I went to Gotland in search of its stone labyrinths and the medieval city of Visby. But, as so often happens, it was the unexpected that caught my attention. I found two things that took me by surprise. The first was the ancient burial sites, and the second was the old fishing stations that are dotted around the coast
The Gnisvärd Fishing Station
The discovery was quite accidental. Out for an evening walk on my first day in Gotland, I headed for the nearby coastal village of Gnisvärd. As we approached it started to remind me of Gammelstad, the Swedish church town I visited earlier this year. Although much smaller, it had the same red-painted wooden huts and the same sense of impermanence. There was hardly anyone about: I discovered that, like a church town that was only occupied on Sundays and feast days, Gnisvärd was built as a base for temporary fishing excursions.
I learnt that the fishing stations in Gotland originated in the 18th century, when the island’s farmers would turn their hands to fishing twice a year. For a few weeks in spring and autumn they would take up residence in the huts. From here they would set out to the Baltic to catch large amounts of herring and other fish which they then salted for use in the coming months.
Changes in the Fishing Industry
Over time the fishing industry became less important than agriculture. By the 19th century most farmers had stopped their fishing activities. Just a few became full time fishermen, mainly catching salmon. It is hard to imagine the fishermen and their families living in these tiny one-room huts, but for a while Gnisvärd became a permanent settlement. It even acquired a small chapel in 1839. Once a week a priest would arrive in the village and stay overnight in one of the huts so that he could hold a service the following morning.
There is no serious fishing done here any more: just two trawlers now supply all of Gotland’s fish. Gnisvärd has reverted to its status as a temporary community, mostly used by weekend anglers. The huts are all privately owned and there are strict rules about their occupancy. No-one (apart from the permanent caretaker) may stay for more than one or two nights at a time, and holiday lets are not permitted. This helps to preserve the character of the fishing village, which is popular with bird watchers and other visitors who enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
Gotland’s Other Fishing Stations
There were fishing stations all around the coast, and you can still see the remains of many of them. I drove to the other side of the island, to the village of Grynge. The huts here are more substantial, being built of stone, and some of them are now used as holiday homes. You can see evidence of the village’s past in the two stone beacons on the hillside; these would once have been topped with bundles of fire to guide returning ships safely into the harbour.
My last stop was at Kovik. This is a living museum, which has brought together huts and fishing equipment from around the island. Here you can explore the inside of a hut, and the yard where the fishermen hung out their nets out to dry. There are stone jetties and a light pole to hold the burning beacon.
I stopped to look at the tiny chapel at Kovik. There was no graveyard: this chapel was built as a place for private meditation and for the remembrance of fishermen who had been lost at sea. But I noted the confetti on the ground, a reminder that, whether temporary or permanent, the community lives on.