Guga and the fizz of coincidence

Gallery of Modern Art 2

Gallery of Modern Art 2 in Edinburgh – a building with a history.

Something is read, done, comes to your attention and enjoyed. Then the same happens with something else. And you discover the something else has a link to the first something. Each enhances the other and produces the fizz of coincidence.

My first something was when I loitered in a local charity shop, looking at their books, enjoying being out of the nippy cold outside, whiling away time until husband reappeared after having his hair cut. A book caught my imagination though I hadn’t heard of the author. Later, when I read it I discovered the author was a Glaswegian born writer and director and had been involved with a number of television programmes including Machair, a Gaelic soap. During his involvement with this, the author of my book had for five years spent many months working and living on location on the island of Lewis, one of the isles of the Outer Hebrides.

Though he now lives in France, Peter May has written three gripping and fascinating books, more that just crime fiction, based in Lewis. As well as the hunts for the perpetrators of crimes, the books provide a graphic description of landscape, weather, childhood, island lifestyle and the annual hunt for guga (gannet).

For centuries after our ancestors left their caves for other dwellings, seabirds were eaten, at one time being a favourite dinner table food. Not just gannets were relished but gulls, cormorants, fulmars and shags too. Tastes change, and the oiliness of seabird, presumably along with the easier availability of other meats, meant they fell from menus and diets.

I knew the former islanders of St Kilda, specks of Outer Hebridean islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, had caught gannets (guga) to supplement their meager diets. But until I read Peter’s book, I was unaware that Lewismen in Ness have, since the sixteenth century and before, undertaken an annual two week forage to Sulasgeir, a remote rock forty miles off shore in the middle of endless ocean. Two thousand guga, almost fully grown gannet chicks, are caught, killed, pickled and salted to provide meat for inhabitants of the windswept, rocky island of Lewis. Originally men rowed small boats through often raging seas and gale force winds to reach the rock, a journey which even today, made by fishing trawler, is not for the faint-hearted.

Guga is an acquired taste, those who have eaten it likening it to strong tasting fishy duck so don’t expect it to appear any time soon in a supermarket or fast food outlet near you.

Building with a history

Prior to its rebranding as Gallery of Modern Art 2, this was know as The Dean Gallery, and prior to that…

The Lewis trilogy is May’s latest offering after a raft of books with plots based in China and France. I have no intention of giving away plots, if interested (and I hope you are) you can Google Peter to find out more. Suffice to say the second trilogy book mentions a building in Edinburgh which is now known as Gallery of Modern Art 2. This lies across the road from Gallery of Modern Art 1, the original repository of Scotland’s national collection of modern art. The National Gallery houses the main collection with the Portrait Gallery, opened again after major refurbishment, housing portraits of our great and good (and not so good!).

Banner hanging from gallery

Peploe exhibition banner at Gallery of Modern Art 2

We had gone to Modern 2 to see an exhibition by S J Peploe, one of the four painters known as the Scottish Colourists. While there, with the plot of Peter May’s book still swimming around my mind, I paid more attention to the building than usual, its dimension and shape as well as situation having acquired a whole new persona and significance. I took a few photographs. Building and book fizz together, each adding meaningful depth to the other.

Allotments by the galleries

Between Gallery of Modern Art 1 and 2 there is a piece of land where allotments are still enthusiastically worked. A haven of horticulture in the centre of the city.

View of Gallery of Modern Art 1 from 2

View across the allotments of Gallery of Modern Art 1 from 2

The Gallery grounds

Both modern art galleries sit amidst large grounds with access to a riverside walk – all just a stone’s throw from the heart of Edinburgh

Sunset at The Dean

Sun setting behind the trees and Victorian lamp posts of the gallery on a crisp February day


About jingsandthings

I am me. What do I like? Colour Shapes Textures Paintings, photographs, sculptures, woven tapestries, wonderful materials. The love of materials probably comes from my father who was a textile buyer, and I grew up hearing the names of mills and manufacturers which sounded magical and enticing. Glass in all its soft and vibrant colours and flowing shapes, even sixties glass which makes its own proud statement. A book I can immerse myself in. Meals with family or friends with lots of chat and laughter (and probably a bottle or two of wine). The occasional trip abroad to experience the sights, sounds, food, conversation, quality of light and warmth of other countries. To revel in differences and be amazed by similarities. I like to create and to experience, to try and to achieve. And then there are words – read, heard, written at my keyboard, or scrawled on sticky notes, or along the edges of dog-eared supermarket receipts excavated from the unexplored nooks of my handbag. What do I dislike? Cold Snow Bad design Fast food Condescension
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10 Responses to Guga and the fizz of coincidence

  1. Carol Breslin says:

    Your expression “the fizz of coincidence” is apt. I enjoyed reading how one topic, discovered, led you to another. I had a similar experience reading “The Guynd: A Scottish Journal” by Belinda Rathbone. I had never heard of her, and then it turned out she did a biography about a famous photographer whom I also did not know. The internet is great for following up leads like this and discovering new worlds. I will look for the Peter May books you mentioned. I am a fan of used book stores, but there are not many left in San Francisco. There used to be three (3!!!) about a ten minute walk away from my house. Now they are all gone.

