I have been describing a number of hikes on the coast of Jæren, located in southwestern Norway. This article is offering background information to the geology, flora, fauna, history and people we may encounter here.
The hikes are introduced in this article.
Jæren is the largest flat lowland area in Norway. The landscape we now see was shaped during the last glacial age. It ended about 10,000 years ago. Jæren is on a large end moraine which continues into the ocean. It rests partly on solid rock (mainly gneiss and granite) and partly on a seabed from earlier geological periods that has been transformed into slate and partly sandstone. The moraine layer is so thick that only a few hills are visible until we reach some kilometres away from the coastline.
This land is fertile and has provided the basis for one of Norway’s most agriculturally intensive regions. The disadvantage was that the retreating and melting glacier left debris on the ground. There is a number of uneven and rounded stones, many the size of boulders, scattered all over the flat land.
The task of removing these boulders has been the name of the game for generations of farmers here. The result of this previously hard, manual work is easily seen in the intricate patterns of stone fences. We find them everywhere on Jæren. It was a practical way of getting rid of the stones. Some places they also threw them onto the boulder shores.
There are three striking features I would like to explore – sand, rock and boulders:
The first beach element: Sand
A fragile strip of land
A large portion of the coastline consists of sand, fine grained sand as such. About 25 km out of 70 km of the Protected Landscape Area are sandy beaches. The sand has overall a quite light colour, but never as white as tourist brochures would have it. On many beaches the grain seem kind of dirty. It is not, the beaches are generally very clean. The fact is that the sand has a mix of differently coloured sand grains due to different mineral sources.
There is no doubt that this landscape is fragile. The farming land is very close to the seashore, only separated by a thin stretch of sand dunes. These dunes are very volatile, subject to the pounding of the waves and the strong winds during the winter storms. The nature of sandy beaches is to come and go, shift here and there and to rebuild themselves throughout the years.
The problematic sand
M. A. Grude visited the farm of Nærland (Hå) on the 30th of August 1870:
“There was a strong NW wind blowing setting the sand moving as in a fierce snow storm. People stood helpless watching the destructions without being able to do anything to stop the ravaging. A 1.5 m high stone fence was about to get buried, only the top stones were visible.
People would get their boots full of sand, the sand forced its way under the clothes, filled all pockets, entered the nose, ears, mouth and eyes. The sand made its way into the bedroom and the pantries, even into covered boxes placed inside locked chests inside the rooms.” (My translation from the booklet “Jærlandskapet forandrer seg” by the municipality of Hå, 1988)
In the 18th century the blowing of sand inland from the beaches was a major problems for neighbouring farms. Some even had to move to avoid being “drowned” by sand. By the end of the 19th century they had started to plant beachgrass on the dunes to stop the erosion.
The long roots of lyme grass (leymus arenarius in Latin, strandrug in Norwegian) and marram grass (ammophila arenaria in Latin, marehalm in Norwegian) bind the sand in the dunes – preventing them from dissemination. These plants are vulnerable as well and much anxiety has been related to the fact that extensive human activity may harm the roots.
There has also in recent years been widespread anxiety that some storms have created more havoc than nature may adjust for in a natural way. On the other hand, as the exhibition at the Friluftshuset at Orre beach describes, what seemed like a natural disaster some years ago with storms and hurricanes rampaging the sand dunes had an evolution back to normalcy after a few years only.
The second beach element: “Svaberg” in Norwegian
There is no direct English translation. I have in this blog series from Jæren been using terms like “rocks” or “rocky landscape”. The nearest geological term is, I believe, roche moutonnée. It is a French expression meaning sheepback or more precisely a rock formation created by the passing of a glacier.
The Jæren “rockies” have an origin like that, but they are also shaped by the sea giving them a smoother structure. It is also a fact that some 3-400 million years ago there was a collission between Norway and Greenland. That crash of landmasses was certainly heavy and caused this coastal strip to fold. These folds are easily visible in the northern parts of Jæren.
