The Story
of Nordkinn

This remote and rugged region has been populated since the last Ice Age. Its history includes witch trials, treasure, insurrection, scorched earth and lots of fish and reindeer. All against a stunning natural backdrop.

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The Finnkirka sea cliff was a sacred sacrificial site in ancient times, and is still a prominent landmark.

Europe's Northernmost Mainland


Nordkinn (or Nordkyn) is located at the very northern edge of the European continent, in the eastern part of Finnmark County in Norway. That's as far north as the northern parts of Alaska or Siberia.

Despite its high latitude, the long winters are surprisingly mild thanks to the Gulf Stream, which brings warm currents across the Atlantic Ocean.

The oldest settlements in the region date back over 10,000 years, but the primary resource remains the same to this day - huge amounts of ocean fish.

The northernmost point on the European continent is Cape Nordkinn, which is a popular trekking destination.

The travels of Ohthere, viking chieftain

One of the earliest written accounts from Finnmark is from the voyage by Ohthere (Ottar) in the 9th century. He sailed along the northern Norwegian coast and around the Kola Peninsula, now in modern Russia.

Othere describes Nordkinn as a desolate and harsh region, sparsely populated with Sámi hunters, trappers and fishermen. He referred to his route as Norðweg, or Northern Way, and this is likely the origin of the name Norway.


The Gokstad ship, similar to the one used by Ohthere on his travels northward.


The Sámi have a long history of reindeer husbandry, including lassoing.

The Sámi

Since around 2000 years ago the Sámi have existed as a nomadic ethnic group in the Barents region of Europe and Russia, in a region known as Finnmork (an extension of today's Finnmark County in Norway).

In the 9th century, Ohthere described them as a maritime people, skilled in fishing and boatbuilding. They were also good hunters and trappers.

There was historically much competition and conflict between nation-states to exploit Finnmork. At one point, some Sámi were taxed by three different states - Denmark-Norway, Sweden and Novgorod (Northwest Russia).

In the 17th century, the Sámi developed their domestic reindeer husbandry, which continues today.

Sámi culture emphasises spirituality and harmony with nature. From around 1850 and until the last half of the 20th century, the policies of Norwegian assimilation led to the near eradication of Sámi language and culture in many areas, especially in coastal settlements. The Sámi were subjected to discriminatory regulation and forced assimilation.

In the 1970's and 80's, there was a reversal of the previous policies, and the Sámi received both their own flag and parliamentary body at the end of the Eighties.

Modern Sami life is about the same as that of Norwegians in general, but many of the old crafts are still practiced, such as herbalism, healing, handicraft and reindeer herding. The Sámi art of joik (chanting) is particularly spellbinding.

Sámi is an official language in Norway. It is a Uralic language and completely different from Norwegian.

The Midnight Sun

During summer, the landscape is bathed in constant daylight. Nordkinn's latitude is around 71° N, far north of the Polar Circle, and therefore has long and cool summers without sunsets or sunrises.

The reason is of course the Earth's tilt. In the summer months, the far northern regions are angled such that despite the Earth's rotation, the sun remains above the horizon.

Conversely, in the winter months the sun doesn't rise above the horizon. In midday there is a bluish, dusk-like light, but otherwise the darkness is constant and only broken by starlight, moonlight or the Northern Lights.

Midnight Sun

The midnight sun at around 1 a.m. in July.

The Witch Trials


Norse witches were often burnt while bound to a ladder which was simply tipped over the flames. The fire was intended to purify the witch's evil powers.

The insanity of witch trials and burnings swept through Europe in the 16th and 17th century, and not even Nordkinn escaped this scourge.

Accusations of sorcery, often motivated by family feuds or personal disagreements, could lead to torture, maiming and death.

The most well-known witch trial on Nordkinn involved Kari Edisdatter, also known as Finn-Kari, in 1620. She was of Sami descent and had shamanistic abilities. She was accused of witchcraft and later murder by several of her peers, and at trial first subjected to the "cold water ordeal" (judicium aquae frigidae), which means that if you float after being bound and dropped into a pond, you're guilty. She nearly drowned, but stayed afloat.

