‘Open-boat cod fishermen required for seasonal work; faith in God and a supernatural ability to withstand cold and wet an advantage’. Even if it wasn’t put in quite those terms, anyone looking for work in 19th-century Scandinavia would have known roughly what was involved, but with few other options to pursue, men signed up in tens of thousands, from southern Norway and beyond.
The fishing was in Lofoten where huge numbers of cod come to spawn each year, from mid-February to late April. The meagre population on Lofoten’s islands couldn’t begin to harvest the numbers needed for what was an early global industry, so migrant workers headed north to brave the dark winter months inside the Arctic Circle. They were put up in temporary accommodation called rorbuer – the red wooden huts which have become a very permanent and picturesque emblem of Lofoten, set on stilts above clear waters, with towering mountains as a backdrop. They’ve been preserved not because they look nice, but to provide homes to Lofoten’s new seasonal visitors: tourists – a development which would have stunned their original inhabitants.
The huts have had a bit of an upgrade in the intervening years. You can get the full story of how things were in the village of Å – an open-air museum at the south-western end of the island chain. It's a step back in time, beginning with a guided visit to an original rorbu which differs chiefly from those you get to stay in by being thoroughly unfit for human habitation by modern standards. What you experience as a cosy, heated, fully plumbed mini-house for a couple of people, the fishermen of yesteryear shared between eight or ten, with half the space set aside for mending fishing nets and storing the stocks of dry bread the men arrived with from home, to see them through several months (sell-by dates did not apply). If they lit a fire to cook, it was extinguished shortly afterwards, timber being far too precious to use for heating. On the occasions the men had meat, they would sit around the pot with their portion on the end of a fish hook and line, waiting for it to cook, and gleaning a bit of warmth at the same time. As migrant workers, their focus was on saving all they earned to take home rather than wasting it on luxuries like heating or a proper bed for the night.
Being cold and wet must have been a permanent state, not just at sea but back on land as well. No wonder the Norwegians ended up producing one of the best-known brands of foul weather gear – Helly Hansen – and the world's best-ever hand cream. The only surprise is that they never came up with self-heating undies. Or perhaps they did.
The rest of the village of Å – the medieval-looking cod liver oil ‘factory’ of sticky black cauldrons (the smell, too, is preserved – not for authenticity but because you couldn’t get rid of it short of burning the whole place to the ground), the old post office, the bakery and the genteel housing of the local aristocracy throws the harsh conditions endured by the fishermen into even sharper focus. But as you marvel that anyone could have survived a day or week under such conditions, never mind a season – and then returned next year, for more – it’s worth remembering that the occupants of the rorbuer were in fact the lucky ones. The poorest men, or those determined to send every last penny home, slept under their upturned fishing boats each winter.
So the next time you find yourself in Lofoten and the ‘changeable’ weather doesn’t quite play ball, count yourself lucky that someone had the smart idea of doing up the region’s rorbuer rather than smashing them up for firewood, and that they remembered to put some heating in. And enjoy the view – there’s really nothing quite like it.