Mike Day is the director of a new film documenting the age old Ness tradition of guga hunting on Sula Sgeir. His team recently gained a rare insight into the men, the hunt and the culture that surrounds the annual journey into the Atlantic for food.
Mike kindly took a little time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for the blog…
TC: How did you hear about the guga hunt and what particularly sparked your interest in making the film about it?
MD: I heard about the hunt from a friend while I was living on my boat and sailing around the west coast making a film about crofting. She wasn’t sure if the hunt still existed and so when I found out that it was still going strong I was very keen to find out more so I came to Ness.
TC: The hunters are normally very secretive or cautious about their tradition especially from “outsiders”, how did you manage to get permission to film the hunt in such detail?
MD: I think there was a lot of trust built on both sides, that and bloody minded perseverance made the film what it is.
TC: Who were your team and did they know what they’d let themselves in for?
MD: The team of five included four sailors and one non sailor, Andy, the producer. Myself and Andy were the only film crew. Andy certainly had no idea what he’d let himself in for in terms of the voyage, it was his first time on a boat and a real baptism of fire to say the least. The four sailors all had a lot of ocean sailing experience but none of us had experienced the continual bad run of weather we got up there on that trip. Confused seas and huge breaking waves swamped us on one occasion and we were knocked over flat in the water. My respect grew enormously for the Niseach men who once rowed and sailed there in open boats, and going right back even without a compass. I regularly thought about that on our 18 hour trips to Sula Sgier.
TC: Could you describe the approach to Sula Sgeir and the island itself? For those who haven’t been it’s hard to appreciate the remoteness and hardships faced by those who hunted there in the past.
MD: The journey isn’t popular with some of the hunters or some of our crew! It is rough up there with the current known as ‘the river’, that’s the first phenomenon you reach, not far north of the Butt. Sometimes it was like hitting a wall, suddenly it all broke lose and the sea just seemed to boil. Then there’s the shallowing bank south of Sula Sgeir within sight of the island, that’s where we found the big waves and the fun usually started. After sailing all night this is also the point where the rock starts to appear through the waves, looking mysterious on the horizon and very desolate. The skies are filled with welcoming guga patrols as you approach and by the time you arrive the skies are thick with birds.
TC: How was the weather and did you sleep on land or on shore? Are there still stone bothies, earwigs and peat fired pots of tea?
MD: I ‘slept’ on our boat, although in reality all I actually did was lie down and get thrown against the wall by the waves for a few hours. We headed for the shelter of North Rona at nights, which it turned out was only sheltered relative to the surrounding seas, which were monstrous. The stone bothies are still there and are well maintained, I heard there were less earwigs now, not sure where they would have gone, I certainly didn’t see one, and there are still peat fired pots of tea.
TC: What are your thoughts on the animal welfare issues raised every year in some quarters? Did you have any issues or reservations with the traditional catch and dispatch process?
The numbers of gannets is rising so I see no conservationist argument against the hunt. As far as the killing method is concerned, I never actually saw it, I’m assured it is swift. I don’t think any method of killing animals is going to be particularly nice, but I’d much rather have my meat free range than from factory farmed animals and mechanised abattoirs.
TC: How would you describe the hunters attitude to their various roles? Does the sense of importance and tradition still remain with them or did it seem like just another job they had to do to earn money?
MD: I think there was a great respect amongst men for the traditions and their ancestors who’ve been there before them. It’s hard to go to Sula Sgier and not be humbled by the history of the hunt and the voyage the men take.
TC: What were your impressions of the Isle of Lewis and the local people in general and did you learn any gaelic along the way?
MD: It was really great to have a chance to spend so much time exploring Lewis and getting to know the people. I didn’t get to learn too much Gaelic unfortunately, but I certainly learnt hardy hardy on this trip!
TC: Now the million dollar question. Did you eat the guga and what did you think?!
I did eat the guga, on Sula Sgeir, and I enjoyed it and ate every morsel of meat, blubber and skin! I was surprised by the meat, it’s really unique and I appreciated tasting this rare flavour.
TC: Finally, will you be back or was it a once in a lifetime event for you?
I’m sure I’ll be back and I look forward to catching up with everyone when I return, it was quite an adventure going on the hunt and making the journey back and forth and we met a lot of great Niseachs along the way.
The Guga Hunters Of Ness will be shown on BBC 2 tonight at 9pm.