Wilderness and Witchcraft


Hurtigruten (Coastal Steamer) entering Vardø harbour.


After Kirkenes, we headed westwards to Varangerbotn and then eastwards again around the Varanger Peninsula to Vardø. The Varanger Peninsula is an area of wilderness, except along the coastline, where small fishing villages have existed for hundreds of years. The fishing brought the first Norwegian settlers to the area, as well as tradesmen from Russia (the Pomors) and from Finland. These Finnish immigrants, along with those found elsewhere in Northern Norway, form the Norwegian national minority called the Kvens (http://www.kvenskinstitutt.no/kvener/).

On our way to Vardø, we visited the archaeological site at Mortensnes. This area was inhabited from stone age times by the Sami.  On the left below is a sacrificial site. The large standing stone is surrounded by circles of small stones. This stone circle has inspired the painting behind the speaker´s chair in the Sami parliament. On the right above, is a Sami pre-historic grave, and on the right below, are circles that mark the boundaries of dwellings.


Vardø is a  Norwegian rather than a Sami town, first settled in the 1300s. It was built for the fishing industry, and for defensive purposes. The fortress in Vardø dates from 1738. In 1940, when the Germans invaded, it was the last place in Norway to fly the Norwegian flag.



Vardø is also known for the witch trials. From 1598 – 1692, 91 people were burnt here, accused of being witches (around 300 “witches” were burnt in Norway altogether). About 25% of those killed in Vardø were Sami. The Steilneset memorial was opened in 2011, on or near the spot where they were burnt to death. The memorial is a long corridor with information about each of the “witches” on the walls as you walk along. The sound of the waves outside is magnified, to give it an earie but also peaceful feeling.


For more on the memorial and witch trials: http://www.nordnorge.com/EN-ost-finnmark/?News=469 

Below you can see a couple of the stories hanging on the wall (English translation to come…)



At the Russian border


View across the Varangerfjord from where Grense Jakobselv joins the sea.

About 60 km east of Kirkenes is Grense Jakobselv ( Translated: Border Jakob River). The border with Russia runs along the middle of the river, at the deepest point. The border is heavily patrolled on both sides and crossing the river is strictly prohibited, as is making contact with anyone on the other side. Those in boats have to be careful not to cross over the border, as the deepest point is not always in the middle of the river.

The Norwegian border posts are yellow with black tops, while the Russian are red and green. As you can see, they are placed on opposing sides of the bank. I found the river surprisingly small. It was odd to see Russia only metres away and know that you were forbidden to go there.


Norwegian border post with Russian in the background on the other side of the river, and Russian watch tower further away.


At one point, the river was small and shallow and Russia was just metres away on the other bank.


The border between Russia and Norway was agreed on in 1826. At that time, the communities on either side of the border had close contact and worked together. In the 1900s, after the Russian revolution and then with the Cold War, the border became more strictly controlled and contact between peoples was prohibited.  Nowadays, after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, travel is easier, and people living within 30km of the border can get a border pass to cross over. Other travelers need a visa before crossing into Russia.

Oscar II´s chapel is a well-known sight in Grense Jakobselv. Opened in 1863, it was built to mark the Norwegian territory, as the state was concerned about the extent of Russian interests in the valley.


When the border was made in 1826, it deeply affected the local Sami population, the Skolt Sami. Their traditional territory was divided by the border between Russia, Finland and Norway, and when they were no longer allowed to migrate during the seasons with their reindeer herds across the borders, they could no longer follow their traditional way of life. As you can see in the map below, the border cuts through the  areas used by the Pasvik and Neiden Sami siida.


The Pasvik siida had special fishing rights in Norway after 1826, but these were abolished in the 1920s. The Skolt Sami in Norway now number about 700 individuals. The language has all but died out in Norway, but is still spoken in Finland. Recently, a Skolt Sami museum opened in Neiden, to teach about and help revive Skolt Sami culture and language in Norway (http://www.skoltesamiskmuseum.no).


St. Georg´s Chapel in the old Skolt Sami village at Neiden. The Skolt Sami converted to the Russian orthodox faith.



