Life of the Hebridean guga hunters revealed in new TV show

Veteran guga hunter Dods MacPh�rlain at Sulaisgeir. PIC: MacTV/BBC Alba.
Veteran guga hunter Dods MacPh�rlain at Sulaisgeir. PIC: MacTV/BBC Alba.
0
Have your say

A new documentary will shed light on the controversial guga hunters of the Hebrides who kill 2,000 young seabirds every summer on a remote Atlantic outcrop in an annual ritual that was first recorded in the 16th Century.

Crews follow the 10 men from Ness, Lewis, as they venture to Sùlaisgeir for the cull which the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) has opposed for several years on welfare grounds.

The guga hunters with their stack of 2,000 salted guga at the end of their two-week hunting trip. PIC: MacTV/BBC Alba.

The guga hunters with their stack of 2,000 salted guga at the end of their two-week hunting trip. PIC: MacTV/BBC Alba.

The film features Dods MacPhárlain, who holds the licence for the hunt, as he embarks on his 42nd - and final - trip to Sùlaisgeir.

READ MORE: Scotland’s “last penguin” killed over fears it was a witch

He said: “I’ve smelt the guga since I was a year old so I was destined to go. It means so much to me. That’s probably why I have been going for over 40 years, It’s a tradition which spans centuries.

“As we sail out, I feel the draw of the island.”

The cliff-top hunting ground. PIC: MacTV/BBC Alba.

The cliff-top hunting ground. PIC: MacTV/BBC Alba.

After the team arrive ashore following a five-hour boat trip, they set up their camp, covering a bothy with tarpaulin and building a chute and pulley system so they can move equipment and dead birds up and down the soaring cliffs.

A radio transmitter is put up to allow contact with home. The “factory” where the birds are plucked, put into a fire to remove their down, scrubbed and fired again with a blow torch before being preserved with salt, is also set out.

READ MORE: The emigrant islanders who took the Hebrides to Detroit

The film gives rare access to the guga hunters who read from the Bible twice a day, sleep top to tail and hold a barbeque of guga, dipped in madras powder, and whisky on their last night.

A break from the hunt with the pole used for grabbing the birds on show. PIC: MacTV/BBC Alba.

A break from the hunt with the pole used for grabbing the birds on show. PIC: MacTV/BBC Alba.

The hunters are given a licence by Scottish Natural Heritage to kill 2,000 young guga, or young gannets, on every year with the hunt the last of its kind in the UK.

The birds are pulled from the cliffside by their necks when aged around three months old.

A long pole with a clip is used to catch the bird before it is quickly stunned by hitting it on the back of the head with a stick. It is then beheaded.

The guga meat is considered a delicacy by some with the bird remaining a popular dish in Lewis with some sold abroad.

This year, the trip was tainted after death threats were made against a local newspaper reporter and the hunters, according to the programme.

The film documents a message relayed to the island that ‘if you don’t stop killing the birds on you’ll Sùlaisgeir all be shot once you come back.”

The call was apparently made from Bournemouth, according to the film, with the police called in to investigate.

Mr MacPhárlain said: “That’s frighting news. I’m stunned by that news, I have never heard anything like that before. That’s really frightening.

“We aren’t doing anything illegal. We have a licence from Scottish Natural Heritage to do this and we are going to do it.”

A spokesman for Police Scotland said no further action had been taken over the alleged threat.

An officer for the SSPCA told the documentary, made by MacTV, that it objected to the guga hunt “purely on the grounds of welfare.”

He said: “We don’t like the fact that it is said it is done because of tradition. It was a tradition throughout the UK. Bass Rock had lost of seabirds taken for human consumption but if you did that now you could be prosecuted and could be jailed.

“Our main concern is the method used. It is not a humane method. If they could come up with a humane method, our opposition would be gone.”

- The Hunt will air on BBC Alba on January 1 at 9pm with a further programme on Monday 8 at the same time.