“Somewhere between rotten leather and fishy beef”: the rare Scottish delicacy of guga

In the  Outer Hebrides, teenage gannets are hunted once a year, left to pickle in their juices on the cliffside, and served with potatoes.

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When, shortly before my holiday, I asked a food-loving Scottish friend for Outer Hebrides recommendations, I was hoping for an oyster shack, or a really great Stornoway black pudding roll. What I wasn’t expecting was guga. “I’m not sure if you’ll find them though,” she said doubtfully. “They’re quite seasonal.”

To my English ears, a guga could have been anything from a scallop to a scone. It is, in fact, a teenage gannet – old enough to have a bit of meat on it, but young enough to be easily caught, as they have been in these parts for millennia. The gannet was once a staple in the diets of islanders: it’s estimated that in the 17th century the tiny population of St Kilda caught an average of 22,000 a year. Today the hunt is confined to Ness, on the Isle of Lewis, which, following the outlawing of seabird fowling in 1954, holds the only remaining licence in the UK.

The ten “Men of Ness” are allowed 2,000 birds a season, a number deemed by Scottish Natural Heritage as “unlikely to affect the long-term sustainability” of the gannet population, which they sell to a local waiting list for £15 each. The retired leader of the hunt, Dods Macfarlane, who has “smelt the guga” since he was a year old, has described it as “an addiction – if you don’t get your guga quota you’re feeling rather down”.

Having peered fearfully over the cliffs and seen the Atlantic roiling below like a pan of soup, the details of the hunt, which takes place each August on the uninhabited islet of Sùla Sgeir, have a sadistic thrill. It’s a six-hour, 40-mile journey by boat from the Port of Ness, and the men’s first job is to haul all supplies up the cliff by hand.

After setting camp in the beehive-shaped stone bothies made by generations before them, the real work begins. The guga, which nest in their thousands on rocky plateaus, are hooked with 10-foot poles, stunned and killed by a blow to the head, a process deemed humane by the Scottish government if not by animal rights groups such as the SSPCA. The men estimate the exercise takes less than three seconds.

Once plucked and singed over a fire to burn off any remaining fluff, the birds are scrubbed, butchered and generously salted, then arranged in carefully tessellated piles on the clifftop to pickle in their own juices. Not only does this preserve the meat for the months ahead, but gives the guga the distinctive flavour and aroma so prized by connoisseurs – and described by sceptics from outside the islands as “somewhere between rotten leather and fishy beef”.

The crowds on the quayside for the men’s return suggest that natives are happy to keep the guga’s charms to themselves. Traditionally, they’re prepared simply; rinsed and scrubbed of salt and grease, then boiled in several changes of water and eaten with plain potatoes. Nevertheless, rumour has it that the Men of Ness have been known to barbecue them in a paste of curry powder and whisky on their last night on Sùla Sgeir, while on the heathen mainland, chefs at the Edinburgh Food Studio have recently been playing at slow-cooking a bird soaked in milk.

As distribution is severely restricted outside the Hebrides, you’re unlikely to see pickled gannet on a menu near you any time soon – even in Ness itself, I had to content myself with a cheese scone. Like the guga, you might say I was gutted. 

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control