Country: A bird in the hand

... is worth putting on the menu if it's a gannet. At least that's what they do in the Outer Hebrides. Jon Winter joins the annual seabird harvest
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IN ICELAND they enjoy their puffin curried. Further south, the people of the Faroe Islands favour roast fulmar served with a Waldorf salad. While on Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, a local delicacy is boiled young gannet and potatoes.

Such dishes may not be to everyone's taste, but seabirds have long been on the menu in these remote regions. Far from being just a taste for the exotic, the harvesting of gannets, puffins, fulmars, guillemots and even gulls for food began centuries ago as a way to survive the harsh winters. Eating anything they could catch, islanders took advantage of the seabirds that arrive in their thousands each year to raise their young in the fish- rich waters.

Today, seabirds are still widely eaten across Iceland and the Faroe Islands, where you can even find puffin on sale at selected butchers. On Lewis, however, the eating of young gannets, known locally as gugas, goes beyond being just another meal. The whole event, from the harvest to when they are eaten as a special treat over the coming months, has become a kind of thanksgiving, and a way for Lewisians to keep faith with their Gaelic traditions.

This year's harvest was much the same as it was centuries ago. At the end of the summer, "when the barley is ripe and the heather is blooming", 10 men from the villages of Ness at the northern tip of Lewis slip quietly out of the harbour. Their destination is an inhospitable island rising sheer out of the Atlantic, called Sula Sgeir, the Gannet Rock. They stay for around two weeks, enough time to kill, pluck and pickle in salt up to 2,000 gugas. Thousands of seabirds arrive here every year and the only human visitors are the men from Ness. They still set up camp in ancient, beehive-shaped stone bothies built centuries ago by their ancestors, cook over peat fires and listen to daily readings from the Gaelic Bible.

The process of catching and pickling the gugas also adheres to tradition. Working as a team, the men move across the rock and down the steep guano- covered cliffs selecting only the birds that yield the most meat. These are known as "tre-tim" or "three tufts", fledgeling gannets that have lost their last downy feathers. They are caught with a long pole, swiftly killed, decapitated, plucked, singed, de-winged, split and packed with salt, then placed in a special circular stack to aid the pickling process. By the time the salted gugas arrive at the Port of Ness they look, in the words of one local, like "heavily soiled floor cloths".

Although the harvest itself has scarcely changed for generations, what has changed is the reason for going. There is still a local demand for gugas, but the necessity has gone and the harvest has become something of a pilgrimage.

John "Dods" Macfarlane, a crofter and the leader of this year's team, still finds it difficult to explain what makes him go, even after 24 years of visiting Sula Sgeir. "To get away from the phone" was his evading answer. But with the trip offering little financial reward, the men of Ness seem drawn to the rock by an almost ritualistic sense of tradition and endurance. Dods's wife admits that every year she hopes it will be the last time he makes the dangerous trip, but knows it won't be. One year she even got a friend to try to persuade him to have a holiday instead. However, the friend ended up going to Sula Sgeir as well.

Those outside such bonded communities may find it difficult to understand why the men return every year, risking their lives to harvest a seabird that is protected by law. And there are, of course, those who question whether the harvest should take place at all.

Assessing the balance between tradition and conservation is Scottish Natural Heritage. According to its figures, upwards of 10,000 pairs (7 per cent of the British gannet population) nest on Sula Sgeir during the summer, and although it is illegal to harm gannets under the Protection of Birds Act, a special clause is written into the bill allowing Nessmen to retain their tradition and gather up to 2,000 birds annually. "We regularly monitor the population and issue a licence for the cull every year," explains Dave Mackay, Area Officer at the Stornoway branch. "In theory, the licence could be revoked if the population plummeted, but on Sula Sgeir the numbers have been increasing year on year."

And so this extraordinary harvest continues, and not without a healthy appetite for gugas among the locals. By 7am, after the men had returned, an orderly line of several hundred people snaked down the road to the harbour where the birds are sold.There was an almost respectful silence about the scene as people shuffled forward to receive a brace of gugas each. As they walked back up the road, some of the older folk pushed their faces into their bags and took a deep, satisfying sniff.

When the queue had all but disappeared I asked Dods where a visitor might be able to sample some guga, and in keeping with the warm hospitality of the islanders was invited for a lunch with his family.

Preparation is simple. The bird is washed, quartered, boiled for an hour and served plain with potatoes. No seasoning is added, and the meal is eaten without cutlery. The cooked flesh is dark and muscular, tasting like strong game, but salty and with a taste of oily fish. It is a simple meal compared with recipes from Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Over lunch, Dods confessed that this year they had tried something different. The last few days on the island were glorious - the perfect excuse to shun tradition and try barbecued guga marinaded in HP Sauce.