Project supported by Amersham plc and North Cape (Scotland) Ltd

In May 2001 I packed up my paints and headed off to the spectacular Lofoten Islands in northern Norway for an intensive three weeks of painting, drawing, observation and photography. During my short time there I produced thirty seven (worthwhile) watercolour sketches, endless scribbles, photos, video and a journal. Read on to find out more about my great arctic adventure.......

rowan painting torrfisk

On May 17th after more than a year of planning, touching down at Leknes air strip saw me both elated and relieved to have finally arrived in Lofoten. These Islands rank highly among the world's most beautiful places and I was overwhelmed with excitement about the painting adventure I was about to experience. But a bumpy landing in a small Dash 8 plane on a cold, grey, windswept May evening was not exactly how I had envisaged my grand arrival in the 'land of the midnight sun'! A bigger shock still was the obvious absence of snow - could I really be in the Arctic? This rather unexpected first impression had evoked a twinge of apprehension, arousing a slight feeling of uncertainty. Would it be all that I'd hoped for? What if it wasn't? Was I expecting too much? I needn't have worried. On leaving the airport it soon became glaringly apparent that Lofoten would indeed live up to all my expectations. Mountains abounded and, snow or not, I realised that any initial trepidation was totally unfounded. Thankfully at that point, my momentary pessimism melted away as quickly as it had arisen and my fascinating journey of discovery began in earnest.

The Lofoten Islands lie directly in the path of the Gulf Stream, making them extremely mild in comparison to other countries of the same latitude such as northern Greenland. Snowfall varies from year to year with an average winter temperature of -1 degree, but a particularly mild winter this year saw much less fall than usual. By the time I arrived, just the deeper mountain crevices still bore snow. Periodically though (and to my delight), after days shrouded in thick cloud, the very tops would become dusted with an icing-sugar like coating. Against a backdrop of clear blue sky and with mirror like reflections in the still, deep lakes, this mountain landscape in the sea was transformed to the almost magical.

I stayed for the first 10 days at Høynes, a tiny cluster of 'hytter' on the 'outside' of the island of Vestvågøy. With spectacular views to Jellvollstind mountain on one side and out across the open sea to distant Vesterålen on the other I was perfectly placed, both to see the midnight sun and to begin my visual study of this most beautiful of places. 24 hour daylight added hugely to the experience and, although a little strange to begin with, it allowed for maximum exploration. It also provided much needed 'catch-up' time for work after poor weather!


Thanks to a hire car, provided with funding from Nycomed Amersham plc., I spent the first few days acquainting myself with the northern end of the islands: Vestvågøy, Gimsøy and Austvågøy and enjoyed discovering places such as Eggum, Borge, Svolvær and Henningsvær which I had read so much about. The E10 is the only main road on Lofoten and it stretches the entire length of the islands, joining them together like a string of beads with modern bridges and tunnels. This road provided spectacular views, particularly around the winding coastal parts, but it was the hidden coves, fjords and mountain paths which really excelled. Constantly changing weather meant that several visits to paint in the same area would prove fruitful and mountains such as Vågakallen and Rulten quickly became 'favourites'. My research prior to arrival had revealed that several of the peaks here had in fact been discovered and first climbed in the very early 1900's by British mountaineer William Cecil Slingsby. Although not a climber myself, on a fine day I could begin to appreciate exactly what the attraction had been - on a stormy day I was not so sure.....


The weather on Lofoten is notorious for its rapid changes and micro climates, which makes it extremely difficult to predict. The geography of the islands means that within very short distances the weather can differ completely, from thick low cloud to bright clear skies in just a few kilometres. Likewise, you may find yourself sitting peacefully in warm sunshine one minute and in the middle of a hail storm the next! This makes painting outside an unpredictable business and good preparation of kit essential. Using the car as a mobile studio helped a little but my warm fleece clothing, hats and gloves provided by North Cape (Scotland) Ltd proved invaluable. Good waterproofs and a flask of something hot also come highly recommended!

