Lofoten – from Å to Bø

North Norway’s Lofoten Islands are famous for their beauty. Not for nothing have these islands been sometimes described as the most beautiful in the world. Even on the dullest of days, the landscape here is breathtaking. Vertiginous ridges of ancient granite and gneiss emerge almost directly from the sea like sharpened teeth and, in those rare places where the land is flat enough to have allowed a thin layer of soil to develop, a velvety carpet of grass clings like green baize. Around the islands’ coastline, homely clusters of rorbuer – wooden fishermen’s cottages painted the colour of ox blood – project over the sea on platforms.

It may seem counter intuitive given the rawness of nature here but this has long been a peopled landscape, its folk drawn by the bounty of cod fishing grounds that lie not so very far offshore. Cod remains an industry here, although these days it is less the catching of the fish as much as the processing of them. As evidence, each village displays an array of the fish drying racks that are used in winter to salt and dry the cod in order to produce the bacalao much loved by the Portuguese, Spanish and Italians.

One of Lofoten’s most iconic locations lies at the far southern end of the archipelago, a fishing hamlet whose name is spelled using just a single Norwegian letter: Å. Travelling by bus south to Å from the Lofoten capital Svolvær, you might also catch a glimpse of a road sign that points away from the main road to a village called Bø. So, perhaps only in Lofoten is it possible to literally travel from A (or rather, Å) to B(ø)?

Å may sound like a disappointment (the Norwegian letter is pronounced ‘oh!’) but the village is anything but, even though on the very wet end-of-season day that we visit we find everything closed apart from the museum. In Å, ‘everything’ simply refers to a bakery, restaurant and gift shop – the village is a quiet place at the best of times, apart from in peak season when the occasional coach-load of tourists descends on the village to visit the museum and take a few snaps before sampling salt cod for lunch.

Å may be Lofoten’s poster girl but there are ravishing villages around every turn; like Reine, where we stayed for a couple of nights, and Henningsvær at the end of a rocky isthmus close to Svolvær. Other settlements like Hamnøy, Ramberg and Kabelvåg, passed through swiftly on our bus journeys in the islands, looked to be equally alluring from the mind’s eye snapshot that a window view affords.

Such is the numinous splendour of the Lofoten landscape that accidently stumbling on the quotidian comes almost as a relief, a chance to draw breath and rest weary eyes from  relentless beauty. Passing through Leknes, a refreshingly ordinary market town, the place was busy with its annual Western festival – a chance for townsfolk to dress up in cowboy hats, drink plenty of Norwegian beer (which must be brewed from unicorn tears given its price) and survey the classic American cars that had mysteriously assembled on its streets overnight. Elsewhere, the small port of Stamsund seemed just a little less prosperous than its neighbours, with just the slightest hint of decay – the perfect place to take our leave of the islands by catching the Hurtigruten ferry service north.

Homeward to Mingulay

Heel y’ho boys, let her go, boys

Bring her head round now all together

Heel y’ho boys, let her go boys

Sailing homeward to Mingulay!

What care we tho’ white the Minch is

 What care we for wind and weather?

Let her go boys, every inch is

Wearing homeward to Mingulay!

Wives are waiting on the bank, boys

Looking seaward from the heather

Pull her ’round boys, and we’ll anchor

‘Ere the sun sets at Mingulay!

Another day, another island. Mingulay lies in the Outer Hebrides, just north of Berneray at the very southern edge of the island chain. In many ways, the island is reminiscent of St Kilda – formerly populated, now deserted, it may not quite have had Hirta’s desolate edge-of-the-world isolation but it made up for this with living conditions that must have been equally harsh.

Although there are parallels with St Kilda, the people here were more involved with fishing than they were at Hirta  where seabirds were central to both diet and economy. With frequent violent Atlantic storms but plentiful fish and some decent grazing crofting life was tough but just about sustainable. Seabirds did have their part to play though: rent was paid to absentee landlords on Barra mostly with shearwater chicks collected from the island’s precarious cliffs.

