Will the gannets be left alone on Mykines?

Translated from an article brought in the magazine MAGN 1976, © MAGN 1976
Brought here with kindly permission by Alan Brockie, photographer, Tórshavn, Faroe Islands
MAGN had in May 1976 an interview with Símun on Mykines and this article is based on this interview. Símun has since then passed away. He died in the middle of July on Mykines. Peace with the memories of him.

Nowadays the men go for the gannets late August, beginning of September and the catch has these late years has been around 450 gannets.
Previously the gannets were caught 3 times a year. First time in May, where the white gannets were caught, before they had laid their eggs. Second time was late August early September and third time was late September to get the gannets which had not been mature enough the second time.

1200 pair of gannets on Mykines.
One of the men from Mykines, who have caught gannets many times, is Símun, who today is 85 years old. He is living in Tórshavn in the winter, on Mykines in the summer.
»In former time we got more gannets than now. I can remember, that we once got 900. But that is not the case nowadays.
There seems to be enough of gannets, last year we got 550 gannets and the year before we got 450.
It is said, that 1200 pairs of gannets are breeding on Mykines Holm. I do believe that it is a quite good guess, when it is possible to get around 900 gannets, yes it is very probable, that 1200 pairs of gannets are living out there.
Símun knows the names of the different places and tells us how many gannets one normally could catch on the different shelfs. It is a quite constant number one gets on the different shelfs.
»On Loftsrók, the shelf, where a lot of rock and stone has fallen down, the catch is usually 200 - 250 gannets. On Urðin the catch is usually 300 and on Nýggja Plássi usually 100 and on Gomlu Rókini the catch is 90 gannets. On Norðastu Rók it varies a lot, how many were caught.
Loftsrók is isolated by a rockslide, so it not accessible any more. And many gannet were killed at the occurrence.
On the stacks men also came. On Píkarsdrang the catch was 40 and on Flatidrangur around 140«.

After the white gannets.
The catch of the white gannets has never been as big as of the grey gannets. It was in May, men went after the white gannets. It was after sunset and dark when they went out there, so it was very demanding and the men had to be very carefully, not to wake the sleeping gannets, because if they woke up, they flew away instantly. Símun tells us, that the men usually wore a coat, which they threw over the gannets and then killed them. One man could have as many as 10 gannets below the coat and managed to kill them all, before they managed to scream.
When the men went for the grey gannets not, all of them were taken. The ones, who wasn't mature, were left back on the shelfs. The ones, which wasn't considered mature, were the ones with too many downs. That is the kind of gannets, which are called "omplar". Símun tells us, that if they had more downs, than a little on the skull, they were left sitting back on the shelfs.

24 men participated in the "skipanini", in the manning.
It was quite a great number, who were necessary to participate in the catch and it is quite understandable, because it was heavy work. Normally the manning was 24 men, which was the number, found necessary to perform the catch. And this number was necessary because on more of the shelfs, the men were not pulled up again, when they had killed the gannets, but had to wait, while the men continued to the other shelfs. Besides that, the rope is heavy and if the gannets were to be pulled up on the Holm, it was common practice to take 15 at a time.
»It is extremely hard work, if the whole catch has to be pulled up upon the Holm and carried back to the village. Because the gannet is a heavy bird and weights 12 "merker", around 4 kilos. One man can carry 16 to 18 of them at a time.
Then it was much easier, if the catch could be brought back to the village by boat, for in this case, the gannets could be thrown down on the water and taken inboard. It is much easier, but it is necessary, that the sea is totally calm, "kyrrt", as it is called on faroese«.

The sharing of the catch has changed.
In return for all the work, the men got the gannets. In former times, it has been the tradition, that the gannets were divided in proportion to how much ground one owned. The people without ground didn't got much and their participation in the catch was seldom and there were many years in between their participation and their share. At that time, the catch was divided into "ottingar", eighths. As there are 40 "mark"s on Mykines, there were 5 "mark"s on each share.
But on a "grannastćvne", meeting, in 1909, this was changed in such a way, that the catch was divided in two, one for the ground and the second for the men, who participated in the catch. In this way the people without ground got a greater share. And in this way they got a greater interest in participating in the catch.
Nowadays the catch is not divided in this way. Each man participating get one part, the boat get one part, the rope one part and in the case horses were used to carry the catch, they also got a part. The man taking care of the rope also got one part.

Only the gannets left?
But for how long will men go out on the Holm, to catch the grey gannets? There are only few people left on Mykines and there are not enough men fit for work left, to fulfil the "skipanin", the manning, which, according to the tradition, is necessary to perform the catch of the grey gannets.
Símun tells us, that when he was young, around 30 young men were on "Suðurlandinum" on Iceland, with the sloops and that there was the same number left on Mykines. At the time, when most people lived on Mykines, in the 1830'ties, there were 180.
»But in 1932 we lost one man and in 1934, 8 young men disappeared together on a ship from Vestmanna, during fishing around Iceland. And in 1935, the tuberculosis came and spread violently among the inhabitants of Mykines and many fell ill and died. And many, who didn't fell ill, left the island«.
»Now I don't like to live here in the winter. But when I was young, it didn't bothered me, how bad the weather was. I didn't care. But nowadays, where I have grown old, I don't like it. In the coming winter, there will not be many left out here. The teacher is leaving, so there will be hardly any left, Símun ends the interview with MAGN.

Since this article was printed in MAGN in 1976, it hasn't gone as bad with the catch of the grey gannets, as Símun feared.
Nowadays the men are only once after the gannets, usually in the end of August or the beginning of September.
It has although been very alternating, how successful the catch has been.
For some years it has only been possible to come on Flatidrangur and the catch has never been as great, as Símun states. The catch on Flatidrangur is normally around 50 grey gannets. Quite a lot of young gannets left back there, have been ringed.
The way upon Flatidrangur, has been changed more times these late years. It has been increasingly more difficult to climb the stack, because of erosion and fallen stones. Flatidrangur is heavily exposed to the sea and the breakers during the winter and the structure of the basalt is very loose.
It is many years since anybody have been on Píkarsdrang. In former time the men came there, by going out on Břlið, the little peninsula, which goes out from the Holm towards the stacks. Out there, they threw a line out, which was taken up by a boat, which then rowed out to "Steinen", the rock south of Píkarsdrang, where men could tighten the line so much, that it could come upon the stack. Then a stronger line could be pulled over the stack and by this, men could climb the stack.
The way out on Břlið has, as time has passed, changed very much, caused by erosion and the edge is now very narrow and loose, making it very risky and dangerous to go out there. Men has these later years been out there three times, to catch grey gannets, because Břlið, during the last 30 years, has been the place of a greater and greater colony of breeding gannets.
Even though not many people live all the year round on Mykines any more, it has not been difficult to gather enough men, to participate in the catch of the gannets on the big shelfs on the northern side of the Holm. It is as the interest in maintaining the tradition for catching gannets, which has been part of the culture on Mykines for centuries, is stable or increasing. So for the time being, the fear of Símun, that the gannets would be left alone on Mykines, will not be fulfilled. And the catch of grey gannets on Mykines, will continue for a foreseeable future.
It should also be mentioned, that the number of gannets on Mykines Holm, according to the latest counts, is around 2000 pairs and that the group on Břlið, seems to continue to grow and is occupying a greater and greater part of Břlið towards east.