Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Hamnavoe, harbour village on Shetland's West Burra

Hamnavoe is a Viking word meaning "safe harbour"; any coastal settlement with a pier might have taken the name at the time. Stromness, on the Orkneys, was the main known hamnavoe, but several villages in the Shetlands are old safe harbours with the same name.

Now this one Hamnavoe is on West Burra islet, west of Scalloway. Right on the Ultima Thule route from the north of the British Islands upwards to the Arctic.

Hamnavoe, Burra, Shetland Islands

Coordinates:  60 06' N, 01 21' W
Population:    300 - 400

Hamnavoe is the main settlement on Burra, but there is no historic heritage, and nor specially rich architecture or picturesque sights. The hamlet had just a few cottages in 1890, but in the 1920s, when access was still by ferry from the Mainland, it was expanded with rows of fishermen cottages, as part of an urban planning policy. It's common to see fishing boats outside someone's home.

The  fishing community, built on the site of an older small sheltered harbour, grew rapidly: around 1920, there was even a family of boatbuilders, the Duncans of Hamnavoe.

Row of fisherman's cottages

The cottages are typically single storey with two rooms, a central front door and a porch, often highly decorated.

Fullerton cottage

Sunnybrae, Highmount

Hamnavoe is 5 km from Scalloway and 9 km from Lerwick, with regular bus service. Those provide all the shops and services. In Hamnavoe there is only a Community Hall, a Primary School, and a grocery shop that is also the Post Office: Andrew Halcrow's store.

Andrew Halcrow is a quite renowned lone yachtman from Hamnavoe who attempted twice to sail round the world, in a boat he had built himself - the Elsi Arrub (that's Burra Isle backwards). But that's a long story, to be found elsewhere.

Andrew Halcrow in the Elsi Arrub, leaving Hamnavoe.

One of the most iconic cottages is a small shed whose walls are covered with natural seashells:

The unique Honeysuckle cottage.

A local attraction...

The heart of Hamnavoe is its harbour, complete with its pier. Sheltered from the ocean by a granite promontory, that's the reason for the village to exist.

The haven is suited to small boats that can be harboured close inshore.

Large scale fishing ended long ago, nowadays only fishermen's boats and leisure boats are moored at the marina.

Recently, a local resident, Anne Eunson, started making fences for the garden around her house with fishnet strings, knitted in an artistic manner that ravished everyone who saw.

It has been a success - transmitted by the social media they became widely known.

Around Hamnavoe

West Burra island is approximately 7 km from north to south and 3km from east to west at its widest point. The highest point on the island is 65 m above sea level. 

The Fugla Ness lighthouse

There is a lighthouse at Fugla Bay opposite Hamnavoe. It was built by David A. Stevenson in 1893 and rebuilt by Charles and David A. Stevenson in 1936.

Meal Kirk and beach

Meal Kirk was built in 1907 for the Church of Scotland. It's no longer in service.

A small grey-harled church with white painted window surrounds. Improvements are planned to increase use of the building by the community.

Meal Beach

The path downhill to the sea.

One of the most magnificent in the island at low tide, just to the south-east of Hamnavoe.

So, a kind and southerly (!) Ultima Thule, more a stopover to higher latitudes.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Have some Greek travellers adventured as far as deep high Himalayas in the Middle Ages ? It looks like they did.

We all admire so much Marco Polo and his travel to the Far East that we resist to admit that much before him many other Europeans adventured as far as Canada, like the Vikigs, or the Himalayas, like these levantine Greek : some bones were found there which are dated from the 8th-9th centuries, and its ADN revealed an hellenic origin!

Nobody writes or talks about medieval Greece: by the 8th century, it went through a semi-barbarian period, under the fear of Slavic and Ottoman invasion. Maybe the best descendants of  Pytheas, the Arctic navigator praised and honoured here at Ultima Thule, decided to escape an ungrateful destination and left the falling motherland under the Byzantine Empire to colonize lands farther east, Siria and Lebanon on the levantine coast of the Mediterranean. There are still thousands of ethnic Greeks in Aleppo, for instance.

The Byzantine Empire under Theodora comprised Syria and Lebanon.


The Roopkund lake, known by the locals as the lake of skeletons, is a tiny remote glacial lake over 5000 meters high on the Indian Hymalaias, accessible by a long slow uneasy pedestrian trail. It has been long uninhabited but misteriously it contains hundreds of human bones, as discovered in 1942 by a british forest guard.

The reason for so many victims is a violent hailstorm throwing down giant hail balls in the 9th century; that's an evidence shown by several contusions by hard round objects on the back of the skulls and shoulders. Legends and old songs among local peoples refer a tempest flinging hailstones "hard as iron".