Some of the rocky landscape is made of gneiss, a compressed sheet-like foliated structure with a smooth and even surface. Often being smooth slopes of naked rock they are easy to walk on top of, with a necessity to make a jump every now and then. A large part of the rocky landscape is made of phyllite. It has a sheet-like structure as well. Some phyllite rocks are less easy to walk across as the surface may be quite uneven, it has many cracks and breaks more easily – it is often described locally as “rotten rock”.
The third beach element: “Rullesteinstrand”
Most Internet sources describing the beaches of Jæren in English use the term pebble. There is a fascinating discussion thread combining American English and British English and the choice I made was not at all foolproof. The British would prefer the use of shingle beach to pebble beach, whereas Americans would tend to prefer pebble. The term pebble beach is understood in Britain as well. There are varying definitions of the terms: The Wikipedia article on shingle beach has the same illustrations as that of pebble.
What may be confusing is that pebbles are defined in the US to be between 4 and 64 mm. Using this definition few if any of Jæren’s beaches qualify as “pebble” beach. The next step up in size is cobble (64-256 mm). On top of the hierarchy we find boulders, defined as any particle larger than 256 mm. (The international ISO standard defines a boulder as anything larger than 200 mm.)
The “rullesteiner” (literally: “rolling stones”) found on the stone beaches of Jæren are usually of boulder size but they have for most part stones of varying sizes. The most famous “pure” boulder beaches on Jæren are Børaunen and Sele.
Bays and promontories
If one takes a close look at the map of Jærkysten, the coast of Jæren, it is easy to see that it consists of a series of bays interspersed by low promontories. Furthermore the majority of the bays are sandy beaches whereas the promontories are filled with stones of different sizes. This is a common phenomenon on just about any coastline around the world. The bays are more protected from the forces of nature – waves and wind, and the sand is not washed away.
Most of the promontories dividing the large beaches south of Hellestø are quite small and do not protrude much into the sea. We are not talking about peninsulas. They cannot by characterised as headlands either, being quite low and not rising higher than the sandy beaches on either side. Some grass covered sanddunes have a quite vertical cliff face towards the sea. The highest (brattkanter in Norwegian) are found at Obrestad, rising 38 metres from sea level. They were shaped when the sea level was higher and represent a rare view in Norway.
The rocky landscape north of Hellestø differs in some parts, especially the quite massive rocky promontories of Vigdelneset, Tananger, Kvernevik and Tungenes. The “svaberg” area is here quite wide, up to a hundred metres or so. Near Vigdel it is also very rugged, while Tungenes offers a very flat surface. Jæren’s coastline has no high peaks, the highest is Vigdelveten, rising only 79 metres above the beach.
Flora and fauna
An international convention on wetlands (Ramsar) has this description of Jæren (excerpts):
“Jæren wetland system (…) lies in an agriculture-dominated area of southwestern Norway with formerly extensive wetlands – coastal sites remain largely intact, but freshwater sites have been drained on a large scale. Marine areas are dominated by sand, mud, pebble, and stone shores, with large areas of dune systems.
Freshwater areas are characterized by shallow water and extensive stands of Phragmitescommunis, and three smaller mire systems have also been included in the site.
The newly-extended site is said to be incomparably the single most important area for wetland-related birds in Norway, especially as a staging and wintering area. Given strong agriculture influences and high levels of nitrogen pollution in the area, the importance of the remaining wetlands in the lowland is extraordinarily high in terms of their function as sediment traps and in water purification.”
A complete ecosystem
In the course of winter large quantities of seeweed (like fucales and kelp) are being washed up on the shores of Jæren. In the spring they are practically boiling with insects. This in turn makes the basis for a very intense birdlife, creating a perfect eco-system.
Here is an introduction to the flora on Jæren. It is in Norwegian – unfortunately I have not come across any web resources on flora and fauna in English, save this one.
The climate of Jæren is the reason why so many migrant birds have their stopovers on Jæren, on their way between Africa and the Arctic. The climate is also one of the reasons why agriculture became such a prominent determinant of the region’s economy. The two key words describing the climate are: Wet and mild.
For visitors and permanent residents alike there seems to be an almost constant element of precipitation. The heavy rainfalls are rare, but the drizzle is not – quite often hitting us horizontally as well due to the wind factor. Statistics from Obrestad lighthouse, about midway on the north-south axis, reveal an annual rainfall of 1,309 mm.