Unlike Hirta, and perhaps to the good, there was no well-intentioned but misguided 19th century tourist industry here, and Mingulay continues to lack the celebrity status that has long been associated with St Kilda. Here there is no post office, gift shop or warden’s house; no quay – just a sheltered beach, some fine views, wild yellow irises and a plethora of kittiwakes and guillemots. By way of welcome, inquisitive grey seals loiter beneath the cliffs in the bay, their sleek heads bobbing on the waves like maritime Labradors.

Walk uphill from the beach at Mingulay Bay and you stumble upon the remnants of a few dwellings, the roofless shells of the turf-roofed black houses that Mingulay folk called home. The most complete building is the schoolhouse, built in the 1880s by the Free Church Ladies’ Association, while further uphill lie the remains of the chapel house, which had the Catholic priest’s living quarters downstairs and a chapel above. Now the chapel house is a picturesque ruin, with one gable still standing while the chimney pot from other stands centre-stage amidst the rubble like a post-Apocalyptic pulpit. Someone has gone to the trouble of sorting the reusable roof tiles into neat piles – even today, Hebridean island life does not encourage waste or the overlooking of free architectural salvage such as this.

The sea shanty quoted above could never have been sung by Mingulay-bound sailors as it was composed  by a Glaswegian in the 1930s – the island has been deserted of folk since 1912. Nevertheless, it evokes splendidly the atmosphere of the place, its sea-tossed shoreline, heather moorland and the ghost of a seafaring tradition.

If you would like to hear a contemporary version of the Mingulay Boat Song you can find Richard Thompson’s excellent rendition here.

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St Kilda

The St Kilda archipelago lies a choppy 45 miles west across the Atlantic Ocean from the Isle of Harris in Scotland’s Western Isles. Constantly settled from at least 5,000 years ago until 1930, when the inhabitants were finally evacuated, it is impossible to overestimate the brave determination of those early settlers who, seeing these rocky islands poke tantalisingly above the horizon in the far distance, pointed their flimsy boats in that direction and rowed through murderous seas to reach new land.

Rather than fish, the economy of the island – the main and only consistently settled one was also the largest, Hirta – was always linked to seabirds – gannets and fulmars in particular – and bare-footed St Kilda men used to gamble their lives dangling on horsehair ropes down treacherous cliffs faces in order to collect nesting birds and eggs.

Once upon a time there was a demand for fulmar oil as a fuel and St Kildans were able to barter this plentiful resource for the items they needed like grain and tobacco. But the coming of the modern age meant that the demand for this commodity waned dramatically and many of the island’s young people started to leave in order to seek their fortune on the Scottish mainland and even as far afield as Australia. Given this sudden decline in what had hitherto been a small but relatively stable population, it was perhaps inevitable that Hirta’s population would finally ask to be evacuated in 1930. For their own part, centuries of inbreeding and the islanders’ insistence on using fulmar oil to anoint the umbilical cord of newborn babies had already ensured a savagely high infant mortality rate. An evacuation was arranged but, despite having spent their entire lives on a windswept island entirely devoid of trees, the displaced islanders were offered jobs in forestry on the mainland. Such ironies did not ensure a happy outcome.

Hirta’s cottages, cleits and blackhouses may be empty and roofless now but the fulmars and gannets are still there in number, as are the high winds that characterise this archipelago, the most westerly situated group of islands in the entire United Kingdom. Visiting St Kilda is hardly straightforward even today – there is no regular transport and it’s a long rough sea trip west from the Western Isles. I am lucky to have arrived here yesterday morning on the MSS Clipper Odyssey on its Island Race expedition cruise around the British Isles. Today we visit Barra and Mingulay in the southern Outer Hebrides before heading south towards Donegal in Eire. By the miracle of a satellite-connected internet connection I am able to communicate this fact whilst on board (the connection was too slow to add images though – I added these later).

At over 8 degrees west, East of Elveden it certainly isn’t – West of Wester Ross might be a better description – but the St Kilda archipelago in the shape of Hirta, Soay, Berneray and other monumental stacks is still a place apart worthy of honour in any discussion of Britain’s special places. Not only does it stand at the very edge of the British Isles but it would seem to lie at the very edge of Europe and the entire Western world.

St Kilda already feels like a dream just one day after having left its shore. But St Kilda does not exist (the name is probably just a Norse corruption); you will find no saint of that name in the hagiographic annals.