Farm story 3: The Mystery of Baltasound

The Baltasound vases

When I married Olle in the 1980’s I came across all sorts of items on the farm on Tjörn that I wasn’t used to in England – an electric coffee maker, wooden butter knives and clogs, to name a few. But in one cupboard I discovered two identical china vases, about 15 cms tall and highly decorated, which could have come directly from a Victorian British home. They were fancy little items and being almost flat were clearly designed to be displayed on a narrow shelf or mantelpiece. Judging from their style I guessed they’d been made around 1900. Even I , no expert, could see they weren’t of the highest quality and when I turned them over there wasn’t a well-known name on the bottom, just a number. But what caught my eye were the four words in English written proudly near the top in gold, gothic lettering, “A Present from Baltasound.”< /h3> Since the days of the Vikings most sons born on the small farms on the island became either farmers or went to sea, and Olle and I suspected that one of the seafaring contingent may had returned with these souvenirs of his travels, although Olle had no idea of who had bought the vases, nor how old they were. I too found them objects of mystery, firstly because they looked so out of place on this very Swedish farm, and secondly because I’d never heard of a place in Britain called Baltasound.

This was in the 1980’s, and as late as 1995 only two per cent of the Swedish population over the age of twelve had access to internet at home. Even if you were one of the lucky ones, search engines were far from being the sophisticated tools they are today. Back in those dark days your research was nearly always confined to paper - books, magazines, directories or atlases - and that’s where I embarked on my long and unsuccessful quest for Baltasound. Marriage, work, and learning Swedish kept me occupied, then our two children arrived and any free time disappeared. The place seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth as completely as the lost city of Atlantis.

The years went by and the children grew up. Our daughter Lizzy started her course at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and one winter she and some other students decided it would be fun to take the ferry up to Lerwick on the Shetland Islands, hire a car and travel around for a few days. She kept in regular touch by phone describing the walks they’d been on (long), the wildlife they’d seen (interesting) and the hostels they’d stayed at (chilly). One evening she phoned as usual and told me that they’d visited the beautiful island of Unst, the northernmost inhabited island in the UK, and she was phoning from a tiny settlement near the east coast. It was just a few houses near a deserted bay she told me, a place called Baltasound. I almost dropped the phone – she’d stumbled across the place I’d been looking for for thirty years.

This was in 2014, and one year before the first short article on Baltasound was published in Wikipedia. But that still left an unanswered question - why on earth was the name of this tiny, isolated settlement emblazoned in gold on our vases? The answer, it turned out, was fish. Two sorts of fish attracted the boats from Tjörn. The first was sill or herring, which still has a central role to play in Swedish culture, being eaten (accompanied by copious amounts of snaps) by most Swedes at Christmas and Midsummer. Herring was abundant near the Shetlands at the turn of the century and in the peak year of 1907, two and a half million barrels of salt herring were exported to Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia. A little earlier, in around 1905, roughly 600 fishing boats were operating from 46 herring stations located around Baltasound, each comprising at least one pier and a processing shed. But the boom years didn’t last and by 1939 most of the herring stations at Baltasound had closed and those remaining were based at Lerwick and Whalsey.

The second fish that drew the boats from Tjörn to the Shetland Islands was långa, or ling. It looks like a cross between a cod and an eel, and is a solitary creature living at great depths, up to 600 metres deep. They grow up to 152 cms and reach 59 kilos, but by the time the larger fish are dragged to the surface their swimming bladders are so badly damaged they can’t survive. At the end of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century the Swedish fishermen made their perilous journeys to the North Atlantic on small sailing boats, and ling was caught on long, weighted lines. It was prized because once it was dried and cured it was easily stored and exported and could be eaten in the winter when other foods were scarce.

Like herring, the ling which attracted the fishermen to Baltasound still has an indispensable role in Scandinavian Christmas celebrations, although its popularity is diminishing. This is not surprising as part of the curing process involves soaking the fish in a lye solution, which removes any flavour it might have had. It’s eaten on Christmas Eve and looks and tastes like gelatinous blotting paper, although some misguided Swedes insist they like it. Like many traditional foods, lutfisk is being rejected by the spoiled youth of today in favour of food that they actually enjoy.

The Scottish harbour of Baltasound at the time of the fishing boom looked like a Wild West frontier town during the gold rush, with wooden shacks filling most of the open areas between more permanent buildings. In the summer months there were often between 80 and 90 Swedish boats fishing for ling off the Shetlands, but it wasn’t fishing alone which led to the place’s dramatic expansion. Locals and incomers also worked with the cleaning and curing of herring, fish oil production, boat building and repair, the making of barrels and nets, and the sale of salt, ice and provisions. There was money to be made and if you had a good head on your shoulders, and were lucky and strong, the rewards could be considerable.

There is a photo from Shetland Museum’s archive, taken about 1905 or a bit later, that show Swedish fishing boats at Baltasound, some from Tjörn.. You can’t help but be surprised by the size of these little craft, wooden cutters of between 70 and 90 feet (21 to 27 metres), built for eight men and without engine, electricity, toilet or running water. Neither Swedish nor British seamen fished on Sundays and, if they were close to shore, they often put into Baltasound or Lerwick so they could go to church. Eventually, funds were raised to build a separate Swedish fisherman’s church and in 1910 it was consecrated. It was a simple building of corrugated iron but could seat 300 with standing room for another 100. However, corrugated iron was not meant to withstand the gales of the North Atlantic, and in 1992 a hurricane-force storm destroyed it.

At the same time that men and women were flocking to a few windswept islands in the North Atlantic, the ceramic factories in southern Germany were also experiencing a boom. They were mass-producing enormous numbers of ornamental articles for a new European market - the industrial working classes who now had a little money in their pockets. Among them were the workers visiting Shetland - between 8,000 and 10,000 at the height of the season – who would have ensured a ready market for souvenirs to take back to families and friends in Rotterdam, Riga or Rönnäng. Shetland shopkeepers ordered many of these ornamental plates, boxes and vases, which often came complete with an appropriate text, such as “A Present from Baltasound.” Unfortunately, mistakes were sometimes made. Shetland Museum has a lovely little box in its collection with the words A Present from Lerwick, the largest town on the Shetlands, written carefully (but wrongly) underneath a picture of a Welsh lady in full national costume. She looks rather confused, as well she might.

So who had bought our vases? My bet is on one of Olle’s uncles, Albin or Emmanuel, both of whose names appear in local records as seamen at the end of the 1800’s and who probably brought them back for their mother, Elisabeth. In their kitbags and sea chests they and their shipmates took home with them from Scotland sweets for their children and pretty vases for their womenfolk, sailing in cramped, uncomfortable small vessels across seas which could swallow their boats up whole. They obviously considered that the risks were worth it, but even if their trip had gone well after a month at sea these fishermen and seamen, not to mention their families, must have been relieved when the boats finally found their way back home to Tjörn.

©Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023

For more pictures of the farm on Tjörn go to Instagram account gwyneths_swedish_farm

Thanks to Shetland Museum, Lerwick.

A useful source: Bohusfiskare på Shetland och Swedish Kirk by Sven H. Gullman (Båtdokgruppen)

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