She was likely also put on the torture rack before confessing to a number of crimes, including making a pact with the devil, and was burned at the stake the same year.

In Eastern Finnmark, in the period 1593-1692, there were a total of 112 witch trials, with 76 people burned. An overwhelming majority were women, and among men the Sámi shamans were disproportionately targeted.

Luckily the trials were slowed down and eventually stopped by the judge and humanist Manderup Pedersen Schønnebøl, who arrived in Nordkinn to inspect the trials in 1653. He immediately dismissed charges against seven women based on testimony under torture and by "dubious persons". In 1663 he intervened on a larger scale and eventually ended the persecutions nationwide. The last witch burning in Norway occurred in 1695.


Sacrificial Sea Cliff


Finnkirka in sunset.

The distinctive Finnkirka sea cliff is an iconic landmark for the town of Kjøllefjord and the Nordkinn peninsula. It is also the motif of the shield of Lebesby municipality.

In the olden days, seafarers sailing eastward around Nordkinn would stop to make an offering for a safe journey at the Altertavla sea cliff on the east side of the Kjøllefjord. On the return trip they would stop at Finnkirka and make an offering of thanks for surviving the dangerous voyage.

The rock formation was also a Sámi sacrificial site and sacred sea cliff. It is possible to trek along a marked trail from Kjøllefjord to spectacular lookout points toward Finnkirka.

Finnkirka is officially listed as a cultural monument, and if you travel with Hurtigruten to Kjøllefjord during wintertime, you can watch it being illuminated by floodlights as you sail by.

The Pomor Trade

"Is that the Russians in the bay?"

From the last part of the 18th century and until World War I, trade between Finnmark and the Russian Pomor region of Arkhangelsk was very important.

Gamvik harbour

Gamvik harbour with Russian trading ships. Photo: Vardø Museum

Huge distances and poor communications southward made it difficult and expensive for people in Finnmark to acquire basic foodstuffs such as flour, butter, cheese, meat and peas. Other merchandise such as timber, tea, tar, iron, rope and leather were also in short supply.

The Pomor traders brought all of the above, and in return they wanted fish. This included all species fished off the coast of Finnmark, whether raw, salted or dried. They also bought furs, syrup and coffee.

When World War I broke out, the Russians were in a hurry to get home and left many ships behind. Most people expected the Pomors to return when the war was over, but by that time there had been a revolution in Russia, and the Soviet state preferred more isolation.

Although some attempts were made to reestablish trade, improvements in communications and transport routes in Norway and westward meant that the Pomor trade era was over. However, the cultural relationships formed still exist between the Finnmark region and neighboring Russian regions.



Beached whale. Photo: Worm-Petersen, Severin / Norsk Teknisk Museum

Whale hunting was practiced around the North Cape and Nordkinn regions as far back as the 9th century. In the 16th to 18th centuries, foreign nations hunted whale indiscriminately, resulting in bans on foreign whalers and exclusive whaling charters being issued.

One such charter was awarded to the inventor and industrialist Svend Foyn, who received monopolistic rights to whaling using grenade harpoons from steam-powered ships in 1873 and was based at the Mehamn whaling station from 1885.

Foyn was also a Christian philanthropist, and donated substantial sums to seafarers' missions, schools and chapels. This, however, did not allay the long-standing conflict between fjord fishermen and whalers.

The Mehamn uprising

Fishermen thought that the caplin fish was driven toward the fjords and shores by the whales. The caplin is one of the primary food sources for the Atlantic codfish, which is the primary resource for Nordkinn and indeed most of the Norwegian coast. If the whales were decimated because of over-hunting, the fishermen feared the cod would no longer enter the fjords in search of food.

Additionally, more mundane friction arose from the competition for fishing areas. This culminated in several physical confrontations, including the Mehamn uprising in June 1903.

On June 1, there was a large celebration and dance in Mehamn, and a considerable number of visiting fishermen were present in the area. The situation appears to have been precipitated by the local sheriff having purposefully damaged a fishing boat in an altercation some days prior. A large number of mostly drunk fishermen confronted him and demanded restitution, which he refused. The fishermen then carried the sheriff through the town - to considerable public amusement - and threatened to throw him into the fjord.

