In the Stone Age, settlers from the Swedish mainland migrated to the island of Öland across the Kalmar Strait using an ice bridge, thought to be around 9000 – 7000 BC.
The ice bridge has been archeologically authenticated as a major example of a glacier in retreat, forming a low-lying frozen ‘bridge’ that people and animals can travel across to secure and stable ground.
Öland is still home to visible burial cairns from the Iron and Bronze Ages, as well as stone circles and ring forts. A rich crop of later Viking history is also evident in the form of rune stones and stone ships (burial grounds marked by standing stones in the shape of a ship).
Medieval fortresses and castles in ruins add to the allure of the island, which on a summer’s day is visited by tens of thousands of tourists.
We visited on a misty September day of showery rains which added to the brooding intensity of the bleak, moorland landscape dotted with dark stones and ruins.
The most magnificent ruin is of the colossal Borgholm castle. Now an empty shell of huge archways and corridors it was twice destroyed in Medieval wars and eventually abandoned. Sheep potter through its former gateways and around its broken bastions. In the summertime large pop and Swedish rock concerts are held here, a wonderful setting on the edge of the Baltic.
The largest ancient stronghold is at the tiny hamlet of Gråborg, and dates to around 300AD. It was built in the middle of the island and is thought to have been a centre of cattle rearing which beside meat, produced valuable trading products of skins and leather.
Before the collapse of the Roman Empire the trade in leather goods for soldiers’ armaments was prosperous and Gråborg had documented prosperity, giving rise to conjecture that it traded with Rome. Perhaps at Britannia, as the nearest outpost of the Empire?
The old fort was massively reinforced in the Middle Ages, and its circular stone wall is still impressive at more than six meters high, if crumbling to rubble. Nearby the later, medieval chapel of St Knut is romantically in ruins.
The Middle Ages also saw a proliferation of windmills on the island for milling grain. By 1820 an inventory was taken, and 1,713 mills were recorded.
Today 400 remain with the majority dating from the 1700s. The mills were portable and were moved around by their owners, typically the local farmer. The most common type is a ‘post mill’ so called because it can be rotated by hand (or beast) in accordance with the direction of the wind.
Stone walls mark the land into parcels and their construction dates them to either the Middle Ages or the 1800s when land was redistributed. The oldest walls are crooked, whilst the later walls are straight. Not all the land was enclosed.
From the mid-16th century until redistribution in 1801 the whole island was deemed a royal hunting ground with exclusive rights for the King and his court. This had a cruel effect on the lives of the local population as they forbidden to hunt for meat, chop wood or own dogs and weapons. As well has having to fund purchases of firewood from the mainland, their crops were regularly damaged by loose herds of deer and elk which they were unable to control. It must have been a desperate time.
On the day we explored it, the island seemed populated solely by soggy sheep and a procession of other motorhomes.
We counted thirty during our day’s exploration, which is more in total than we spotted in our travels across Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland combined. We couldn’t help but notice it.
Local life was evident only in the smoke from chimneys and a damp wedding party at a small church. Stalls of Autumn fruits and squashes dotted the road sides, but we didn’t see anyone to buy from in the rains.
Returning across the busy bridge at dusk we felt a sense of surprised relief. It had been a bleak day, but a suitably thoughtful and atmospheric one on the island.