First, catch your puffin

I’ve been reading about the diet of the St Kilda islanders, which was apparently very successful for many years, though I have to admit I don’t fancy it myself (because I am an unreasonable conservative who thinks puffins and fulmars are cute (*)).

St Kilda

Hirta, the main island of St Kilda

Just a little background: St Kilda’s a small archipelago off the coast of Scotland with one inhabitable island, Hirta. It’s quite a long way off the coast as these things go (40 miles from Uist on Lewis) and was inhabited from prehistory until 1930, when the few remaining residents decided to leave.

So, apparently one of the reasons St Kilda was inhabited for so long was the diet of the islanders, which for many years consisted of sea birds (apparently fish were less interesting because they weren’t as fatty and filling). And it probably wasn’t a good idea to be a sea bird on St Kilda — in1696, the islanders had a poor year and consumed only 22,600 gannets (113 each).

People kept big piles of boned and rolled gannets, just waiting to be eaten, in their cleits (stone-built storage houses).

But — excellent news for the gannet — by the mid 18thC people had started eating fulmars instead. Visitors apparently reported that young fulmar was delicious roasted — like a cross between pork and chicken. You had to soak them first, though, or they tasted really strongly of fish.

But the highlight — the puffin, which sounds like a form of island toast. The best way, apparently, was to split the carcass down the back and opened it flat like a kipper (a weird image right there).  Then, you propped in front of the hearth and grilled it in front of the fire. Reading that makes me wonder what it smelled like when you visited someone’s house and they were toasting a puffin.

puffin_2

And if puffin was toast, the butter was the fat of young gannets, which was used as condiment and eaten with everything. Mmmm.

(I’m being silly but actually I’ve also been reading recently about how hugely healthy animal fat is. Admittedly my sources might be hideously wrong since they’re people on the internet, but there does seem to be some interest in animal fat being good for you — and not messing around with your blood sugar in the same way as the modern low fat diet is supposed to. So perhaps the diet was much better than it sounds).

source: Charles MacLean St Kilda — Island on the Edge of the World first pub 1972, my ver pub 1992.

(*) I also think lambs are cute. I am aware that my thinking on this is not very coherent, or rational.

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