By the end of my first week I had been introduced to many facets of the Lofoten way of life and had absorbed the fact that the mountains are 'there' and that everything goes on around them. The prevailing winds and worst of the weather comes from the west south west so, logically, most of the substantial settlements and fishing ports are on the south eastern or 'inside' of the islands for protection. This has been the case throughout history and a visit to the reconstructed Viking settlement at Borge showed exactly how resourceful the people of Lofoten needed to be, both back then and to a certain degree even now. Life may have been 'modernised' but fundamentally it remains much the same with weather, fishing and farming (in that order) at its heart. I was lucky enough to see the midnight sun once during my stay at Høynes which, I was later told, was quite an achievement given that I had only been there for 10 days.....


On 26th May I waved good-bye to Vestvågøy and, on the sunniest day I'd seen, I began my journey south. Leaving via the impressive Nappstraumen tunnel I drove across Flakstadøy and down to the bottom of Moskenesøy which, although just 50km away, in many ways seemed like a different world. Vestvågøy has the largest agricultural community of the islands thanks to a greater area of flat ground but here at the southern end, among mountains which rise straight from the sea, the fishing industry is very much the life blood. In March the season is in full swing with the cod harvest at its peak. 80% of the fish caught at this time are hung up to dry on racks which cover every spare inch of level space. The fish remain there, open to the elements but essentially 'drying out' until mid June when the process of taking in and grading this Stockfish or 'Tørrfisk' begins. The majority is then shipped off to Italy where it is a much praised delicacy. Revenue generated from the stockfish trade is of crucial importance to Lofoten and, together with a growing tourism industry, they form the mainstay of the islanders existence. It was fascinating for me to see (and smell!) these fish racks full during my stay because, as such an important element in the way of life on Lofoten, they are indeed integral to the landscape.


Small hamlets and their fishing fleets are scattered all along the southern coasts of Flakstadøy and Moskenesøy. My base at Sakrisøy lay between the picturesque villages of Hamnøy and Reine and was an active producer and exporter of premier quality Tørrfisk. My home for 2 weeks (surrounded by fish racks!) was an authentically restored fisherman's cabin or 'Rorbu', which stood on stilts in the clear green water of Reinefjorden. From here I was able to explore with my drawing books both on foot and by boat, with many more opportunities just a short drive away. A sunny but windy boat trip down the massive Kjerkfjord was particularly enjoyable and productive, with spectacular views of some of the best mountains in Lofoten. This too was an area first climbed by Slingsby and several of the peaks he conquered are visible from here. A couple of kilometres on from Reine the E10 road winds through tunnels and across bridges to Sørvågen, finally ending at Å, which overlooks the famous Maelstrom current between Moskenesøy and Værøy. The interesting geology of the islands is greatly apparent here with enormous striations of quartz visible both underfoot and on the massive sea cliffs. Some of the oldest and hardest rock in the world can be found on Lofoten, the spectacular mountains being carved by ice from gneiss, granite and syenite. An afternoon alone painting surrounded by such majesty is certainly a humbling experience. 


Mannen & Gjerdtindan - Morning Shadows. Owned by North Cape (Scotland) Ltd.

The mixed and unpredictable weather throughout my trip, although frustrating at times, proved essential in showing me the 'real' Lofoten. Some fantastic days, some dreadful days and everything in between made for an extremely rewarding 3 weeks. The main objective of my trip was 'to visit the Lofoten Islands in order to begin a detailed visual portrayal of their unique mountain environment and its effect on the communities which exist there, thus continuing my visual study of Norwegian mountains through the medium of paint and further advancing my overall development as a mountain artist'. All of this I feel I have achieved - drawing, painting, observing and absorbing - experiencing life on the islands for myself in order to portray it in a truthful way to others. Having recorded in paint as much as possible of the islands' landscape and their many moods (though not always easy!), I now hope to be able to give true representation and 'essence' to the pictures I will continue to create. 

Cloud, wind and rain, the midnight sun, never ending daylight, screaming seagulls, chugging boat engines, fish racks and the smell of drying fish, the stillness of deep reflections on a quiet morning, the ferocity of an impromptu hail storm, the majestic and towering presence of the mountains - these all add up to the spirit of Lofoten. Life may continue to evolve there but this unique and beautiful coastal mountain environment always has been and always will be, completely at the mercy of the elements.


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© Rowan Huntley 2017  email: rowan@rowanhuntley.co.uk