The climate is mild, not warm nor cold. At Obrestad the normal temperatures vary between 0.7 degrees Celsius in February and 13.5 degrees in August. Being situated on a quite northern latitude, Norway is in general blessed with the results of the Gulf Stream, bringing warm water from the Caribbean. Otherwise Norway would be even less inhabitable than it is. In fact the Gulf Stream makes life possible right up to the farthest northern end of Norway. Of all this coastline, Jæren is the most blessed.
Jæren in pre-historic time
Let me quote from Ramsar: “Along the shorelines one can find the densest collection of archaeological sites in Norway, with grave mounds dating back a thousand years or more.” When the last ice age ended more than 10,000 years ago, Jæren was the first to get “liberated”.
Humans gradually began to immigrate, following the receding ice cap. One of the first dwellings of the first Norwegians ever is found here, at Viste, pictured above. These first Norwegians were fishers, hunters and collectors.
Moving fast forward in time we find one of Norway’s largest Bronze Age burial mounds at Sele. It is 5 metres high and 31 metres long. From this same time period, about 1800-500 BC, we have the rock carvings at Fluberget in Hafrsfjord.
During the Iron age (about 300-900 AD) the habit of burying the dead near the seashore caught on. On the 40 km between Kvassheim and Sele about 600 graves have been registered. One of the most extensive sites are close to Hå Old Parsonage, pictured above.
The Migration Period and unification of Norway
By the last centuries of the first millennium AD the big European Migration Period had come to an end. Even in remote Norway people settled down, employing themselves in farming, fishing, handicrafts and trade. The population grew, and local kings gathered more wealth and power.
Jæren, and the southwestern coast of Norway at large, was a rich and important region to control. By the end of the ninth century Norway had more or less been united into one kingdom. The most important battle took place in Hafrsfjord, the only fjord on the Jæren coast.
In the picture above the largest sword represents the victorious king Harald, and the two smaller swords represent the defeated petty kings.
The Viking Age
This was also the time of the Viking Age. Young men from Jæren sailed across the seas to the west, to England, Ireland and what became the Norwegian colonies and settlements on the islands to the north: The Faroes, Orkney, Shetland, Iceland and even further west. One of these men was known as Erik the Red. He was born on Jæren but moved to Iceland with his family due to accusations on his father for manslaughter. Erik was no better than his father and was forced into exile, founding the first Norwegian settlement in Greenland. His son, Leif was later to become the “discoverer” of America.
Erling, a local and regional chief
Another famous man from the Viking Age was Erling Skjalgsson, from Sola. I can’t resist inserting this quote from Wikipedia:
Erling Skjalgsson (died 1028) was a Norwegian political leader of the late 10th and early 11th century. He has been commonly seen as this period’s foremost defender of the historic Norwegian social system. Erling fought for the traditional small, autonomous kingdoms and the þing system, against the reformists of the Fairhair family line. (…)
Erling returned during autumn in 1028 and rallied an army with the intention to fight Olav. However as his army was shipborne, Erling was trapped on a single ship by King Olav’s fleet in the Battle of Boknafjorden near Bokn in Rogaland.
The ship was overwhelmed, Erling was captured and his ship was cleared. Just as Olav was set to pardon him, Erling himself was killed by Aslak Fitjaskalle, from Fitjar in Sunnhordland, who cleaved Erling’s head with an axe. According to Heimskringla, King Olav said to the killer, “You fool! Now you hewed Norway off my hands!”. The king’s prediction turned true. Backed by Canute the Great, Erling’s allies went on to drive Olav out of the country, and then finally kill him at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.
After a couple hundred years more the Viking Age had come to an end. On the other hand Jæren’s wide horizon and the blue sea continued to stimulate and foster seafarers. In more recent times the fishing and shipping industries grew rapidly from the 1800s onwards. The second row of emigrants from Norway left the port of Stavanger in 1825. They were going to America, paving the way for 800,000 other Norwegians in the following hundred years.
