Åland, Finland’s only Swedish-speaking autonomous region, is somewhat of an enigma. Situated in the Gulf of Bothnia, in the Baltic Sea, Åland lies almost perfectly halfway between Sweden and Finland. The archipelago consists of over 6,500 islands. Rocky, small, and relatively unknown, the Åland Islands have a surprisingly rich history, and a complex relationship with both Sweden and Finland.
Until relatively recently, life on Åland was marked by centuries of poverty, foreign occupation, and harsh climactic conditions. Malaria was endemic on the islands for 150 years, and the territory passed back and forth between Swedish, Finnish, and Russian ownership several times. Åland’s strategic location in the Baltic Sea led to many military engagements, most notably the Battle of Bomarsund in 1854: an Anglo-French force landed on the islands and destroyed a Russian fortress, the ruins of which are still visible today. Nowadays, Åland enjoys a high degree of autonomy, and is a demilitarised zone. The population has remained stable for many years, largely due to strict policies on home ownership by foreign citizens. Uniquely beautiful, the archipelago is a popular destination for biking, walking, and caravan vacations. It also boasts many beaches, and forests rich with berries and mushrooms.
1 580 km²
To live on Åland is to be reminded of the fierce power of nature. On cold days, the rough Baltic sea lashes against the rocks and the wind sweeps through the pine forests. On warmer days, the sun glitters on the water, and deer and other wildlife abound. The landscape is rough-hewn, carved from granite by retreating glaciers and dotted with farms that have remained in the same families for centuries. The economy is reliant on shipping, and the people of Åland have a deeply-held connection to the sea.
The remains of Bomarsund, the Russian fortress destroyed by an Anglo-French force in 1854, are a popular sight on the islands. Interestingly for fans of British history, it was at the Battle of Bomarsund that the very first Victoria Cross was awarded, to Rear Admiral Charles David Lucas (at the time an officer), who hurled an explosive shell off his ship before it could kill anyone.
The people of Åland are, by and large, proud of their unique heritage and special status. Although Åland is part of Finland, few residents would consider themselves Finnish. Likewise, you would struggle to find signs or labels in the Finnish language. The troubled history of the islands (many years of Russian occupation) is ingrained into the cultural consciousness; a distrust of Russia is still prevalent, and rumours abound that Putin secretly owns a plot of land on the archipelago. Outside of the capital, Mariehamn, homes are spread out on large farms, many of which are still in use.
The older generation of Ålanders are especially resilient, having grown up during the Second World War, when times were tough and rationing the norm. They are also entrepreneurial, witty, and unfailingly curious. The de facto uniform of any Åland man over 50 is as follows: blue plaid work shirt, dusty blue jeans, and black leather clogs. Dress as such and you’ll fit right in! Drinking very strong coffee is also required.