When any reference is made to the Nordic regions, our minds tend to leap to the likes of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. But there are other jewels in the Nordic crown. Autonomous territories that seem more or less content to keep to themselves and the peripheral vision of the rest of the world. But not for much longer. Here’s the lowdown:
The Åland Islands
Åland is the autonomous territory with the closest links to its more often talked about neighbours – not least due to its proximity. The Åland Islands consist of an archipelago of 6,500 small islands at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. Despite being part of Finland, Åland is exclusively Swedish-speaking by law (with over 90% of Ålanders speaking Swedish as their first language in 2009) and its residents are exempt from conscription to the Finnish Defence Forces. Most Ålanders live in Åland’s only town, Mariehamn, situated on the largest island, Fasta Åland. Perhaps as is to be expected of an island region, shipping is of particular importance to Åland’s cultural history, and local shipwrights still build wooden vessels using traditional methods and models. As far back as 900 AD, trade was common with countries as far away as Arabia. At different times in the region’s history, it has been ruled by Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Russia, all of whom squabbled over it for centuries due to its strategic location. The region was demilitarised in in the early 19th century during the Crimean War and has remained politically neutral since, becoming autonomous in 1921. Culturally, Åland is Scandinavian with a few twists.
The Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands consist of an archipelago of 18 islands situated roughly halfway between Norway and Iceland and only 320 kilometres from the coast of mainland Scotland. It is currently part of the Kingdom of Denmark, although at different points in its history it has been part of Norway, the Kalmar Union and Denmark-Norway. It became autonomous in 1948. Faroese is spoken throughout the islands as a first language. Despite the population of the Faroe Islands only being around 48,000 (around 20,000 in the capital, Tórshavn) there are around 44 nationalities living on the islands. The Faroese have retained a lot of their traditional culture, as they were largely unaffected by cultural movements in large parts of the rest of Europe, and as such, many traditional Faroese cultural activities are unique to the islands. Such activities include a particular chain dance most often performed during the summer festival of Ólavsøka – accompanied by Faroese ballads (kvæði) – that was banned by the Church elsewhere in Europe due to its pagan origins. Faroese food is also a talking point. Mutton forms the basis of many meals, perhaps unsurprisingly when we consider that Danish Færøerne translates as the islands of the sheep. The Faroese also eat a lot of whale meat as well as fish and sea birds such as puffins. Handicrafts such as the knitting of Faroese jumpers have enjoyed increased popularity recently as more young Faroese people move away from home and look for a way to maintain cultural links.
Greenland, the world’s largest non-continental island, is situated just east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and is also part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Whereas ethnically the inhabitants of Åland and the Faroe Islands are of primarily Scandinavian (or, in the case of Faroese women, Scottish) decent and culturally Nordic, the vast majority of Greenlanders are of Inuit decent and speak Greenlandic, an Eskimo-Aleut language. Greenland became autonomous in 1979 with limited self-government. It is said that Norwegian-born Icelander Erik the Red travelled there after being exiled from Iceland and decided to name it Greenland in an attempt to attract settlers and draw attention away from the fact that a huge ice sheet covers most of the island. However, in Greenlandic the island is called Kalaallit Nunaat, land of the Kalaallit (the indigenous Greenlandic Inuit people). Greenland has a population of less than 57,000, and around 15,000 people live in the capital, Nuuk. Traditional Greenlandic cultural activities such as sealing, whaling, fishing and hunting are the main sources of income for Greenland. Ice fishing and dog sledding are also popular activities that are often promoted in an attempt to attract tourists. Greenland also has a vibrant tradition of decorative art and handicrafts, the inspiration for which often originates from the natural world and traditional beliefs regarding the spirit world. The Greenlandic word for art is Eqqumiitsuliorneq, which means ‘to create things that look strange’ – a sentiment perhaps best embodied by carvings of the figure Tupilak, who is said to be endowed with powerful magic, as these constitute an expression of the history of art and culture in Greenland.