Large scale industrial fishing ports were found in Stavanger and Egersund, providing natural harbours on either end of Jæren. The Jærbu (people from Jæren) were not particularly heavy involved in fishing, in contrast to farming. The small harbours we now pass on our hikes on Jæren only have small fishing boats, and the harbours with breakwaters are also quite new.
There are certainly many boathouses to be found, bearing evidence to the fact that many farmers used small-time fishing as an extra income and food for their own household. The boathouses are on the other hand quite small. The reason is that the boats had to be pulled up on land each time they had been used, stimulating the use of small boats. There would have been up to eight oars on these boats, four on each side.
The treacherous sea
Seafarers have always feared the coast of Jæren. There is a book describing 393 ship wrecks on the coast of Jæren from 1666 until recently. It says: (My translation): “The coast of Jæren was in older times like a magnet for the many sailing ships trying to get past. Low land, shallow waters, bad lighthouse lights, strong currents and few places to seek safe harbour in case of emergency explain some of it. Here we find a lot of drama and impressive salvaging activity.” There is a newspaper article about the book.
Even today, if you mention “Jærens rev” to just about any sailor he will get the shivers.
This is how Jærmuseet describes it: The coast of Jæren is notorious for its inclement weather and rough seas and there have been many dramatic shipwrecks, with subsequent loss of sailors’ lives and all kinds of flotsam washed onto the local beaches.
A prosperous salvaging business
As early as in the 1500s, there were tales where it was said that after a really bad storm, the locals could get hold of such exotic goods as red wine, chocolate and sugar, “pepper and other such spices” – intended for the well-to-do citizens in town. In many of these coastal farms, it was also possible to find shipboards or “squint cabin windows” used as building materials. From the mid 1880s, there was fierce lobbying to establish rescue equipment on the coast of Jæren and this saw the start of the first sea rescue stations.
It is no wonder that salvaging and subsequent activities related to stripping the wrecks of whatever might be stripped, became an important income for the locals. They have a nose for money.
From 1880 to 1930 seaweed harvesting was an important supplementary income for the farms as well. It was dried and burned to produce sodium bicarbonate and iodine, or used as fertiliser on the fields. Today we find a number of clearings (called kelp roads) on the beaches used when dragging the weed onto the shore.
The weed was placed on an open area of stones encircled by large boulders. They put heather or straw on the bottom and then layers of weed. The purpose was to burn the seaweed without open flames. The ash was collected the next morning and sold to merchants. It would later be used to produce soap, glass, medicine and fabric softener.
Jæren has a distinct culture
Max Weber, the German sociologist, may never have been here but would have found the archetypes of his “protestant ethics” on Jæren. Wherever you go, drive or fly, you will notice how actively the flatland of Jæren is cultivated. Once the stones are removed the plough is set into operation, or livestock like cattle and sheep are let loose on non-cultivated land.
This is how it has always been – a rural, agricultural region. The people on Jæren are down to earth, hard-working, ascetic and with strong religious sentiments. The eagerness to work, grow, succeed, change and never look back is deeply rooted.
The Jærbu is not the bragging type, the riches were quite evenly divided and no one had enough wealth to erect, say, monumental buildings. As a matter of fact, there are no architectural wonders on this coastline. Instead we encounter a number of boathouses left to rotten – the Jærbu does not look back.
Farm houses and barns are not at all picturesque. The barns are made of corrugated iron and old houses are replaced by new. The traditional Jærhus (Jæren farmhouse) with small sheds at the ends are about to disappear. (Two prime examples have been turned into museums to preserve them – Vistnes and Grødaland.)
The landmarks of Jæren
Like I said, apart from Mother Nature’s creations there are few man-made landmarks on Jæren. There is one notable exception, that of the lighthouses. There are five of them.
- Tungenes in the very north of Jæren was first lit in 1828 and closed down in 1984.
- Flatholmen on an island outside of Tananger was in operation from 1862 to 1984.
- Feistein on an island outside Sele. 1859 to 1990.
- Obrestad. 1873 to 1991.
- Kvassheim. 1912 to 1990.