A team from National Geographic started studying 30 of these remains since 2004; they had still bits of flesh and hair preserved by the dry cold air. The first results indicated that most of them were of persian/assyrian origin, the others were locals probably serving as porters or guides. Datation was around 850 AD. But more recently one small goup revealed an ADN particularly coherent with Greek population that by that time habitated Syria or Liban.

What were those people from greek Assyria looking for, during the last breath of Byzantium under the great Empress Theodora, before the arab conquest ? Were they byzantine emissaries far astray from their silk road ? Or maybe merchants making an adventurous deviation to escape road tolls ?

This was a fascinating era. Empires in convulsion, new powers arising, people parting to discover the world !...


Saturday, 25 November 2017

Harstad and the medieval Historical Center and Church of Trondenes, an Arctic treasure

The norwegian arctic town of Harstad, on the coastal island of Hinnøya, is not specially remarkable for ant feature except being close to Trondenes historic site. But as some possible Ultima Thule routes pass close by, Harstad deserves a short notice to start this trip.

Harstad, Norway

Coordinates: 68° 48′ N, 16° 32′ E
           (over 400km above the Arctic Circle)
Population:  ~25 000

The city sits by the Vågsfjorden, on the largest of the norwegian coastal islands, Hinnøya; Harstad grew up at the end of the 1800s as a traffic hub - North Norway's first dam ship's expedition was brought here in 1888.

The harbour area has been restored for leisure as well as a work and business area.

The recently renovated fast boat terminal, Hurtigbåtkaia.

The old building Havnebygget now hosts offices, a café, shops and the waiting room for the fast boat shuttle.

Bark, a fine restaurant and bar by the port

Hogskole (College), Havnegata.

A house in St. Olavsgate, the main street in Harstad.

A swiss-style house from 1930, St. Olavsgate 54.

Harstad has a pleasant city center; for some, it's even the 'Vågsfjord's gem'.

Harstad Sparebank's building, right in the center, was built in 1906 in Art Nouveau style.

Now let's have a short trip by the coastal road:

Just 4 km northwards, a Museum close to an early medieval 13th century church: Trondenes Historiske Senter.

Trondenes Church is the northernmost medieval stone church in Europe, north of the Arctic Circle. For ages it was the northernmost church in Christendom.

Trondenes Church

Location: 68° 49 N, 16° 33′ E

The church dates back to the 13th century, and was built over the ruins of two older viking "stave churches" ( 11-12th cent.), after the vikings lost the battle against the unification of Norway. It was completed around 1440.

The church is well preserved and the exterior is close to the original state. The plan is of the ancient type, with a choir narrower than the nave, rectangular and fortified, with narrow doors and windows. An external wall and towers used to add protection in case of assault.

It displays both romanic and gothic styles: arched doorways and thick walls, against attack from the Russians.

Main door
Side door

In the 1400s and 1500s, the population of Trondenes could harvest huge amounts of dried fish and collect export income on the international markets. Their wealth could sustain distinct church art and expensive maintenance.  That's whar the interior shows.

The larger nave is separated from the narrower altar nave by a wooden structure added in the 18th century, together with the baroque pulpit.

This is what was called a collegiate church - a church where several priesthoods prayed and worked together as in a college.

The baroque 'rococo' pulpit from 1792 is equipped with an hourglass to allow the minister to time long sermons.

The choir in the Trondenes church with its three altar cabinets.

The church is especially known for its rich decorations, including three gothic triptychs of hanseatic origin, probably from artisan masters in Lübeck, all beautifully decorated.

The three altar cabinets are dated to the period 1460-1500.

The small side-altar presents the sacred family. The cabinet is dated to the 1460s.

This hoist polichrome altarpiece was made in 1765.


The high altar:

Detail from the main altarpiece: veneration of Mary.

In the late Medieval period, Trondenes served as the main church centre of northern Norway. Together with Trondheim´s magnificent Nidaros cathedral, they make the most valuable legacy of medieval architecture in Norway.

They also testimony Norway's economic importance in late Middle Age, for the skills and means their building demanded. The fish trade between the Hanseatic towns in the North and Baltic Seas is the major origin of that norwegian wealth.

The Historic Center Museum

The museum displays more than 2,000 years of history in the region, which was once a Viking power centre. Paintings, artifacts and statues depict that rich History, the main focus being on the Medieval age period.

A magnificent tapestry depicting the Viking Era.

Trondenes Chuch in an old painting at the Historic Center. The fortified large complex, close to the busy fjord waters, must have been quite a religious as well as a business hub.