A raggle-taggle archipelago nudging into the Norwegian Sea, the Vesterålen islands, and their southerly neighbours the Lofoten, are like western Norway in miniature: the terrain is hard and unyielding, the sea boisterous and fretful, and the main – often the only – industry is fishing. The weather is temperate but wet, and the islanders’ historic isolation has bred a distinctive culture based, in equal measure, on Protestantism, the extended family and respect for the ocean.
Somewhat confusingly, the Vesterålen archipelago is shared between the counties of Troms and Nordland: the northern Vesterålen islands are in Troms, while the southern half of the Vesterålen and all the Lofoten islands are in Nordland. The Vesterålen islands are the less rugged of the two groups – greener, gentler and less mountainous, with more of the land devoted to agriculture, though this gives way to vast tracts of peaty moorland in the far north. The villages are less immediately appealing too, often no more than narrow ribbons straggling along the coast and across any available stretch of fertile land. Consequently, many travellers simply pass by on their way to Lofoten, a definitive mistake when considering the small fishing port of Andenes, which beckons with a strange but enthralling back-of-beyond charm and for a litany of whale-watching expeditions. In summer, Andenes also has the advantage of being linked by ferry to Gryllefjord, on the island of Senja. Other Vesterålen highlights are the magnificent but extremely narrow Trollfjord, where cruise ships and the Hurtigruten perform some nifty manoeuvres, and Harstad, a comparative giant with a population of 23,000 and the proud home to a splendid medieval church.
The archipelago was first settled by semi-nomadic hunter-agriculturalists some 6000 years ago, and it was they and their Iron Age successors who chopped down the birch and pine forests that once covered these coasts. It was boatbuilding, however, which brought prosperity: by the seventh century, islanders were able to build ocean-going vessels, a skill that enabled them to join in the Viking bonanza. Local clan leaders became important warlords, none more so than the eleventh-century chieftain Tore Hund, one-time liegeman of Olav Haraldsson, and one of the men selected to finish Olav off at the Battle of Stiklestad – the fulfilment of a blood debt incurred by Olav’s execution of his nephew. In the early fourteenth century, the islanders lost their independence and were placed under the control of Bergen: by royal decree, all the fish the islanders caught had to be shipped to Bergen for export. This may have suited the economic interests of the Norwegian monarchy and the Danish governors who succeeded them, but it put the islanders at a terrible disadvantage. With their monopoly guaranteed, Bergen’s merchants controlled both the price they paid for the fish and the prices of the goods they sold to the islanders – a truck system that was to survive, increasingly under the auspices of local merchants, until the early years of the twentieth century. Since World War II, improvements in fishing techniques and, more latterly, the growth in tourism and the improvement and extension of the roadway infrastructure have all combined to transform and improve island life.