They are now national heritage sites functioning as local cultural centres with various exhibitions. Accommodation is also possible in some of them. There is a website offering useful information about these five and other lighthouses in Norway.
Apart from these rather large buildings there are a number of small harbours and marinas. The one at Sele is perhaps the most picturesque of them. As we walk the coast we frequently pass old and new boathouses, burial mounds from the Bronze Age and Iron Age, and fortifications from the Second World War set up by the German occupants.
Jæren in art
The painters of the 19th century
The Jæren scenery “is for the advanced“, the national writer Alexander L. Kielland observed. His collegue Arne Garborg at his cottage at Knudaheio described the view as being “beautiful beyond any description“. They were both children of the 1800s.
That century also saw a number of painters who became inspired by the flat landscape, the open sea, the grey sky and the toiling farmers. Kitty Kielland, Nikolai Ulfsten and Eilif Pettersen are the most famous. The Jæren painters are introduced in a book by Hild Sørby (“Jærmaleriet fra landskap til visjon”) digitally available at the National Library for readers of Norwegian and with Norwegian IP-addresses.
My selected painters from the 19th and 20th centuries
I have, in most articles, included an artwork by the most important painters. The motifs are not necessarily from that place. The pictures are to the best of my knowledge included without violating any rights. Look for the following paintings at the bottom of each linked entry:
- Amaldus Clarin Nielsen – Strandparti fra Nærland, etter regn (1897) (Below)
- August Jacobsen – Badeliv på Solastrand (1927) (Blog)
- Bernhard Hinna – Unknown title (Blog)
- Bruno Krauskopf – Kveldssol ved sjøen, Ogna (1935) (Below)
- Eilif Peterssen – Laksefiskeren (1889) (Blog)
- Elisabeth Sinding – Tarekjøring på Jæren (1908) (Above)
- Elisabeth Sinding – Båtopptrekking (1908) (Blog)
- Emil Abrahamsen – Landskap (Blog)
- Harriet Backer – På bleikeplassen (1886) (Blog)
- Jacob Kielland Sømme – Fra Nærland (1916) (Below)
- Kalle Orstad – Orrestranda (Blog)
- Kitty Kielland – Fra Jæren (1878) (Blog)
- Kitty Kielland – Fra Jæren (1880) (Blog)
- Kitty Kielland – Torvmyr (1880) (Blog)
- Kitty Kielland – Tunet på Kvalbein (1904) (Blog)
- Nikolai Ulfsten – Stranding på Jæren (1881) (Blog)
- Ola Varhaug – Farm In Norway (1919) (Blog)
- Ole Tjøtta – Jærkyst (Blog)
- Oskar Sørreime – Fra Tungenes fyr (Blog)
- Oskar Sørreime – Unknown title (Blog)
- Per Gjemre – Erga gård på Jæren (Blog)
- Per Gjemre – From Jæren (1916) (Blog)
There is a great variety in my selections, as shown in the three paintings below.
There are, unintentionally on my behalf, 19 years between each of them. If there is a common denominator in the three pictures, and the others, it must be “clouds”. I might add that the Jæren painters from the end of the 19th century do not at all reflect the Hip, Hip, Hurrah! spirit of joy we see in their contemporary collegues in Skagen, Denmark.
Not only painters had rather gloomy observations of Jæren. Some writers had them too. Arne Garborg wrote in his letters: “It is incredible that we on this horrible and ugly coast of Jæren have painters.” The initial paragraph in Arne Garborg’s novel “Fred” (meaning Peace) goes like this (in my poor translation from his poetic old-fashioned language):
“Outside, to the west, the sea breaks onto a seven mile long low sandy beach. It is the Ocean itself. The Northern Sea wide and free, undivided and unrestrained, endless. Black-green and salty it comes in heavy swells from the western Heavens, driven by the big storms in the Northern Icy Ocean and the Channel, running their white maned wave horses out of the fog, foaming, roaring their deep celestial organ tone from the outermost abyss. Then it throws itself onto the beach and breaks apart in a white cascade, with bangs and pounds and long roars, dying in a dwindling rumble.”
This article is the result of a hiking project along the entire coast of Jæren, some 100 km. Read the introduction to my hikes.