Islands aren’t always synonymous with isolation, and a tightly grouped archipelago can create a shared sense of identity. Sometimes that relationship results in a hierarchy, where islands like Streymoy or Eysturoy in the Faroe Islands are referred to as the “mainland” when compared with the smaller outliers. In other places, like the Aleutian Islands, the chain of siblings is so long that they’re often lumped together as a whole.
In contrast, the tiny island of Sula Sgeir sits truly alone. Technically part of the British Isles, it’s separated from its nearest inhabited neighbor by 40 miles of rough North Atlantic sea. But despite that distance there is a strong tie between the island and the distant village of Ness. Sula Sgeir is a plentiful breeding ground for northern gannets — and every year, for centuries, a small group of men spends two weeks on the island hunting them.
I learned about the annual hunt from the BBC feature documentary The Guga Hunters of Ness, written and directed by Mike Day. In Highland English the word “guga” refers to a young gannet, and while the practice of hunting these birds has been restricted elsewhere in the UK and EU, the men of Ness are afforded an exemption and allowed to take 2,000 birds a year from Sula Sgeir. The film documents their lives in Ness and follows their excursion as they are ferried north to the island and dropped off for a fortnight of isolation and hard work.
Ness, on the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, is home to 1,300 people. It’s an isolated community, and the film highlights the decreasing number of crofters in recent years as younger people move away in search of economic opportunity. But it’s also a place with deep traditions, and the men we follow on their annual hunt seem to do it as much for this connection to their past as they do for the delicacy of the guga meat. There’s also a more modern motivation: spending two weeks without the distraction of cell phone service.
The connection to the past is reinforced by how the film intersperses clips from Adventure Sulisgeir, a black and white BBC documentary from 1962 that captured a remarkably similar hunt on Sula Sgeir nearly 50 years earlier. The men sleep in the same stone dwellings their ancestors made, they struggle to load supplies off a boat and carry them up the same rocky cliffs, they light fires in the same pits as their grandfathers.
The hunt is incredibly hard work, often in challenging weather, and the men labor to exhaustion every day except Sunday. It’s dirty work, and as a viewer it’s sometimes gruesome to watch thousands of birds captured, gutted, plucked, scorched, salted, and stacked for preservation before the journey back to Ness. But like other traditional hunting practices, I’ve learned that while seeing it in practice is raw, a world away from the sanitized way we consume meat every day, it’s also very normal. It’s a sustainable hunt, motivated not by greed or capitalism, but tradition and community.
At the end of the hunt the men divide the birds amongst themselves, keeping what they can eat and selling the rest locally to help offset the cost of the trip. In the past, when the quotas were larger, the birds were divided amongst more of the community with half the village awaiting the men’s arrival on the docks.
The Guga Hunters of Ness is 59 minutes long and available to purchase or rent on Vimeo. You can view the trailer and behind-the-scenes video below for free.