Mehamn whaling station

The remnants of the Mehamn whaling station after the uprising.
Photo: Sandefjord Museum of Whaling

Having thus challenged authority, the rebellious mood spread and turned to the despised whaling industry. The festivities continued, and the following day a mob of about 1,500 fishermen (still mostly drunk) demolished the Mehamn whaling station. On June 3, the party was still going on and the ruins of the whaling station could be admired to the sound of song and accordion music.

At this point, the central authorities had been contacted, and soon there was a police squad of 48 from Vardø and Vadsø, a 150-strong division of officer cadets from Harstad, and a 6-cannon military gunboat with a crew of 60 en route to Mehamn.

However, by the time the authorites arrived, the situation had defused itself, possibly due to the onset of sobriety. In the end only 11 persons were convicted of vandalism and sentenced to jail on a water and bread diet for between 10 and 20 days, plus some minor fines.

In 1904, the Norwegian parliament issued a prohibition on whaling outside the Northern Norwegian coast.

Scorched Earth

World War II and the burning of Finnmark

Norway was under German occupation during most of World War II. In September 1944, the truce between Finland and the Soviet Union forced the Nazi army to make hasty plans for a withdrawal of their forces from the Murmansk Front all the way through Finnmark to northern Troms County.

Operation Nordlicht (Operation Northern Lights) was initiated on the direct order of the Führer himself in October 1944, and called for the immediate forced evacuation of the civilian population of Finnmark, as well as scorched earth tactics. The Soviet Red Army was to be given no resources from Finnmark on their westward advance, and nearly all settlements were demolished or burned to the ground. Some 17,000 buildings (including over 100 schools) were razed, in addition to several hundred roads, bridges, boats, vehicles and lighthouses. A staggering number of livestock were also killed during the retreat.


Burned fish factory in Kjøllefjord. Photo: Edm. Wallenius

Around 25,000 of Finnmark's population of 60,000 escaped the evacuation and took refuge in caves, earth-roofed huts and abandoned boats. Those who spent the winter of 1944/1945 as refugees in the wilderness became known as "the Cave Dwellers", and survived by fishing, slaughtering any remaining livestock and flour from local merchants. The first Allied aid supplies arrived in March 1945. About 300 people died as a result of the harsh winter or from the evacuation itself.

A few places in Finnmark were spared the flames, such as Båtsfjord, Bugøynes and Hamningberg. Bugøynes was saved from destruction because of an agreement between the the German officer Peter Paul Flach and the local population. A few churches in Alta, Honningsvåg, Karasjok and Kistrand were also preserved.

Nordkinn, however, was not among the lucky places. Virtually every structure in the region was destroyed.

"I am just a child, so I don't understand much about the world. But do any of the grown-ups understand what harm we are supposed to have done to these nasty people who have destroyed our beloved homes?" - A 13-year-old girl from Finnmark, in a school paper written after the evacuation

Liberation by the Red Army

The Red Army crossed the Norwegian border at Kirkenes in October 1944, and initially there was uncertainty as to how far the Soviets would advance and how long they would remain. Some fears were allayed on October 25, when Kirkenes was liberated and thousands of inhabitants sheltered in a mine tunnel were told by Soviet soldiers: "Raise the Norwegian flag, for now you are free". The Soviets halted their advancement at the Tana river in eastern Finnmark.


Parading the Norwegian flag after liberation of Kirkenes. Photo: Finnmark Fylkesbibliotek

On May 8, 1945, German capitulation ensured a liberated Norway. The last Soviet troops left Norway on September 25, 1945, by order of the Soviet government. The liberated population of Finnmark reported that they had been treated well by Soviet troops, in contrast to the treatment they received by the largely symbolic Norwegian detachment of troops sent to assist in the liberation.

Norwegian forces from southern parts had trouble comprehending that Finnmark, with a population of 60,000, had been occupied by around 200,000 German troops. The Germans were not interspersed among the local population like they were in southern parts of Norway, but completely dominated society. The conditions for guerrilla warfare were not present, and the two populations had to find ways to cooperate in order for society to function.

