20th July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

English teacher’s window on the baby bird hunters and island life

The Guga Hunters by Donald S. Murray, Birlinn, £9.99.

THE little-known practice of catching and eating seabirds is elevated and venerated in this book by Lewis man Donald Murray.

Born and bred in the isle’s northernmost point, Ness, the author is well-placed to interpret the way of life of the guga hunters, the Ness men who still make an annual pilgrimage to the isle of Sulasgeir to catch their prey of guga (young gannets).

Seabirds have been devoured for millennia in coastal areas from Tierra del Fuego to St Kilda, Iceland to Faroe, and were eaten in Shetland too. Mr Murray is at pains to point out that the practice is not as “barbaric” (as described in the Stornoway Gazette) as it may appear.

His book makes lively reading. With personal anecdote and autobiography, humour and adventure, it is part journalism, part myth with poetry in English and Gaelic. The book defies categorisation. The author himself describes it as “an oddball of a book”.

Mr Murray, who has lived in Shetland for three years and is an English teacher at Sandwick Junior High School, draws in lots of Shetland references and the way of life depicted in his book will seem entirely familiar.

He describes days in Lewis in the 1950s and 1960s “when there was nothing to eat but fish, mutton and guga”. Such shortages were well-known in Shetland and sea­birds’ eggs were used in Orkney and Fair Isle well within living memory – the book has illustrations from the Shetland Museum of men lowered down on ropes risking their life to collect seabird eggs from the cliffs. Cormorant, shag and puffin eggs were eaten as gannets, ap­parently, only made an appearance in Shetland in 1911.

The book has stories from Iceland and the Faroes but hinges on Ness, its sights and sounds and characters, whose lives and anecdotes form chapters in the book. These are real people – the young lad, the butcher and the old man, and the book to a certain extent is their stories, interwoven with a lot of research which makes it highly educational.

In particular the book centres on the heroic breed of 10 men who have a special licence to hunt guga, a practice first recorded in 1549. Do they do it to get away from their womenfolk for two weeks or is it a calling? Either way they make the 40-mile boat journey to the isle at the end of August and take chicks at a certain stage of development just as the mother has fattened them up.

The guga hunters are allowed to take 2,000 birds per year which are sold to locals as a delicacy, commanding up to £12 per bird. The hunt is approved by the RSPB, SSPCA and National Trust for Scotland and gannet colonies are reputedly doing well.

Guga seemingly is an acquired taste – something like chicken soaked in cod liver oil – but nevertheless prized, just as the acrobatic young men who catch the birds are admired.

The activity is not for the faint-hearted – the men sometimes have to swarm across a rope pulley to catch birds or hang over 200ft cliffs – and many have fallen to their deaths. Others been lost at sea on the journey.

Mr Murray clearly respects the tradition of his native land but insists his book is “not a dewy-eyed view of the past”.

It is an adult read with a surprisingly broad approach – Greek myths are featured – and in spite of its subject matter would have wide appeal to anyone interested in life on the periphery.

In tandem with the book, Mr Murray has published a pamphlet of poems Praising the Guga. Again, gannets form the central theme of the work and although Mr Murray describes the verses as “doodles in the margin”, they have universal appeal, more than the book, possibly, and are used as a metaphor for aspects of life such as love and leaving home.

His mastery of language in both works is impressive and it is small wonder that Mr Murray has been shortlisted for awards for both his poetry and prose.