Sunday, 25 October 2020

Symbister, Whalsay (Shetland), the northernmost hanseatic trading post

This is really an incredible place! Accessible only by ferry, Whalsay Island is one of the most isolated of the Shetlands, far into the North Sea at the latitude of Bergen in Norway.

Why on earth would anyone in the 16th century be interested in a port so far away ? Well, whales first of all. Whalsay = Whales Island *, and the trade with German Hanseatic towns was all about seafare. The Hanseatic post at Symbister, though just a small cabin, was a counter of intense business.

The importance of Whalsay as a seafare island resulted in the establishment of the trading booth at Symbister in 1563: the Pier House (Da Böd) was the counter for the export of dried and salted fish to the Hanse, the alliance of trading guilds that established and maintained a trade monopoly over much of Northern Europe between the 13th and 18th centuries. The trade was done first by way of the League's 'Kontor' in Bergen, then (as illicit trade became the norm) direct with Hamburg and Bremen.

German ships sailed to Symbister and brought their goods - iron tools, seeds, salt, cloth and some luxury items - to barter for dried and salted fish (mainly cod) from the island. This old Hanseatic house was used by the Germans for about five centuries until 1707, when they were forced out by a high import duty raise.

Two centuries later herring was the focus of activity. The peak year for herring catches was 1834, but these had declined dramatically within a few years. Fishing boomed again in the late 1800s and in the mid 1900s, but each time this was followed by decline.

The Pier House in the red circle, at Symbister waterfront.

Today, Whalsay is a thriving community largely because of a relatively new fishing phenomenon: the pelagic trawler. These huge vessels are built for deep sea fishing, and keep their catches fresh over prolonged periods at sea.

The new pelagic fleet mooring at Symbister harbour.

Whalsay Island, Shetlands

The island measures some five and a half miles from south west to north east, and some two miles wide.

The most remarkable historic site here is undoubtfully the Böd, the old Hanse boot now modestly refurbished as a museum. Inside, it tells how ships from Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck sailed to Shetland every summer. The first written trade record dates from 1557.

The brae to the rear is still known as Bremer Strasse.

The museum in the Pier House tells how ships from Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck sailed to Shetland every summer, bringing seeds, cloth, iron tools, salt, spirits, luxury goods and hard currency.

But Symbister and other places like Isbister, Marrister, Brough and Kirk Ness have something else worth to visit. The rest of the island is sparsely populated, there are no precisely defined villages, but nature spots are rewarding.

Symbister, Whalsay

Coordinates: 60° 20′ N, 1° 1′ W
Populstion (island):  over 1000

Symbister is the largest village and port on the island of Whalsay, Shetland. The population in 1991 was 797. The focus of the village is the harbour, which is home to small fishing boats as well as large deep sea trawlers.

The village is overlooked by the granite mansion Symbister House, built in 1823.

Symbister from the sea; the community centre down left, the School and Symbister House top centre.

Symbister House, a Country House from 1823.

This is the finest Georgian mansion in Shetland. Since the 1960s, the House (also called the New Haa) has been used as part of Whalsay High School, providing education to students of age 4–16. On the grounds of the Symbister House an old wooden boat sculpture has been placed.

Down and back from the school, the Heritage Centre is installed in the old Farmers House.

The Community and Heritage centre, for meetings, exhibitions and keeping historic memorabilia.

Kirk Ness, at 60º 22' N, is a small island linked to the north coast of Whalsay by a tombolo, which has been reinforced so a road could run on top of it. Surprisingly enough the only building on the island is a kirk !

This is the only parish church on Whalsay, dedicated to Holy Rood; the original church from 1733 has been remodeled in 1867.

A modest new interior in clear wood.

* norse Hvalsey or Hvals-øy

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Qaqortoq, a lively little town in southern Greenland

Qaqortoq is a sub-arctic town in southern Greenland, at 60º N - about 670 km south of the Arctic Circle.

Founded in 1775 as Julianehåb, the small port town has lived through 250 years of History, a rather long time for Greenland. The colonial architecture has provided the town with little gems:

Cobblestone stairways and iron bridges, a wooden bright red church and old houses full of colour in the town center; also a Museum displaying data of the region's heritage, and more recently artwork that was carved out of rock walls at every turn. So, not bad for greenlandic culture.