Group portrait of Skolt Sami family, by Ellisif Wessel (1866–1949)





Kautokeino and Karasjok

Previously: Reindeer and religion in Northern Sweden



Juhl´s silver gallery, Kautokeino


We spent a few days in Kautokeino and in Karasjok, two small Sami towns.

I´ve visited Kautokeino before to go to a conference at the Sami university college (http://samas.no). It´s not a very big place, and in July when all the reindeer and their herders are out at the coast for the summer grazing season, it is fairly deserted. An essential visit for Kautokeino is the Juhl´s silver gallery, as much an architectural and artistic as a shopping experience.

We also stopped by the church in Kautokeino. This was where the uprising against the Norwegian state happened in 1852, as mentioned in the previous post.


In the museums at Kautokeino and Karasjok, we saw many traditional Sami costumes and head-dresses. When Læstadianism became popular, converts were not allowed to dress in such ornate clothing. At one point the women on Kautokeino gathered to throw their traditional headdress into a pond near the church, as a symbol of them giving up the old ways.


We also drove up the valley towards Alta to stop at the small Sami village of Masi/Máze. Máze became well-known as the government planned to flood it in creating a huge dam on the Alta river in the late 1970s. The plan was that damming the river would create hydroelectric power. Huge resistance was mounted against the plans. Although the dam was eventually built, Máze was not flooded. The Alta Controversy, as it became known, was a key event in the raising of political awareness of Sami affairs in Norway, which led to the foundation of the Sami parliament in Karasjok in 1989.


The original plan for the dam would have led to Máze being flooded to 2m above the church tower. You can see the river in the background.


In Karasjok, we visited Sami Parliament. The parliament meets four times a year to discuss issues of relevance to the Sami. Thirty-nine representatives from 7 areas meet to discuss in the plenary hall.  Its main role is in holding consultation meetings with the Norwegian government to protect Sami interests. Norway has signed ILO-169, a legally binding agreement to protect and respect indigenous people´s rights (for more information on ILO-169, see http://www.indigene.de/44.html).

The Sami plenary hall is designed in the shape of a lavvo (Sami tent). The whole building is filled with contemporary art works.

The painting on the left (La elva leve!, Rolf Goven, 1980), symbolizes the struggle against the Norwegian government to stop the damming of the Alta river. In the painting, the dam is the Norwegian parliament building (Stortinget). “La elva leve” means “Let the the river live”.


Plenary hall at the Sami parliament from the outside.



Inside the plenary hall.


Reindeer and religion in Northern Sweden

Previously: Sami town – Jokkmokk

Kiruna is an ore mining town in Northern Sweden. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is that it is in the process of being moved 2km to the east as the mining under the town is causing subsidence. Not much has been done so far, apart from a new town hall being  built. It´s not the most attractive town I´ve ever seen – it looks a little like no-one can be bothered with painting and other maintenance as they might have to move soon.

We visited the Nutti Sami Siida (http://nutti.se) at Jukkasjärvi, just outside Kiruna, and were given tour around their park, with examples of different sorts of Sami housing, storage and an introduction to handicraft, but most importantly of all, with reindeer to be fed. The reindeer are in the middle of shedding their coat, so they don´t look in prime condition at the moment. The reindeer in the park were all male reindeer. Apparently they aren´t so bothered about migrating to the mountains as the females (who want to got here to calf), and they are happy to stay closer to home all summer.


Reindeer grow their antlers from May to September, after which they shed them and begin anew in the spring. At the height of their growth, they increase by about 1cm per day. The antlers are for attracting females, and after the autumn mating season they have no use for them. The female reindeer keep their antlers as they need them for protecting themselves and their calves. It takes 7 years for male reindeer to achieve the maximum growth of their antlers, after that they gradually get smaller but more complexed. Female reindeer reach maximum growth of their antlers after four years, so they are never as large as the male antlers.


The reindeer on the left is younger and has simpler antlers than the older reindeer on the right.


