ÅLAND, THE HISTORY
Hunting & fishing
When the first people immigrated to the archipelago around 7,000 years ago, Åland consisted of only a few islands. Everything else was the sea.
During the last ice age – which ended about 10,000 years ago – the rock formations were carved smooth and pushed down by the weight of the ice. When the ice melted, land slowly began to re-emerge from the sea and the
archipelago grew. The climate during this period was warm and humid. Deciduous trees and pine grew in abundance, whereas there were no fir trees.
The first people arrived from the east 7,000 years ago. They were members of the Neolithic Comb Ceramic culture which settled around the Gulf of Bothnia, the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea, and east to the Ural Mountains.
1,500 years later people from the Pit-Comb Ware culture moved into the archipelago from the west, where they had settled along the east and west coasts of Sweden and into Norway. Åland was the place where the two cultures met.
The Stone Age (ca. 4000–1500 BC) was superseded by the Bronze Age (ca. 1500-400 BC). The early Bronze Age is known for its stone mounds. Presumed to have been tombs for members of the upper class, they often contained precious burial gifts. The late Bronze Age is characterised by cremation funerals. The deceased were burned on a funeral pyre and their remains were laid to rest under small mounds of stones (cairns).
Stone Age and Bronze Age people found food by hunting seals and birds, fishing, and gathering plants. They hunted seals all year round, but most often during the winter. They made use of the animals’ meat, skins, furs and liver oil. They collected down (feathers) and eggs from the nests of waterfowl. Waterfowl were hunted using devices called decoys, which were made to look like other birds. Hunting took place in spring and autumn.
We can find traces of agriculture in Åland as far back as the late Stone Age, about 4,000 years ago. In the early Iron Age (about 500 BC – 1000 AD), settlement decreased and became concentrated on what is today the Main Island. Contact with other cultures outside Åland stagnated.
In the mid-5th Century AD, there was an increase in population through immigration, primarily from the Mälaren Valley area of Sweden (near present-day Stockholm). Grave findings suggest that there was now cultural contact between Åland and the Nordic and Continental Germanic areas. There are over 380 documented burial sites in Åland, concentrated on the main islands, stemming from the Viking Age (ca. 800–1000). There are also six well-known castle ruins.
Farms were not located together in the villages, but were scattered throughout the archipelago. A common type of building was the post-borne longhouse, where people and animals lived together. Individual houses made out of timber could also be found.
The Åland coastal climate is characterised by mild winters, a lack of rain in late spring, cool summers and warm autumns. The chalky soil and fertile clay provide good conditions for farming. Until the 1870s, rye was the most common type of grain. The first cultivated root vegetable was the turnip, and the potato was introduced in the 1700s. A major land reform, called Storskiftet (the great transition) was implemented in most villages around 1840, when scattered farmland plots were consolidated into larger units. Farmland around the archipelago could now be used for cattle farming. Cows were used for their milk, meat, hide and hair. Cheese was commonly made.
With the end of the Viking Age, the ancient Nordic beliefs gave way to Christianity. Åland’s oldest churches are located in close proximity to important pagan burial grounds. The first churches were wooden stave churches; these were soon replaced by churches built of stone. Small chapels were built for sailors along the old trade routes.
The history and chronology of the stone church in Åland are the subject of debate, but we are in any case certain that they have undergone major changes over the centuries. The simple aisle-less churches with an open roof truss eventually had vaults added, and the west tower, vestry and church porch were built on. Despite many common features, the churches all differ remarkably in terms of masonry technique and size. The church was the centre of rural life. It affected every stage of a person’s life. Great reverence was shown towards the Church and the clergy, and church discipline was strict.
Åland, like the rest of Finland, was an autonomous region during the Middle Ages. The highest authority was the council (Landstinget). It met in Saltvik, one of the most important market communities. In the 1200s, Åland and Finland were incorporated into the Swedish Empire. From 1634 Åland was part of the “Turku and Pori county and Åland chiefdom”.
The most important medieval building – besides the churches – is Kastelholm. It is first mentioned in 1388 and was probably built under Seneschal Bo Jonsson Grip. The castle has been rebuilt and added to many times over the centuries; it has been besieged and damaged by fire. Right up to the 1700s, Kastelholm was Åland’s administrative and military centre. The King stayed here during his visits, and this is where the taxes were brought upon collection.
Great weddings lasting three to four days could still be seen in Åland up to the 1920s. There was eating, drinking and dancing. The newly-wed couple received many gifts, and the bride brought a dowry to her new home among her husband’s family.
Midsummer celebrations have a long tradition in Åland. In many villages the locals erect a maypole and cover it with leaves and decorations in the form of paper crowns, weather vanes, boats, suns and little male figurines waving their arms. Midsummer poles are erected on Midsummer’s Eve under the watchful eye of a ‘maypole captain’. The festivities often include speeches, song and dance.
Ballads, broadside folk songs, ring games and lullabies were sung in homes around Åland right until the beginning of this century. The folk songs were handed down from generation to generation. The violin was the instrument of choice at dances and weddings. After the First World War the accordion became increasingly more popular.
Åland has never had any particular national dress. Everyone dressed as they liked.
Musicologist Otto Andersson came up with the idea in 1907 to re-create the old Åland costumes. A ‘costume committee’ wove and sewed various garments using the old patterns and descriptions. Today, each municipality has its own costume.
Rye bread, fish, seal meat, milk, butter and cheese were for many years the staples in pantries around Åland. Åland specialties are the Åland pancake with stewed prune compote, sötost (a type of crème brûlée), dark, sweet rye bread, and round wheat bread.
The sea has always played a significant role in the history of Åland. Fishing and shipping have provided many Åland residents with livelihoods and food, and the sea has been an important transport route for peoples around the Baltic Sea.
Life on fish cutters was hard, the working days long and heavy. During the Middle Ages, fish was most commonly caught using simple seine nets. In the mid-1800s cast net fishing was introduced from Ostrobothnia, and later the people of Åland learnt Gotland-style driftnet fishing.
Boats were a prerequisite for island life. The Ålanders made annual market trips in sailing ships to Stockholm, Turku, Helsinki and Tallinn. Often, several boats set off at once and there were sometimes lively races between them.
As early as the late Middle Ages there was lively trade to and from Åland. Farmer-sailors mostly exported fish and agricultural produce, and later also timber. Following the Crimean War in the 1850s, there was intense growth in the shipping industry so that by the 1920s, peasant sailing had been replaced by large companies. In Åland, sailing ships remained as a means of transport for unusually long – almost one hundred years after the world had converted to engine-driven vessels.
There had been plans to build a city on the island since the Vasa Era (1523–1654). The first city-like settlements arose in the village Skarpans beside Bomarsund Fortress. However, Skarpans was abandoned after the siege and fall of Bomarsund in 1854.
Mariehamn was founded in 1861 by Emperor Alexander II and was named after Empress Maria Alexandrovna. In the beginning, the city had few inhabitants and a very unassuming appearance, but by about 1900 both the population and the number of settlements had already increased considerably.
One person who left a mark on Mariehamn is the county architect G. Th. P. Chiewitz, who in 1859 designed a town plan based on a grid pattern. Hilda Hongell, Finland’s first female building site manager, designed many wooden houses in the town, while architect Lars Sonck was the mastermind behind several public buildings.
One of the cornerstones of industry in Mariehamn is shipping. Even in its early days, the city’s shipbuilders, captains and sailors represented a significant part of the population. Big sailing ships were eventually replaced by steamships. Nowadays our ports are visited by large car-and passenger ferries, cargo ships and pleasure boats. Tourism began when the baths began operations in 1889. The bathing establishment consisted of many different buildings, several of which were designed by Lars Sonck. The baths were most popular around 1900, their operations coming to a halt with the outbreak of the First World War. In 1916, the bathhouse hotel burned down and the bathhouse era came to a definitive end.
Åland’s central location in the Baltic Sea has made the region of strategic importance. From the earliest ancient castles to the current demilitarised region, the military presence has varied over time, but the islands have always attracted the interest of the surrounding countries.
The Great Northern War (1713–21) hit Åland hard. Russia’s attack in 1714 caused much of the population to flee to Sweden. Many people were captured and the villages were deserted. The residents could not return to their farms until eight years later.
In 1808, Russia attacked again and sent troops ashore in the eastern archipelago. The War of 1808–09 was a horrific time for Åland. Epidemics ravaged the islands, and violence was commonplace. The war ended with Sweden having to surrender Finland and Åland to Russia.
Åland became the western outpost of the Russian Empire. Soon the idea of a fortress and a base for the growing Imperial war fleet emerged. In 1829 construction began on Bomarsund Fortress with workers coming from all over the Russian Empire. Bomarsund became a community where many different cultures and religions met.
There was not enough time to complete Bomarsund before the next war broke out. During the Crimean War of 1853–56, Britain and France took sides with Turkey against Russia. Bomarsund was attacked in August 1854 and the Russian forces were soon forced to surrender. The consequence of the war was that Åland was declared a demilitarised zone, which it remains to this day.
The First World War (1914–18) also had a significant impact on the Åland Islands: it marked the beginning of Åland’s autonomy. Åland was, however, only mildly affected by the Second World War (1939-45). Shipping was the worst industry hit, with several ships sunk and Åland sailors killed.
In the wake of the First World War (1914–18), Åland was wracked with uncertainty and anxiety. Russian soldiers were present throughout the region, and there was heated tension between the Conservatives and the Communists. Sweden was perceived as safe, and a group of activists began discussing a reunion with the former motherland.
Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917 gave impetus to the discussions. The issue of Åland’s reunion with Sweden was discussed in the newly-formed League of Nations in 1921. The LN did not uphold the wishes of the Ålanders, ruling instead that Åland should belong to Finland. Åland was, however, granted broad autonomy and guaranteed demilitarisation and Swedish as the official language. The Autonomy Act was later supplemented with provisions on the ‘right of domicile’.
Autonomy means that Åland has its own parliament (Lagtinget, formerly the county council) and a government (provincial government, formerly the provincial authority). In 1954 the region got its own official flag, and in 1993 it founded its own postal system with its own stamps.