Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sula Sgeir

It's always a pleasure to look into the past and the homeland of some of my ancestors in Scotland. One of the websites listed along Kayak Yak's right-hand column is by a paddler based in Scotland, who paddles among the islands there. I've been reading other websites and books about the islands around Scotland and the long history there of working at sea in small boats. There's also a folksong with the verse:
     I am a man upon dry land
     I am a selkie on the sea
     And when I'm far and far frae land
     My home it is in Sule Skerrie

It's a beautiful tune, and a haunting story. And the other day I found Sule Skerrie on a map, in Wikipedia of all places. It's also called Sula Sgeir. It's a small, rocky islet in the Atlantic forty miles north of the island of Lewis in Scotland -- one of the most isolated of the British Isles.

A skerry or sgeir is a small rocky island or reef, usually barren of trees and too small for people to live. There are variations of the word throughout Scandinavian countries, and examples of skerries around the world's shorelines from parts of Russia and South America to the Pacific Northwest's Inland Passage. Sula is the old Norse word for a gannet, a kind of seabird that looks a little like a gull.

Thanks to Wikipedia for this photo of a Northern gannet!

The hunting of sea birds was outlawed in the British Isles in 1954, but a limited harvest of young gannets is still allowed, under strict rules. Only ten men may go from the district of Ness on the island of Lewis by boat to Sula Sgeir for two weeks each summer, and they may take no more than 2000 gannets, using traditional methods to hunt, clean, and salt their catch. The valued meat of these birds, called guga in Gaelic, is shared out among the Ness islanders on their return.
In 2009, a new film director received permission from the Ness islanders to film their traditional hunt for the first time. The result was Mike Day's first film: The Guga Hunters of Ness. Here's a link to the website for this film, where you can see some photographs and watch a trailer for the film.

There's a marvelous article by Mike Day here on the BBC website about the making of this film; the article includes several short videos taken during the filming, and interviews with the people involved. It's an excellent chance to see small boats in action during a traditional harvest!

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