The Guga Hunters Of Ness

The Guga Hunters Of Ness


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

If you hail from the Isle of Lewis, you're probably already familiar with the annual guga hunting expedition from the northerly village of Ness. If you don't, you may wonder why on Earth anyone would want to sit through an hour and a half long film about gannets. In either case, you should prepare to be surprised. The Guga Hunters Of Ness is a gorgeously shot documentary feature that takes viewers into the heart of this ancient tradition, celebrating its longevity and lamenting its decline without once being patronising, overly worthy or dull.

What makes this work is difficult to pin down, but it has something to do with the very obscurity of the way the guga hunters talk about their work. Each autumn, when the sea is at its least ferocious (though it's never exactly gentle), they take their old boat north to the still more remote outcrop of Sula Sgeir and spend two weeks harvesting baby gannets, plucking them, cutting out the fat, wrapping them in salt and packing them up for the journey home. It's cold, exhausting work in one of the world's less forgiving environments, yet they return again and again, somehow invigorated by the experience. Is it about taking on a challenge? Is it about comradeship? Is it about their devotion to the legendary flavour of the guga meat? Or is there something subtler going on here, a romantic attraction to remote places where life suddenly feels much more immediate? That's a feeling many of us may have when we go on holiday. It's a point at which the experiences of viewers can intersect with the lives of these men, even though their particular obsession may seem hard to fathom.

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Of course, there are those who consider the guga hunt cruel. That issue is only briefly touched on here; it isn't really a part of the men's experience. Watching it here, seeing the birds dispatched quickly, it seems much kinder than factory farming, but more sensitive viewers may find some of the scenes of butchery disturbing. Why are only the young birds taken? That, again, isn't discussed (the fact is that eating older seabirds is a bad idea because their bodies are full of toxic heavy metals), but the men speak passionately about the unique flavour of guga, whilst admitting that it may be an acquired taste.

There is clearly a strong element of nostalgia involved. The guga has come to symbolise a way of life that is fast declining. In Ness, we drive past one abandoned house after another. One hunter tells of his worry that his child can't find friends to play with. There are few young people here. The crofting life doesn't hold much attraction for them. The landscape is beautiful but the pace of life is slow.

That slowness is mirrored by the larger story surrounding the guga hunt. On Sula Sgeir we see cairns and shelters built centuries ago. The intermittent nature of visits to the island creates a sense that time has been shortened. Sula Sgeir is like Brigadoon; it exists for just two weeks to every year in the real world. A visit to it is like a trip back in time.

The Guga Hunters Of Ness is poetic, haunting, its beautiful imagery making it hard to look away. It's rare to see a story so effectively combine this evocative romance with the rough reality of working men's lives. The hunters come across as utterly grounded and real, yet Sula Sgeir seems to give them a license to dream. The film has an existential quality that only enhances the impact of its blunt message about the ephemerality of all human endeavour.

Reviewed on: 04 Feb 2011
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A documentary following ten men from the Isle of Lewis as they cross treacherous seas on their annual trip to harvest young gannets.
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Director: Mike Day

Year: 2010

Runtime: 59 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2011

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