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The Åland Islands (article 2)


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The Åland Islands are a collection of granite-bound skerries spraying out to the west of the coast of Finland. Most people outside Scandinavia have never heard of them, although they are a part of a unique, semi-autonomous political set-up that gives the 25,000 Swedish speakers there more self-determination than found elsewhere.

In 1917 when the Russians began sending reinforcements to the islands, the Ålands were the western limit of the Grand Duchy of Russia that Finland then was. While Finland was celebrating their independence from the Soviet Union, Ålanders were petitioning in 1918-19 to become part of Sweden. The League of Nations assigned the islands as a demilitarized, semi-autonomous entity to Finland with Swedish as the official language. Ålanders have inhabited their islands since the dawn of the ages, giving them a long time to build up a strong ethnic culture and pride in their identity as Ålanders. Rather than calling an Ålander a Swede or a Finn, their preferred title is simply Ålander.

During June, July and August, the archipelago is a place of breeze-ruffled inlets edged with tiny, sunkissed bathing beaches of glacier-worn granite. Some are shaded by the spindly shadows of umbrella pines. Old fishing villages huddle at the edges of rocky promontories, dwarfed to child-size when one of the large Sweden-Finland ferries , or a private yacht, sails past. Winters are sodden and windy, and rarely cold enough for any real snow.

Ålanders have scraped a living from the soil and floated it off the sea for centuries. With rare exceptions, theirs has not been the privileged world of the titled, landed Swede-Finn gentry on the mainland. Despite their language differences, they often feel more akin to the mainland Finn than the Swedish-speakers there. They have had the same simple livelihoods – farming, fishing forestry, and shipping. There are no old dukes there.

In the days before motorized sailing, it took about six weeks to sail to Helsinki where Ålanders traded sealskins and oil, and sold apples and herring and loaves of sweet black bread known as limpa, which goes well with herring. Today they earn their living in a less grueling fashion. About 15% are directly employed in tourism while a total of 30% are employed in tourist-related services. Seal hunting has dropped out of the picture, but farming, fishing and construction are still major professions. A unique Åland product is the Finnish potato crisp, made from Åland-grown potatoes.

The grand-scale shipbuilding that once went on has died out, but a large part of Finland’s merchant navy is still owned by Åland shippers and Ålanders have revived their traditional boatbuilding skills with two ocean-going wooden sailing ships that can be seen in Mariehamn, which is the capital of the main island, Åland, and has 10,000 inhabitants. The original town on this site was called Långnäs, and some of its old buildings can still be seen there. Mariehamn is the only town-sized settlement, and half of the population lives there. But there are dozens of villages, many dating back centuries, such as Önningby at Jomala. Åland has 6,429 islands, but the smallest islands are either uninhabited, or inhabited by a single family. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 150 were inhabited, although about 100 were inhabited by one or two families. The main ring of islands, connected by free ferry service, include Åland, Föglö, Kökar, Sottunga, Kumlinge, and Brändö. At the Åland Museum one can see displays of folk customs and archaeological finds from digs at many medieval churches. Some of the extraordinary Åland customs center around weddings; until very recently, brides from certain islands wore black. A few brides still wear the traditional high crown of birch leaves and wildflowers. One tradition still remains – a real Åland wedding can go on for days.

Southeast of Åland lies the second-most-populated island, Föglö. The port town of Degerby was once a vodka smugglers’ destination and an important customs post. Maria Magdalena Church was once a key landmark for sailors crossing the north Baltic. It dates from the 12th century and was renovated in 1859. On the altar is a precious silver crucifix from the 1500’s which was discovered in the 1960’s. The cemetery also holds something extraordinary. Several headstones carry the name Peron; any Föglö resident named Peron is related to the family of the late Argentine president. One version of the story explaining this link says that an Argentine seaman became involved in work at the Degerby customs station, found a Degerby wife, and never left.

Kökar is a bare island and most of its vistas look toward the open sea. By the rocky coast at Hamnö is a fascinating medieval church, founded by Franciscan fathers. The soil around the church has yielded up rich archaeological treasures including a medieval graveyard, Estonian coins, and the church’s original baptismal font, now located near the altar. Near the font is the memorial stone of the Franciscan-trained native son Stephanus Laurentii, who was made Finland’s first Doctor of Theology in 1496. At the churchyard entrance is a stone catafalque where relatives still lay out their dead before the formal funeral inside the church. This church was renovated in 1784. The museum at Kökar contains many old photos, tools and costumes as well as narratives about the Germans’ failed attempts to shoot down Kökar’s beacon tower during World War II.

The Åland Islands are rocky, polished by the continental ice-sheet and washed bare by the sea. The main island is composed of red-brown rough red granite. Åland rose slowly from the sea over thousands of years. Fertile loam developed in the bays and sounds between the rocky hills. Because the climate is milder than elsewhere in Finland, the area includes the northern-most examples of central European mixed deciduous forest.

Since ancient times, traffic between Finland and Sweden has passed through the Åland archipelago. There has been much emigration to Sweden, while people have also moved from Finland to Åland. Immigrants receive provincial rights after they have lived in Åland for five years.

Excerpts from “Insight Guide: Finland” and “Finland, A Cultural Encyclopedia”

June Pelo

See also Åland Islands (2)

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