This resulted in accusations of disloyalty against the Finnmark population, and especially against women who had engaged in relationships with the occupiers. Many were publicly shamed by having their hair cut or shaved. To add insult to injury, resistance groups from Finnmark who in fact had worked against the German occupation were not recognised until the 1980's. For obvious reasons they had to cooperate with the Soviets (there were no Allied forces to cooperate with), and with the onset of the Cold War any previous association with Soviets resulted in distrust and suspicion.

Remnants of a longstanding divide between North and South exist today. Some government representatives still express doubts about the loyalty of Finnmark inhabitants based on strong relationships with Russia. This is of course rubbish, but illustrates that there was and still is a large degree of ignorance about conditions in Finnmark on the part of central authorities.

Reconstruction of Finnmark

After the war, the government tried to prohibit the immediate return of evacuees to Finnmark, in order to organise the reconstruction and avoid casualties due to possible mine fields. The prohibition was widely ignored, and by 1946 about 90% of the population had returned to their home towns. This was problematic because of a severe shortage of materials, transport, craftsmen and funds.

Official reconstruction began in 1947 and continued in full force until around 1960. A majority of the current buildings in Finnmark are from this period.

The Hopseidet Tragedy

On May 6, 1945 - two days before the end of WWII - a tragic event took place on Hopseidet, a narrow isthmus connecting the Nordkinn Peninsula to mainland Finnmark.


Hopseidet isthmus.

It was one week since the Führer had committed suicide, and the Nazis were about to capitulate. At Hopseidet, which was an important transloading area for Norwegian and Soviet soldiers after the liberation of Finnmark, there remained only three Norwegian military policemen on guard duty.

Two German subs, carrying elite marines, disembarked their troops on either side of Hopseidet. Although the Norwegian military command received early warning, the heavily outnumbered Norwegian soldiers were neither evacuated nor sent reinforcements.

Instead, Norwegian military command decided to reinforce the guard with local fishermen, many of them underage and all unarmed and without uniform. When the Germans attacked, the Norwegian MPs retreated and ordered the civilians to return home. However, the fishermen were immediately captured by six German marines.

Gunfire could be heard shortly afterwards. Several witnesses claimed they heard the fishermen shout "Are you shooting at civilians?". Soon, the Germans retreated to the subs and sailed away, reportedly playing music through the vessels' PA systems. Three adult fishermen and three young men were found shot dead, lying on the heather-covered ground. Beside them lay German flyers, warning civilians against resisting German authority.

Norwegian authorities later arrested and questioned several of the German marines, who claimed they fired in self-defence. Despite substantial evidence to the contrary, the case was dismissed in 1947 and again in 1967 (after a second investigation initiated at the request of West Germany).

The culpability of the Norwegian military command, having ordered unarmed civilians into combat in violation of the Geneva Convention, was never investigated.

Since 1948, a stone memorial raised by the relatives of the deceased marks the site of the tragedy.

The Northern Lights

Aurora Borealis

This mesmerising light phenomenon is common on Nordkinn, especially during the Polar Night - the period of continuous darkness during the winter months, when the sun never rises. It is the opposite of the Midnight Sun. On Nordkinn, the Polar Night lasts about two months, from Late November to late January.

The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are pure magic - or, if you are scientifically inclined, produced by solar wind interacting with the Earth's magnetosphere, precipitating charged particles into the upper atmosphere. Either way, the result is undulating curtains of brilliant colours, lasting from several minutes to several hours.

If you visit Nordkinn in wintertime, chances are high that you will experience this captivating nature show. If you are a photographer, bring your tripod!

Buried Treasure

In 1930, a Sámi farmer in Laksefjord (near Nordkinn) discovered some strange metal objects while extending his potato field. Unaware of their origin or value, they were eventually sold to a fisherman from Sunnfjord for 10 kroner (about $1.50), who sailed straight south and sold it to Ålesund Museum for 1,000 kroner.


Celtic ring money of the type found in Laksefjord.

