A portrait of summer in Finland
Margot lives alone in the huge farmhouse, growing berries in the summer, managing her forest in the winter. She’s succeeded in taking up farming from scratch. She came here 10 years ago, quitting her job in a bank to start a new life as a farmer. ‘People told me, “You’ll never do it, you cannot do it.” They all sat in a bar in Nagu town telling each other I couldn’t do it, because I am a woman, because I worked in a bank. They didn’t know what kind of person I am on the inside.’
She might be atypical of the region’s farmers, but Margot follows in a long tradition of island resourcefulness and formidable Finnish women. Finland was the first country in the world to grant unrestricted voting rights to women in 1906, and elected its first female president in 2000.
To the lighthouse
In summer, the waterways between the islands teem with life. There is every kind of watercraft: passenger ferries, car ferries, sailing yachts, rowing skiffs, motorboats. Most thrilling of all are the rigid inflatable boats that whizz between the islands, cutting hour-long journeys to a matter of minutes.
Standing on an inflatable, holding on tightly, I feel like I’m watching the journey on fast forward. The islands rip past. The scene judders as the boat bounces over a series of waves. The tower of Bengtskär lighthouse appears in the distance, like a factory chimney upon an L-shaped chunk of granite. The building is faced with granite quarried from the island and, in bright sunshine, it presents a slightly fearsome aspect: half Colditz, half Hogwarts. It was built in 1906 to make this route secure for ships. West of the lighthouse lies a treacherous array of rocks and shallows.
At the top of the tower, two automated lamps do the work that once required the presence of five lighthouse keepers and their families. Their rooms are now let to the visitors who have made the 90-minute boat trip from the ports of Kasnäs and Hanko.
This place has seen its fair share of strife. It was bombed in WWI and attacked by the Soviet army in WWII. A plaque in the whitewashed chapel on the second floor commemorates those Finnish soldiers who died defending it.
Aside from the lighthouse and a few outbuildings, there is virtually nothing here except bare rock and a few wildflowers – knapweed, wild pansies – that have somehow found enough soil to grow in. But, this being Finland, one of the buildings houses a sauna, fuelled by wood that is brought to the island by boat. Finns are almost fanatical about the benefits of the sauna – which is in fact a Finnish word. In 1999, some of the country’s hard-core sauna enthusiasts instigated an annual world championships. Participants competed to see who could stay the longest in a sauna heated to 110˚C. The event was abandoned in 2010 after a Russian competitor died and the Finnish champon was hospitalised.
But, approached a little more sensibly, the sauna is a deeply pleasant and therapeutic experience. I step inside the tiny granite building. A couple of ladlefuls of water on the rocks above the stove raises the temperature to scalding. After about 10 minutes I emerge, sweaty and disoriented, and clamber down the rocks to the sea, expecting the cold to be shocking.
In fact, it’s unexpectedly lovely. The water is not salty at all – a quirk of this part of the Baltic – and its relative shallowness means that it warms up quickly in summer. Even at this northerly latitude, and miles from the mainland, the water is pleasantly swimmable. That night, in a simple whitewashed bedroom, I fall asleep immediately, but my dreams are full of water and I wake up rather confused, finding myself on a lone rock in the middle of the dark sea.
Art meets nature
Their tiny populations and the seemingly endless summer light make the islands places of serenity and contemplation.