    • I Googled The Guynd as I hadn’t heard of it. As well as that, which seems to have been published in the States, she has another book with a different name which seems to cover the same ground, and this was published in the UK. As it’s available on Kindle, I may download a copy as I have written, and am hoping to publish as an ebook, a novel with a character who lives in just such an old family mansion though in the Scottish Borders. Another coincidence! So thank you for pointing me in this direction.

      Most second hand bookshops have disappeared now, with Amazon and other such sites making the tracking down of books, even second hand books, only a click away. But nothing will be quite so satisfying as rummaging around an old bookshop spilling over with all kinds of volumes, and where something to cherish was usually to be found. But yes, the internet makes sourcing all kinds of information so easy, and so immediate.

  2. mybrightlife says:

    The history of Sulasgeir and the hunt is fascinating. Imagine rowing out without even a compass, 40 miles to sea in search of the rock and the guga- a tradition handed down from Father to Son. Still happening (and allowed) today. Quite something! I think though that if a tradition such as this is kept alive for ‘traditions sake’ as it would seem to be in this case, the men should set out as they have done so for centuries, in rowing boats with no mod coms..the way it has always been. Feels more fair somehow.

    • I was really surprised to find the Ness men are still allowed to do it but they are given special dispensation as it is part of their culture. I don’t think they have mod cons on the rock, and I’m sure trawlers are not the most comfortable of places. I certainly wouldn’t like to make the journey even by trawler and if the men were forced to revert to rowing boats, for the sake of preserving their culture I think they would still do it. It seems such a deeply ingrained part of their traditions. In this case, I think there may well be a public outcry at the loss of lives that may follow. The journey was a challenge to men in the past, attempting to row would be even more of a challenge today as men are not so used to much of the physical, muscle-building labour that crofting and fishing entailed in the past.

      • mybrightlife says:

        I didn’t think about the rock and the rough living conditions there, was really just (rather badly) referring to the boats. That must be a whole nother movie to deal with!
        I lived in Iceland for 5 years sometime back,(might have mentioned it – I often do) and one of the things I took with me when I left was a deeper undertanding of ancient tradition and its embeddedness in deep rooted cultures. Being a bit of an environmentalist at heart I was surprised to find myself torn between concern over the birds (although the claim is that the activity is sustainable – which helps somewhat) and a tolerance and even admiration for those involved and participating in maintaining this particular tradition. I think that must be my Icelandic experience coming through. I still think the lads should don traditional attire and row though. The mod commers can follow along side and make sure all goes well for the local heroes!

      • Iceland and Lewis probably have much in common. It must have been exciting to live there for a time, though I think the winter darkness would drive me crazy. See what you mean about using the traditional mode of transport, but it’s up to the Lewis men. They quite possible no longer have the physical stamina for all that rowing.

  3. Sheila says:

    It’s funny how sometimes it seems as if books pick us instead of the other way around. Then it’s always a treat when you can go to a place that’s mentioned in a much loved book.

    • I have known many people from the islands, and though I have visited Barra and Mingulay (on a fishing boat) I have never visited Lewis. But I can relate to so much of Peter May’s superb descriptions. Books can have a strange pull over us, and have certainly encouraged me to visit places associated with both writer and work, so widening our horizons several times over. I can feel a strange tingle reading a writer on his/her home territory, especially if it’s somewhere remote and magical.

  4. Gail says:

    I just read The Lewis Man, and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately for some reason I can’t believe I thought it was the first in the series! We are hoping to do some island hopping in the summer and might get to Lewis.

    • Sadly we’ve never been to Lewis, though have know quite a number of people from there. Ans many years ago we spent a fascinating holiday on Barra. Sounds a lovely idea for the summer, providing the weather is up to it.
      The first book in the trilogy was The Black House. The third is The Chess Men, not long published. Love them all but The Black House is fab. When Peter May wrote it he thought it the best thing he had written. An interesting video of him on the book is here –
      Worth watching.

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