The treasure consisted of eight pieces of ring money and jewellery in silver and gold, of various sizes and decorations, worth about 2 million kroner ($250,000) today. It was dated between 500 A.D and 1,000 A.D., but of unknown origin, and some of Celtic style. It most certainly didn't come from Norway, and was probably a "true" hidden treasure buried for later retrieval but never collected. It could have stemmed from trade or robbery.

The Laksefjord treasure is considered to be a unique find in the whole of Scandinavia.

Museum wars

The remainder of the story is almost as fascinating as the treasure itself. In 1931, Ålesund Museum sent an inquiry to Tromsø Museum, asking if they wished to exercise their legal right as a national museum to assume responsibility for the Laksefjord treasure. Nobody in Tromsø replied (lack of funding in the 1930's had seriously impaired its budget and staffing), so the treasure remained in Ålesund.


A letter from the Museum of Ålesund to the Museum of Tromsø, threatening to reclaim the borrowed treasure "by radical means if necessary". Source: Kjøllefjord Library

In 1938, Tromsø Museum received another opportunity to claim the treasure, but couldn't afford the transfer. Another dialogue occurred in 1962, when Ålesund suggested a trade, but without result, since Tromsø didn't have anything to trade with.

Eventually, Ålesund lent the treasure to Tromsø until October 1970, so it could be displayed in the latter's Iron Age exposition that year. Tromsø then requested an extension of a few months in order to make copies of the treasure, which Ålesund granted.

In May 1971 - in a somewhat farcical letter exchange - Tromsø offered to return copies of the treasure to Ålesund while retaining the originals in Tromsø. Ålesund testily replied that this was never part of the loan agreement, and that if the original items were not returned by 14 June 1971, they would reclaim them "by radical means if necessary".

Tromsø then sent the treasure to the Historical Museum in Bergen, accompanied by a letter which asked the curator to make copies before returning the treasure to Ålesund, and at the same time implored him to "in some way chastise Ålesund for their insolence should the opportunity arise".

Bergen then finally sent the treasure back to Ålesund, which locked it in a vault that it has since been very reluctant to open.

In 2007 Gamvik Museum (in Nordkinn) tried to suggest that Ålesund return the treasure to Finnmark, where it was found, but Gamvik was met with such a harsh denial from Ålesund that it dared not repeat what was said.

In 2008, Tromsø Museum made a request to the Directorate for Cultural Heritage to step in and decide where the treasure properly belonged. The Directorate decided that this was outside their mandate, and sent the case upwards to the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry of Culture sent it to the Norwegian Center for Archives, Libraries and Museums, which - shortly before it was dissolved into other agencies in 2010 - concluded that the only ways to solve the dispute was amicably or by invoking the expropriation clause in the Cultural Heritage Act.

Since then, there are no records of the case proceeding in any of Norway's electronic public record databases.

Scandinavia's most unique find is therefore still locked in a vault somewhere deep within the bowels of Ålesund.


Rare and Game Birds


The Nordkinn region is particularly rich in rare, migratory and game birds. There are over 100 different species registered. The grouse is common across the entire region and popular among hunters. The largest seagull species - the great black-backed and Arctic (glaucous) gull - are abundant here.

The majestic white-tailed (sea) eagle and golden eagle are also frequent sights.

The Slettnes nature reserve

The Slettnes plains and wetlands outside Gamvik are home to large populations of divers (loons), ducks and wading birds. In April/May and September/October, bird migrations attract bird watchers from all over the world. The area is a protected nature reserve of 12 sq. km., surrounded by tundra. There are two marked trails on the reserve, which you can walk on your own or take a guided tour with a biologist.

In June and July, many species can be appreciated up close. Over 50 species nest inside the reserve during the summer, and can be observed from both roads and hiking trails. Species include Arctic skua (parasitic Jaeger), little stint, golden plover, ringed plover, dunlin and whimbrel.

Rarer species include grey plover, sanderling, curlew sandpiper, wood sandpiper, Eurasian woodcock and bar-tailed godwit.



The rare wolverine is native to Finnmark. Photo: Matthias Kabel

The Nordkinn peninsula itself has a rugged landscape with sparse vegetation. In addition to the large herds of domestic reindeer with summer pasture on Nordkinn, there are several species of wildlife in the region.