Moving on towards the north, we stopped at the small village of Karesuando, right on the Finnish border. Karesuando is known for being the place where Lars Levi Læstadius started the Læstadian movement in the mid-1800s. Læstadianism spread throughout Sami communities in northern Scandinavian and is still common among Sami people. In 1852, a group of Sami rebelled against the Norwegian state  and killed the priest and the state official in Kautokeino. These Sami were Læstadians who had been converted during a visit to Karesuando. While compared to rebellions worldwide, the Kautokeino rebellion seems very minor, but it has become symbolic in Sami history of the fight against the Norwegian state to maintain Sami culture and way of life, and is a key event in Sami history.



The photo on the left above is from Læstadius´cabin, where he lived and led worship. It is still a small religious meeting house today. On the right is the Læstadian church in Karesuando.

At the front of the church above the altar is the wood carving shown below. In the middle is Mary, portrayed as a Sami woman. She is looking towards Læstadius, who is on the left. On the right is Johan Johansson Raattamaa, who succeeded Læstadius as preacher in Karesuando. Læstadianism appealed particularly to the Sami as they were permitted to worship in their own language, and they could hold religious meetings in private homes with a lay preacher, which suited the Sami lifestyle well.


Sami town – Jokkmokk

Previously: Interruptions in Umeå

Heading inland from Luleå, the Sami population is more in evidence. Jokkmokk is a major Sami town in the area. Visiting Jokkmokk in July, it appears to be a ghost town – all the reindeer herding families are away in the mountains with their flocks for the summer grazing season. The reindeer herding season works like this: In winter, the reindeer are in the valleys and the herders live in or near the towns. In the spring, the reindeer flocks are moved to the mountains for summer grazing and the families follow with them. In the autumn, the reindeer flocks are shepherded back from the mountains to the valleys. After the summer, the flocks are often mixed together, so the reindeer are corralled together and the reindeer owners collect the reindeer belonging to them from the corral. The reindeer owner can recognize their reindeer by the ear marking – marks individual to each owner are cut into the reindeer ear when they are a calf.

We visited Anna Kuhmunen, a reindeer owner, who took us into the countryside outside Jokkmokk and told us more about the life of a reindeer herder and about being Sami in Sweden. It was very interesting talking to Anna, and peaceful sitting around the fire in the area in which she has her winter camp (http://silba.se).


Jokkmokk has other sights of Sami interest to offer. It is the home of Stoorstålka – a shop selling Sami design products made by local Sami designers, Lotta Stoor and Per Niila Stålka. Lotta was in the shop when we visited and is probably one of the friendliest shop assistants that I ever have come across! Stoorstålka also have an online shop, and I can strongly recommend their products for those interested in Sami design: https://shop.stoorstalka.com/sv/start.html


We also visited the  museum, Ájtte, which gives an excellent overview of Sami life and the mountains west of Jokkmokk. Of particular interest to me was a selection of Sami drums, such as were used by noaidi (shamans). The noaidi would beat on the drum and chant to go into a trance. In this trance it was believed that he could travel and talk to the spirit world. A brass ring could also be placed onto the drum and would move around as the noaidi beat on the drum. The movements of the ring could be used to predict what would happen to the reindeer in the future, or to give advice on tricky matters.


Another great thing about the museum, was the Sami-inspired playroom for children:



Next: Reindeer and religion in Northern Sweden

Interruptions in Umeå

Previously: And out of the woods again (for now)…

The Museum of Women´s History in Umeå is well-worth a visit. It is an attractive modern building beside the river, also housing one of the most inviting public libraries I have seen. The museum consists of two exhibit halls. In the first, feminism and gender issues are introduced in an art installation where visitors walk through a forest and are presented with different challenges and arguments as they go.

In the other room is a temporary photo exhibition of Sami women, Interruptions, by Cooper & Gorfer. The photos are magnificent in their use of colour and in depiction of the challenges faced by Sami women. The museum is well worth a visit when in Umeå.


