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Looking Back


John Brown in Lapland

SUMMER is precious… especially up in the Arctic. The winter snows have just melted, ans as the ice on the lakes quietly disappears there’s a buoyancy in the air. The people wait for the street lights to be switched off, longing for that sunshine right round the clock.

No blaze of trumpets herald it. Only silence. For almost a month and half daylight never ends. Here the marvel of the Midnight Sun reaches its fullest glory.

The scene is set in Lapland overlooking vast tracts of untouched nature, hills and mountains, lakes, swamps and rivers; the scenery moulded gently by the glaciers of a by-gone age.

From our mountain-top viewpoint we look on, just as the sun is slipping slowly away as if to set for the night. It is about midnight, and you’d expect it do so. But it doesn’t. And for a time it seems to hang suspended, waiting for the new day.

The birds fall silent – but only for a moment. Then in an instant the orange ball bounces up again. Another day is born.

Here one of Europe’s oldest peoples live their wandering life, and the tourist shares the light of midsummer with herds of roaming reindeer.

Thousands of Lapps still prefer the mountains, in summer living in tents, depending for their livelihood entirely on reindeer. But others have been swallowed up by city life that’s crept beyond the Arctic Circle.

Today Lapps can be found living in multi-storey flats, working in the mines, and shopping in the supermarkets.

It seemed so out of character to see a couple dressed in their traditional garb, plastic carrier bag in hand, come out of a city supermarket to enter a waiting taxi!

Marina Penzance is the local tourist hostess. She’s nineteen and has lived in the Arctic all her life. “Everyone comes here looking for the Lapps,” she says, “but the young Lapps go to school and are just like us. They don’t want to live in the mountains any more.”

Life is young and gay in Kiruna, Sweden’s most northerly city, a hundred miles inside the Arctic. Lapps, Finns and Swedes have come together to form a unique city.


Old yet modern


Kiruna – a Lapp name meaning ‘mountain grouse’ – stretches across 8700 square miles of virgin scenery occasionally broken by a cluster of houses, an iron mine, an air strip, or perhaps a Lapp camp; and nearby there’s a rocket base. It is the largest city in the world – in area anyway – and couples nature’s vastness with a modern look.

Here the tarmac road ends, and the mossy track takes over.

The air is crisp, broken only by faintly by yellow haze over the iron mines. Lorries, cars and peoples bustle around. The unusual cast-iron city clock rings out over swamp and fell twice daily. Multi-storeys break the skyline and nearby he mounts of iron form a natural backcloth.

What’s certain is that the traditions of Lapland will die hard in the urbanised Arctic. The Lapp inheritance is treasured here.

The remarkable beauty of Lapp culture is borne out in the small museum where the simple sketches of Nils Nilsson Skum depict another dimension in the Arctic North.

But it is colour that means much to the nomadic Lapps. Their local costumes are noted for their hues and simple lines. They have attracted the attention of Sweden’s leading fashion designer, Maj Wennberg, whose home is in Kiruna.

“All my colours come from the mountains and the seasons we have here. Not only beautiful in summer, for winter too is picturesque with many shades of purple cast on the snowfields.”

She adds: “The Lapps have something to teach us in simplicity of design. It is very old, yet quite modern.”

The Lapps are diminishing in number… what remains is the little Lapp church, the museum, the summer camp and strange sounding names like Jukkasjarvi – a little village with a legend of its own.

In the 16th century only Lapps lived here. A hundred years later travellers from all over Europe were reaching these parts. The journey north by ship and then overland across the barren Arctic wasteland must have been hazardous.

Jukkasjarvi seemed the end of the world. There’s an old inscription by three Frenchmen: “France bore us, Africa saw us, we drank from the Ganges… and now after accidents we stand here at last at the end of the world.”

So from early times at the wooden church of Jukkasjarvi a tradition grew up. People who journeyed here thanked God for their safe arrival… leaving special gifts at the altar.

Over the year the church, with its quaint belfry, has been a refuge and focal point for adventurers and travellers – and most of all for the Lapps. Today it is a symbol of their Christian heritage.

Christianity came late to Sweden, even later to Lapland. Although the church dates back to 1608, it is the significance of the great religious revival in Lapland last century which is important today.

Its unique Christian impact has been captured by a modern artist in an altar mural – a recent gift. Colours are bright. And the Lapps are depicted at worship on a summer evening. In the centre a moving presentation of Christ’s Passion.

This means much more to the Lapps than the stream of curious tourists who fly up around midsummer from Stockholm. Unfortunately the tourists just don’t understand.