Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2016/10 posted by hidden europe on

Gammelstad is the best surviving example in northern Scandinavia of a church town. An 1854 Lapland guide gave a marvellous account of these church towns, explaining how they were improvised trading settlements which developed around parish churches.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

The fast flowing River Lule tumbles down from the highlands in north-west Sweden to reach the Bothnian Bay at Luleå. The paths along the banks of the river are old ways once followed by fur traders, fishermen and miners. Our 1858 John Murray guide commends the cataracts and rapids and mentions Gammelstad as a place through which the traveller bound for Luleå would surely pass. But not a word on what makes Gammelstad special.

Gammelstad is the best surviving example in northern Scandinavia of a church town. An 1854 Lapland guide (one of the hugely entertaining Chambers Tracts series) gave a marvellous account of these church towns, explaining how they were improvised trading settlements which developed around parish churches. Those who made the difficult journey over huge distances to reach the church on a major feast day could not possibly be expected to travel home the same day, and so many of the faithful stayed overnight in huts around the church.

In many of these towns, the church pastor was the only permanent resident. Apart from the church and the parochial house, often both built of stone, the rest of the town consisted of primitive wooden huts. According to the Chambers essay, these cabins were "strewn about, or crammed one upon the other, in a most irregular and inconvenient way, without any attention to the requirements of health, cleanliness or safety against fire."

Many of the church towns did indeed succumb to fire. Gammelstad is unusual in that over four centuries there has never been a major blaze, so this fine example of a Lapland church town boasts over 400 cottages. And very beautiful they are too.

One wonders if it was merely devotional obligation that made whole families travel a handful of times each year to a distant church town. Was the prospect of convivial evenings perhaps not equally compelling? Chambers gives us a clue, hinting that the brandy bottle played a conspicuous part in the proceedings. Some church town services and events were limited to participants under a certain age - matchmaking and prayer made perfect partners.

Reports from other early travellers through northern Scandinavia focus more on the attention to trade than on attentive prayer. Some also comment on the squalor of the huts in church towns. Presumably the pastor was left to clear up the mess after the merry crew had departed.

Gammelstad is an excellent place to learn about the church town tradition in northern Scandinavia. Very few of these settlements survive, but Gammelstad attests to a very specific urban form which was intimately linked to the devotional habits of the people. The village was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1996.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.