For more about the exhibition: http://www.kvinnohistoriskt.se/4.4e2b5d8015aa7ddecb011c46.html


Before leaving Umeå, we visited the Västerbottens Museum, a local history museum and folk park, including a small Sami village with a selection of typical houses from around the region:


Next: Sami Town – Jokkmokk

And out of the woods again (for now)…

Previously: Into the woods…


Bridge at Sundsvall


The last couple of days have been largely given over to driving north. It is a long way to Finnmark (as you can see on the map on the first blog page, it takes about 23 hours to drive), so we have split it into more manageable sections.

On the whole, I have spent the last couple of days looking at this,


but with some small highlights. First we visited Sweden´s most southernly Sami settlement, Idre. Unfortunately, the only thing notably Sami about it was the sign on entering the village, that was both in Swedish and Sami.


Sign both in Swedish and Sami in the background. It is possible to visit a reindeer herding family´s camp, but it was too far away and in the wrong direction for us on this visit.

In Sveg, we came across the world´s largest wooden bear (13 meters high). Sveg is not a walled city nor under siege, so we are assuming it is not full of Greek soldiers.


Finally we arrived in Sundsvall, feeling rather weary. Sundsvall is a fine city by the Gulf of Bothnia (Bottenvika), with wide boulevards and a pleasant harbour and riverside for sitting and strolling. All around the city centre, dragon statues have been placed (temporary exhibition, the Sundsvall Dragons are the name of the local basketball team).


The following morning, we headed up the coast to Umeå, stopping for a break at the suspension bridge, The High Coast Bridge (1800m). At the time of the opening in 1997, it was the 9th longest suspension bridge in the world:


Umeå has more northern feel about it. The light feels different and it is noticeable colder (although that might just be the current weather front). Next stop is Luleå for a couple of days.


Sculpture outside Umeå train station.


Next: Interruptions in Umeå

Into the woods…

Previously: Reindeer Rambling

Today we headed off eastwards into Sweden, before we head north-east tomorrow. It was the first time either of us had been east of Elverum, and I can report that it does indeed consist of hours in the forest.

We stopped at Grøndalen,  where the Norwegian resistance fighters held back the German advance on Trysil, 3 May 1940, enabling the king and government to escape. Two hundred German soldiers were stopped at this cross-roads in the forest. The Norwegian resistance fighters retreated eastwards towards Sweden after the battle, and released their German prisoners as they crossed the border into Sweden (Sweden was neutral in WW2).


I went for a walk in the woods nearby, past the bomb craters from the time of the German invasion, and found the largest mushroom I think I´ve ever come across (hand shown for comparative purposes), and lots of wild flowers in bloom.

Traveling on eastwards, we crossed the Swedish border and after a while, came across our home for the night, Sälen Vandrarhem. So far, Sweden seems much like Norway, but with more of a fondness for blue and yellow.

So far, no bear or wolf has threatened to eat us.

Next: And out of the woods again (for now)…

Reindeer Rambling

Skjermbilde 2017-06-29 kl. 22.09.14

School holidays have finally arrived and I have weeks off to travel around and experience new things!

This past academic year, I have studied Sami culture and history at Tromsø University ( an excellent course that I can thoroughly recommend to any Norwegian speakers interested in the Sami – https://uit.no/utdanning/emner/emne/520560/svf-6001). Throughout my course I have read about many Sami places that I have never seen. So this summer, I decided I would head to the far north of Norway to visit these places, meet people, and not least of all, collect sources and good ideas for developing this website.

Coming along for the trip is my mother, seasoned traveller and reindeer enthusiast (she was a huge fan of the migration of the reindeer herd). Here we are on some of our earlier trips:



The trip will take approximately four weeks. You can see our plan below. From Skjervøy, outside Alta, we will be taking the coastal ferry (Hurtigruten) down to Brønnøysund in North Trøndelag.

During the trip, I plan to write a blog of places we´ve been, interesting things we have learnt, and anything else I feel like sharing.

Skjermbilde 2017-07-01 kl. 00.02.46

Skjermbilde 2017-06-29 kl. 22.15.00

(Guovdageaidnu is Sami for Kautokeino)

Next: Into the woods…