Farm story 1: the farmhouse

Mölnebo Lower Farm, 2009

The island of Tjörn is part of the province of Bohuslän, which extends from Norway in the north to the old town of Kungälv around 150 km to the south. Bohuslän is Sweden’s most westerly province and the farm in the photo is situated near Tjörn’s rocky south-east coast, where for centuries farmers have made the most of the few flat, lush fields which lie between the rounded stone cliffs.

My husband was called Olle, and his family lived on or near this patch of land for centuries. Their first association with Mölnebo Nedergård comes in the late 1700’s although his ancestors were living on nearby farms many years before that. It’s a shame there isn’t a single picture of the house which was demolished to make way for the current one, nor of any of the previous buildings which old maps tell us stood here. One of the reasons for their almost total disappearance is the ruthless, poverty-inspired pragmatism of Swedish farmers. Bricks, roof tiles, old doors and stones were all valuable resources and re-used to make new buildings while the land on which the old houses stood was returned to its original purpose as pasture or arable fields.

You can compare the twenty-first century photo of the farm at Mölnebo with the earlier, black and white one on the first page of this website. The two pictures were taken from almost exactly the same spot with seventy years between them. The older one comes from around 1936 when the house built by Johan, Olle’s father, was still new. I can be confident of the date because if I squint I can see the tiny figure of a fair-haired child in short trousers and a jumper in the farmyard. It’s Henry, Olle’s older brother, who was born on the farm in 1934. Here he’s about two or three years old. It’s easy to miss him if you don’t know he’s there and he’s clearly unconscious that this moment in his childhood is being recorded for posterity.

The more recent photo of the farm is in colour and was taken in 2009. Both pictures show how the farmhouse looks south over a small plain, divided into four largish fields, two of which still belong to the family. The land slopes gently down from the woods and cliffs behind and it is sheltered, well-drained and fertile, shaped by the people and animals who lived in the spot for millennia – for this island has more Stone Age sites than you can shake a stick at.

In the 1930’s the stony cliff rising up behind the house was quite bare, for grazing farm animals kept down weeds, grasses and encroaching trees. They were aided by children sent out to gather acorns for the pigs, and twigs and short branches for kindling. In the more recent photo the cliffs are covered by vegetation and it’s clear that nature is slowly re-claiming the land. The fields near the house are no longer under cultivation and where once crops grew there are now dandelion clocks, while small juniper bushes and brambles are impinging on what used to be the potato field.

If you want to enter the house, you have to walk around it to get to the front door, for the house has its back to the track which leads up to it. For centuries this was no simple farm lane but a comparatively busy country road, and a map of the area from 1885 shows us that the road meandered past farms and cottages, hugging the cliffs which surround the fields. Planning his new house in the 1920’s Johan must have thought that the family would have more privacy with the front door positioned away from any passing traffic. Todaya straight modern road takes all passing traffic and the only vehicles that come up the track are the odd tractor or moped.

The stenfot (stone foundations) of the farmhouse rise to head height above the grass and it is made of enormous, roughly-dressed stones held together by thick mortar. Their colours vary from soft pink through beige to dark grey with a silvery glint and they look exactly the same now as the day Olle’s father positioned them there. The tremendous weight of these irregular stone blocks was such that the farmers didn’t need to dig foundations – their sheer size kept them in place. The upper floors of the house are made of wood and the front door of the house is at the top of a flight of concrete steps, protected from rain and snow by the balcony above.

This door has a characteristic which it shares with most other Swedish doors but which sets it apart from the vast majority of its British counterparts – it opens outwards. Of course, Swedes know never to stand too close when they ring a doorbell, as they’re aware that if someone opens it suddenly, they will be propelled off the front step. The reasoning is that in case of fire it is easier for rescuers to open the door outwards as they can be sure that there isn’t a body behind it blocking their entry. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that the unconscious person lying in the hall is probably some desperate foreigner who’s been trying to open the door inwards, until they finally succumbed to exhaustion.

One of the differences you notice when comparing the two photos is that one of the outbuildings has been replaced by a new combined garage and guest house. The old stone and wooden building shown in the 1936 photo was made up of two floors serving very different purposes. The upper floor acted as a hen house while underneath, behind thick walls built into the slope, the family stored potatoes in a cool, windowless cellar. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries potatoes were one of the family’s most important crops, both for their own consumption and as a cash crop, so it wasn’t surprising that they had their own custom-made storeroom for this most precious of vegetables. They were as important in Sweden as they were in Ireland -a staple part of most people’s diet - and if the potato crop failed hunger, or emigration, often followed.

Tjörn potatoes are famous in Sweden and people on the island, not usually very talkative, make an exception when it comes to their favourite root vegetable. They can go on for hours about their pet varieties, the sort of weather they (the potatoes) prefer, the type of pest they attract and crucially, whether the ones they (the farmers) planted in April will be ready to eat on Midsummer’s Eve.

©Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023

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