Coordinates: 60° 43′ N, 46° 2′ W
Population: ~3 100

The main and most photographed building is the red church by a small stream of fresh water.

Frelserens Kirke (Church of the Saviour), from 1832, is a lutheran church.

A votive ship dedicated to the town's seamen hovers over the centre aisle.

MS Hans Hedtoft, a brand-new Danish steamer, crashed against an iceberg and sank with 95 people aboard in 1959, during the inaugural trip along the west coast of Greenland, heading to Julianehåb. That tragedy is rebembered as the "Danish Titanic", to which this church dedicates a memorial.

The Fountain Square and the Museum

No, this is not a typical Italian town :) - it is the civic centre of Qaqortoq, a quite European square in fact:

Torvet i Qaqortoq is surrounded by colonial wooden buildings, now converted to a shop, the Lal’laati’s Corner Café, a bakery, the local newspaper and one of the Museum buildings; in the centre stands Mindebrønden, a fountain in stone and bronze from 1932.

A termal water lake (38ºC) nearby, at Uunartoq, feeds the Mindebrønden, the first ever fountain of precious freshwater in the country.

Three bronze whales spouting water.

Katersugaasivik (Museum) Qaqortoq

Danish colonizers built the port first called Julianehåb (Juliane was a Danish queen) in 1775, as a hub for the seal hunt and the seal skin business. Later, during the era of great explorers in journey to the Arctic, Charles Lindberg and Knud Rasmussen met here in 1933; the presence of these two adventurers of the 20th century is documented at the Museum, which mainly exhibits Inuit boats, hunting equipment, national dresses and Norse artifacts.

The Museum is housed in two buildings; by the Fountain Square is this wooden tarred house from 1871:

The other house was originally the town's blacksmith's shop:

The house was built in yellow stone and dates back to 1804.

The territory has seen human presence since pre-History (Saqqaq e Dorset cultures). Vikings came by the end of the 10th century, and settled at Hvalsey, a few miles to the northeast. They stayed for about 500 years, until middle-15 century, sharing somehow the resources and the land with the local proto-Inuit of the 'Thule' range. The last written record of the Norse presence is of a wedding at Hvalseyjarfjord in 1408.

The kayak (or umiak) is claimed inuit heritage.

Harpoons belong in the umiak.

The Ulu knife, also an exclusive inuit artifact.

The famous Kamiks, colourful and embroidered sealskin boots.

Folk festive costume.

The red attic room where Knud Rasmussen stayed. He met here with Lindbergh to look for safe places to land his plane on the route over the Arctic.

Let's return to the main square to finish our tour.

'Kujataamiu' is the local newspaper; its headquarters sit here.

And this is the town's main café and restaurant; in rare sunny days you can even sit outdoors.

Stone and Man

During the mid-1990s, the Greenlandic artist Aka Høegh (Inuk, 1971) launched a sculpture project with artists from all of the Nordic countries. The following result was Stone & Man (Sten og menneske), fourty sculptures carved all around the city, many of them carved right out of the rock faces. Their strong character brought a fresh cultural breath to the town.

Maybe inspired in Copenhagen's Little Mermaid.

Inded a permanent collecton, this open air art gallery.

Housing, as usual in Greenland, is mainly the wooden two-floor prefab model painted in bright colours - red, blue and green.

As in most settlements in Greenland, there are no streets and no cars in Qaqortoq; just a road network connecting the harbour and the heliport. Connecting houses, stairways go uphill-downhill offering an additional unique landscape.

Even an Inuit family from the cold lands may like to have the house decorated with spring flowers - an arctic luxury.

In Summer, temperature usually rises to zero degrees; lately it has been slightly positive.

Narsarsuaq Arboretum

A Forest in Greenland ?!

South Greenland has two whole forests, actually. This one is in Narsarsuaq, and there’s another in Tasermiut Fjord.

This small forest is 60 km northwest of Qaqortoq, in a complex network of fjords.

Narsarsuaq Arboretum is exemplary of a forestation program that the whole world needs.

It's a nordic forest, mostly composed of conifers, firs and larch trees, but also alders, birches, willows and poplars.

And from here Greenland started to export ... honey !

From Narsarsuaq forest.

Over 500 000 bees from northern Sweden flied (by plane!) into Narsarsuaq, where they started a new life.


Close to the Arboretum, Café Polar-Tut offers indoor and outdoor leisure time for visitors: