Every year, late in the summer, villagers from Ness, on the Isle of Lewis, clamber into a small fishing-boat filled with climbing ropes and motor 38 miles north-west towards Sula Sgeir, a dramatic, uninhabited island home to thousands of gannets which spend the summer nesting in guano-covered cliff faces. The hunters' quarry are the guga, young gannet chicks, which salted and boiled, are a pungent and contentious delicacy.
To the men – and it is just men who make the trip – it is a tradition steeped in the ancient and noble culture of one of the British Isles' most staunchly independent communities. Animal rights groups condemn the hunt as a barbaric relic of the past which has no place in modern times, and akin to seal-clubbing. For hundreds of years the villagers have done what they can to keep the guga hunt secret, but the debate has been reignited with a new book which, for the first time, sheds light on the people behind the hunt and why each year they risk life and limb to scale cliffs in the icy-cold Atlantic to collect a dish that is often described as akin to fishy duck.
Written by the Lewis poet, Donald S Murray, The Guga Hunters is an intimate portrayal of a select group of fishermen who, fed up with defending the hunt, have long stopped talking to journalists. Yesterday, in his home in Lewis, a guga boiling in the pot, Murray said he felt compelled to write a book to offer an often unheard side of the debate about the guga hunt.
"Historically, there has always been a divide on the island about whether the hunt should be talked about publicly or kept as secret as possible," he said. "In this day and age, especially with the internet, secrecy is no longer an option. But the story of the hunters themselves has never really been heard. It has always been the animal rights groups calling the shots."
Since 1954, the Protection of Birds Act has made it illegal to hunt gannets but Ness villagers have been granted special permission to continue. The hunters are allowed to take only 2,000 guga and, because gannets are thriving across northern Europe, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have rejected calls for a ban.
Advocates for Animals, an Edinburgh-based animal rights group, is trying to outlaw the hunt in the European courts. Ross Minnet, its campaign director, said: "The brutal and totally unnecessary guga hunt belongs back in the dark ages and has no place in a modern, 21st-century Scotland. It belongs in the pages of history books. We are all for maintaining traditions but not when they cause animals to needlessly suffer."
Murray said: "As young boys, we were all bored to death with the daring tales of what the hunters were up to. But it's part of the mythology of Ness. It would be desperately sad to lose it."