Notes from an author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave on the Norwegian island of Vardø

On a solo visit to the Norwegian island of Vardø — the scene of 17th-century witch-hunts — the writer finds peace at last, in more ways than one.

By Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Published 27 Mar 2020, 07:00 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:13 GMT
Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Reaching Vardø is a protracted process. Especially when it is your first trip abroad, alone, after a decade of mental health crises. I did not want to be in my own company, but the island was the setting of my novel, and I owed it to the book, The Mercies, if not to myself.

Connecting through Oslo, I stopped for two nights in Tromsø, to meet an academic whose research had informed my story. Of course, in July in the Arctic Circle, there are not ‘nights’ as I had ever known them. Recovering from a bout of insomnia, it felt vindicating to have endless light, the sky as awake as me. 

After dinner, I walked across the Tromsø Bridge to the Ishavskatedralen, the Arctic Cathedral. Built from concrete and glass, it speaks of water’s life as ice and liquid, its splinter and flow. Closed for a midnight sun concert, the music filtered outside as I stood, breathing and listening, watching Tromsø across the water, in the endless half-light.

Another flight took me further north east to the town of Vadsø. From there, a drive to the island of Vardø. I’d read how a rowan tree planted at the fortress of Vardøhus Festning died almost immediately, and its replacement is swaddled like a newborn throughout winter. But the strangeness of a land without trees, its unbroken expanse, still came as a surprise. The sea, constantly to my right, was grey and, at various points across the bay, land materialised — Russia. 

Until 1983, the crossing to Vardø was by boat. Now, a 3km undersea tunnel joins it to the mainland. Thus, arrival here is unremarkable — it spits you out onto a potholed stretch of road that splits like a wishbone around the harbour, angled north east towards Hornøya, an island uninhabited but for thousands of rare Arctic birds. Across the harbour was the hotel, a low-slung concrete block, guillemots wheeling overhead. 

You do not come here for the food, which is limited but fine enough, or the hospitality, which is much the same. There are no quaint fisherman’s huts, or traces of Sámi settlements. During the war, Vardø was occupied by the Germans, and all-but-razed by Allied Forces. Since 1995, the population has more than halved, and in 2017 the fishing industry here was declared obsolete. 

For most visitors, it is simply the last stop on the Hurtigruten ferry’s south-north route, or an access point for Hornøya. But what I came for is a 15-minute walk from the hotel, across a small hump of residential streets. 

“The fabric walls pulse and warp, and wind rushes through the gaps in the planks of the floor. A sea fret drifts in and fills the structure as though with smoke. Each testimony ends with the same phrase: ‘burned at the stake’”

The Steilneset Memorial hugs a stretch of shore that faces a blank sea. Within sight of Vardøhus Fortress, it is one of the few places on the island that offers a piece of unconcreted land, upon which a world-class piece of art and architecture sits. Peter Zumthor’s canvas-and-wood walkway groans and snaps in the wind, 91 lights flickering in the small windows. Because, for four years in the 1620s, Vardø and its castle became the site of Scandinavia’s most vicious witch-hunts. Each of the lights represents a life lost, and is accompanied by the murdered men and women’s testimonies, translated by Dr Liv Helene Willumsen, the academic I met in Tromsø. 

Entering the memorial is a disorientating, emotionally draining experience. The fabric walls pulse and warp, and wind rushes through the gaps in the planks of the floor. A sea fret drifts in and fills the structure as though with smoke. Each testimony ends with the same phrase: ‘burned at the stake’. At the end of the tunnel is a separate installation by Louise Bourgeois. A metal chair, flaming and sizzling, surrounded by hazy mirrors. It is a place of remembrance that brings the past within touching distance, and stings as much as it soothes. 

The next day, I drove to Hamningberg, an abandoned fishing village. I saw wild reindeer running on shingle beaches, a sea hawk lifting and dropping a tern on the road until it opened like old fruit. I passed no one on the roads, there or back. For three days, I spoke only to order food and pay bills and say thank you. And yet, when I joined the road that would take me to the airport, I was not ready to go home. After years of hating my own company, this journey had brought peace. Part of me wanted to keep driving this road, the E75, which starts in Vardø, and does not end until it reaches Sitia, on the island of Crete. One day, I will. I might even go alone.

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, is published by Picador (£14.99).

Follow @kiran_mh

Published in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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