Fox, wolverine and lynx may be found on Nordkinn, and further south along the Laksefjord, the denser vegetation provides a habitat for deer, elk and bear. On rare occasions wolves may be observed, having roamed from Finland or Russia.

Lemmings are also found in the region, sometimes in huge numbers.



Reindeer husbandry has been a way of life for the Sámi since the 17th century.


Reindeer owners further inland drive their herds toward their summer pastures in Nordkinn in April. During the summer, the reindeer count on Nordkinn exceeds 5,000, and they can be spotted in small herds, grazing on lichen, moss and grass.

They are quite fast, an even a newborn reindeer fawn can outrun an average human. They are also a road hazard, since they often roam on or alongside the road and will cross it even though they see you coming.

Reindeer are remarkably well adapted to the turbulent Arctic climate. Their hooves adapt to the season, shrinking and hardening during winter to better grip the snow and ice. They are used for meat, hide, antlers (for handicraft), and transportation (yes, it is possible to fit a sleigh to a team of reindeer).

Fisheries and Fishing

Fishing in the Barents Sea

For thousands of years, the fish in the sea has been the primary resource and means of survival in Nordkinn and Norway. Today, there are around 200 active fishermen in the region, most of them with their own vessels.


A local fisherman fishing in kjøllefjord outside the Finnkirka sea cliff.

The standard types of fishing vessels on Nordkinn are small jiggers and longliners between 8 and 11 meters in length (Norwegian: sjark, probably from English shark via Russian). Larger versions up to 15 meters are also common. There are also around 10 fish purchasing and processing plants in Nordkinn.

The primary catch is Atlantic cod, followed by saithe (pollock), Atlantic halibut and haddock.

Not surprisingly, the question of the definition, award and sale of fishing quotas has been subject of intense political debate for many years. Shipping companies with large trawlers can easily make huge catches of fish, which is then often frozen onboard and shipped to low-cost countries for processing. The end product is of lower quality (the boxes of frozen fish blocks you can buy in the supermarket) than freshly processed fish, but the sheer volume makes this kind of operation very profitable. They use "passive equipment" which means scooping up fish by dragging trawl or seine nets through large schools of fish.

In contrast, the smaller coastal and fjord vessels use "active equipment" - more precise instruments such as jigging machines or hooked longlines. This yields smaller catches but of great quality, since they are slaughtered and bled right away, and then delivered to local fish buyers. Smaller fishing vessels contribute a great deal to local economies and together with fish buyers and factories comprise the economic foundation of many small communities along the Norwegian coast, including Nordkinn.

The Red King Crab

King crab

King crab attempting an escape from a small rowboat.

The red king crab, or Kamchatka Crab, is a Russian invader that is nevertheless welcomed by local fishermen. They can reach a weight of around 10 kilograms and a claw tip span of two meters.

These giant delicacies are fished using crab pots and lures, in the style of Deadliest Catch. They also sometimes get caught in halibut or salmon nets.

The king crab fetches a premium price in fish markets due to its succulent taste and consistency. If you visit Nordkinn, don't miss out on this luxurious treat!

Modern Nordkinn

It is not uncommon for strangers to wonder how people can live up here, but the simple answer has already been given above: fish.

The settlements on Nordkinn are quite old and well developed, so the "frontier outpost" image is not accurate. Within a radius of about 50 km, there are five supermarkets, several clothing and sports stores, libraries, bakeries, hotels, health care centers, restaurants, book stores and sports ranges.


The main street in Kjøllefjord.

Kjøllefjord can also boast a national fisheries newspaper, Kyst og Fjord ("Coast and Fjord"), started in 2011 and very popular in the fishing industry across Norway.

The tourism industry has also boomed in recent years, with many operators providing fishing, extreme nature or cultural tours.

Nordkinn provides most of the amenities of larger towns, while being almost totally free of queues and stress. The laid back pace and beautiful surroundings make the region a pleasant destination, so don't hesitate to extend your stay!

More about Nordkinn

There are many online sources of information on Nordkinn, some of which are listed below:

Thank you for reading this far - and if you wish, you can now go back to Arctic Coast.

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