrous and animal-unfriendly chick eating contest in Scotland! We are not in [the] middle ages anymore and idiotic things like this must be stopped and should be forbidden!”
In fact, the Ness tradition of collecting gannets from the rocky islet of Sùla Sgeir is rather older than the Middle Ages. The first written confirmation dates to 1549 when Donald Monro, Dean of Isles, noted how the men sailed to ‘fetche hame thair boatful of dry wild fowls’.
Prehistoric evidence from elsewhere in the archipelago suggests a practice with roots at least as far back as the Iron Age.
For the people of Ness, the expression of international outrage at their diet has itself become something of a tradition. One early opponent was the influential biologist Sir Julian Huxley, a founder of the World Wildlife Fund, who told readers of the Geographical Magazine in 1939 that he hoped:
“ …that public opinion and the county council will soon put a stop to this practice.”
The Niseachs, as they are known, have enjoyed a unique exemption from the ordinary protection afforded to sea birds in UK and EU law. Despite the unyielding opposition from the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, they are licenced to catch up to 2000 chicks a year.
Given this past controversy, some might argue that the inauguration of a new ‘championship’ — the idea of the Ness FC football team — was a little provocative. But the furore is apt to eclipse the wider significance of the hunt as a unique vestige of Scotland’s pre-modern relationship with the natural world.
Sùla Sgeir might be the last example of its kind, but it stands in for what is now an extinct way of life that stretched across island communities from the Hebrides to the Northern Isles and the Faroes, and even up to Iceland.
The guga harvest is a living remnant of a world where the lives of its avian and human inhabitants were completely entwined; and where the ancient practice of hunting depended on an intuitive knowledge of other animals — even if this was rarely admitted to the annals of western science. For the anthropologist Tim Ingold, a professor at the University of Aberdeen and a specialist on hunter-gatherers, the hunter’s knowledge of an animal was quite different from that of us modern subjects.
Ingold contrasts the scientific understanding of an animal with the intimate knowledge of the hunter, a knowledge which he claims is ‘as we would we speak of it in relation to persons’.
To know an animal, in other words, was to know their tastes, patterns, moods and quirks. And as a model of animal-human relations, this is rather at odds with the spectatorial gaze of the modern environmentalist.
It is also an ancient form of knowledge which has often been devalued. In St Kilda for instance, Britain’s most famous seafowling community, one gentleman naturalist complained that the islanders had little knowledge of birds; they simply ate them.
Had St Kilda not been depopulated in 1930, the current allegation of ‘wildlife crime’ would likely have been directed there. Puffin, Manx shearwater, razorbill, guillemot, shag, cormorant, fulmar and kittiwake were all subject to the vertiginous art of the fowler.
A rather melancholier addition to that list is, of course, the great auk — the last, luckless specimen of which, under suspicion of witchcraft, was clubbed by three St Kildans in 1844.
But this kind of subsistence human predation has not proved to be a long-term threat to these other species. The gannet is now one of the most surveyed birds in Scotland and the evidence from extensive counts throughout the twentieth century points to a remarkable six fold increase, from 30 000 in 1902 to over 180 000 in 2003.
Even with the annual harvest of 2000 chicks, the gannet population of Sùla Sgeir has still doubled in the same period. All of this might provide some explanation for why neither SNH nor the RSPB have raised any objection to hunt.
The inaugural World Guga Eating Championship may not be a judgement in good taste, but it draws our attention, even if inadvertently, to something bigger than a football club night out.
It raises questions about how, in the twenty-first century, we can remember this aspect of the vital struggle for survival on our Atlantic coasts. Though we may be happy to have the St Kildan bird-eaters on the back of one of our five-pound notes, the living embodiment on this custom has proved rather more controversial.
The new competitive element, however, is an innovation that arguably runs against the grain of a tradition that was always about sufficiency rather than excess. Some islanders may think that the entertainment was scarcely worth the international outcry.
A more charitable interpretation is that Ness FC were only guilty of taking their tradition a bit too seriously: to eat as much and as fast as you can suggests, at the very least, an over identification with this particular quarry.