When the first people ventured out to Vega in their skin boats 10 000 - 11 000 years ago, three steep peaks were all they saw above sea level, which was 80-85 metres higher than today. Here, far out at sea, they made their main settlement in the north, at Åsgarden, and had sealing and fishing stations or camps dotted around the steep islands. Vega was one of the first ice-free areas on the coast, and fish and game were plentiful. As the ice melted at the end of the last Ice Age some 13000 years ago, the pressure caused by the weight of the ice sheet decreased. Slowly, the land began to rise.
The oldest settlers were hunters and gatherers. This society gradually developed into one where animal husbandry and agriculture also became important.
The archipelago is formed
Between 5000 and 3000 years ago, an archipelago of islands, islets and skerries rose slowly from the sea on a shallow, wave-cut shelf called a strandflat. These low islands began to be used around 1500 years ago, but only as seasonal settlements for fishing, hunting and gathering. By degrees, people realised the advantages of settling on this extensive strandflat. They made their homes on the islands because these offered a more reliable means of securing a livelihood than the mainland, where crops often failed. On the coast, fish were the prime source of food and income. The poor soil gave fodder for a couple of cows and some sheep. Seals and seabirds were also hunted. Wild eiders gave precious, soft down.
Immigration and depopulation
About sixty of the islands have been inhabited, some as far back as the 1400-1500s. The settlement lasted until 20 or 30 years ago. Government policy at that time was to centralise settlement in Norway, and almost all the islands were deserted. The schools on Hysvær and Skogsholmen closed.
Boat and postal services ceased to operate. People were offered grants to help them to move from the islands. Structural changes in agriculture and fishing also took place. Today, only the main island of Vega and the smaller islands of Ylvingen, Kilvær and Omnøy have permanent residents.
The World Heritage status awarded to the Vega Archipelago is opening up many new opportunities for the former fishing settlements in the archipelago.
Grants are helping people to resume the tending of eiders, restore the cultural landscape and rehabilitate the buildings. Houses are being repaired and the owners of islands where down used to be collected go out to their islands in May and June to revive and maintain the old tradition of tending the eiders like semi-domesticated animals. The number of eider tenders has tripled from six or seven a few years ago to 18 in 2010. Others earn their living in fishing and tourism in the area. Islanders, local authorities and government agencies alike are making an effort to preserve and develop the cultural landscape, life and activities in this island wonderland.
Photo: Rita Johansen