Farm story 4: Vases, Vikings and viragoes

Vases from Lerwick

Two years after I discovered the history of my Baltasound vases (Farm Story 3), I acquired another pair. I inherited them from my sister-in-law Anna who, when she left school, had come to work as a piga (housekeeper/maid) on the next farm to ours and had then married Olle’s half-brother, Einar. She was over 30 years older than me but was kind, level-headed and sensible and was honorary grandmother to our two children. As she had no children and was a widow when she died, her possessions were divided between her relatives.

The vases I wanted had stood in Anna’s china cabinet for as long as I’d known her. Like mine, they were quite flat, designed to stand on a shallow shelf or mantelpiece, and were far from being conventionally beautiful. Indeed, I know that some critics have even called them hideous. They were probably produced at some time in the first decades of the 20th century and are angular, with odd, twig-shaped handles and moulded leaves, catkins and hazel nuts. But their most notable feature is the shiny gold glaze that covers most of their front sides and, as if that isn’t eye-catching enough, there are also fourteen tiny, moulded, blue china flowers which form a raised garland in the middle of the sea of gold. The vases stood out like sore thumbs in Anna’s modest flat - but I liked their shameless, brassy, exuberance and I still do.

When I examined them after her death I discovered that the ornamentation was only on the front, while the back was almost entirely plain apart from the words, in gold of course, “A Present from Lerwick.” By the late 1920’s Lerwick, the biggest town on the Shetlands, had replaced Baltasound as the fishing capital of the islands, and the souvenirs the fishermen brought back with them reflected the change. It was probably Einar who’d bought them, for he'd spent a few years at sea before he and Anna moved to Gothenburg.

But links between the west coast of of Sweden and Shetland pre-date both sets of vases by a thousand years. We know that the Vikings had found their way over the North Sea by 793 as they had raided the monastery of Lindisfarne in north-east England. Then in 875 they landed on Unst , one of the Shetland Islands, and only a few kilometers up the coast from Baltasound. The place is called Haroldswick after Harald hårfager (Harold Fairhair) the same man who, as well as colonising the Shetlands and Orkneys, became the first king of a unified Norway.

At school in England I remember learning that it was the Norwegian Vikings who invaded the Shetlands and the Danish Vikings who invaded the British Isles, while their Swedish kin crossed the Baltic to raid the lands of Russia and points south. But during the years when the Vikings were at their most powerful the boundaries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark were often badly defined and certainly very different from the ones we have today. So Bohuslän, the province in which Tjörn lies, was under Norwegian and Danish rule from around 880 AD until the Peace of Roskilde in 1658, when it finally became Swedish. It’s quite possible that some of the Vikings who terrorised the inhabitants of Shetland came from Tjörn – perhaps even from the place where our farm now stands.

After the initial years of bloodshed and conflict there followed a long period when Shetlanders and Norsemen were subjects of the same ruler. This might be one of the reasons that today’s Shetlanders have almost as many Scandinavian ancestors as British and Irish, and that their DNA shows that the groups from Scandinavia which colonised the islands were made up of both men and women. But not all Vikings became colonisers. Many were content to go on raids or long trading trips and to come home with their spoils. When the men were away, the women stayed at home and, with the help of slaves, were expected to manage their families’ farms and small businesses independently. Relatively recently it’s been established that a few Viking women also took on the roles of warriors and explorers. These exceptional women were certainly in a tiny minority but the tales of their strength and courage must have had some influence on the way their contemporaries thought about what the female of the species was capable of.

Perhaps it’s fanciful to imagine the Viking ideal of womanhood, that women needed to be strong, competent partners rather than mere ornaments, left some traces on the psyche of their rural descendants. But certainly the farmers, smallholders and agricultural workers who made up the majority of the Swedish population until the end of the Second World War valued strength of mind and body and practical skills in both men and women. They were all essential if you needed to survive in a time and place where hunger and poverty were constant threats. If you lived on an island like Tjörn one indispensable skill was gutting and curing fish and in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when the fishing industry was booming, this became a marketable skill. By 1909 on Shetland as many as 1,670 seasonal women workers were involved in gutting fish and, as the industry boomed, women from the west coast of Sweden made the long journey over the North Sea to join the Scottish lasses in what was dangerous, smelly, backbreaking work.

In 1913 one group of about eighty female workers arrived in Shetland from the city of Gothenburg, the nearest large port to Tjörn, to clean fish and pack them in barrels for transportation and export. They were recruited by a Gothenburg sea captain working for a Russian company which supplied the motherland with salted herring. The women slept in wooden barracks and were woken at 5 a.m. in order to have time to bandage their fingers before work so they had some protection against the wickedly sharp knives they used. They must have been a sight to behold as they worked, gutting between 30 and 50 fish a minute, hour after hour, and accidents must have been frequent. This group was housed and worked on Bressay, a little island just off Lerwick, the biggest town on the Shetlands.

Although these women must have been used to pretty tough working and living conditions at home they drew the line at the barracks on Bressay, where they claimed conditions were so bad they made some of the women ill. They dared to raise their voices against their employers, alleging that they weren’t getting their pay and were refused contact with the Swedish consul in Lerwick. The captain who’d taken them there replied that withheld payments and confinement on Bressay were for the women’s own good (you can almost hear his tone of injured innocence) otherwise they’d have drunk away their earnings in the pubs of Lerwick.

A Swedish priest was the next gentleman to offer his opinion on the women’s protests. He visited Bressay and stated that the board and lodgings were simple, but considering that as they were used only in spring and summer, they were reasonable. There were two women to a bed which worked well, he said, as long as neither of them was fat. He was from the Swedish Seamen’s Mission, and he may have regarded these single women earning their own money far from home as potential threats to the virtue of the thousands of seamen who fetched up in Shetland harbours. Whatever the justice of their claims the Swedish women strikers were swiftly sacked and sent home.

Decades later, women from the west of Sweden were still needed by the fishing industry, for who else would clean and pack the herring fillets into the glass jars sold in the shops? And without those jars, traditional Swedish Christmases and Midsummers wre unimaginable. As late as the 1950’s this was an industry still run entirely by men, but occasionally a woman would challenge their superiority.

Anna and Einar had moved to Gothenburg to work in the 1950’s and initially she continued in the same job she’d done on Tjörn – cleaning and packing herring to be sold in shops. This was a skilled job where the fish were neatly arranged in a glass jar in a spiral formation before the brine was poured over them. Her foreman didn’t like her, perhaps because she wasn’t a local girl, and one day came to her table with a badly-packed jar which he displayed to everyone, commenting loudly on Anna’s slovenly work and threatening her with the sack. She agreed that the jar had been carelessly filled but pointed out that as she was left-handed her fish-spiral turned anti-clockwise not clockwise, so the jar clearly wasn’t hers. She left that job shortly afterwards but I doubt if that foreman ever forgot her - and I bet that the Bressay gutters would have cheered her on!

©Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023 For more photos of the farm on Tjörn and its objects see my Instagram account: gwyneths_swedish_farm

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