The Åland Islands, Finland Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Åland Islands, Finland

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In the middle of the Gulf of Bothnia, halfway between Sweden's capital, Stockholm, and the historic Finnish city of Turku, lie the Åland islands. Åland (pronounced rather like Awe-land) means River Country. The Finnish name, Ahvenanmaa, means Perch Country, after the fish that can be caught here. It's an archipelago of about 7,000 islands, although fewer than 100 are inhabited. The islands are divided into 16 regions, each with its own coat of arms which will be seen on road signs that say 'You are now entering...'. The regions are known as Brändö, Eckerö, Finström, Föglö, Geta, Hammarland, Jomala, Kumlinge, Kökar, Lemland, Lumparland, Mariehamn, Saltvik, Sottunga, Sund and Vårdö. The 'ö' suffix is Swedish for 'island', although not all of the names follow this convention. The regions ending in 'ö' are, generally speaking, named after the largest island in that region - Åland is an amalgamation of islands rather than a single entity.


Although the Islands are an autonomous province of Finland, they are Swedish-speaking and belonged to the Kingdom of Sweden until 1809. Russia forced Sweden to relinquish the territories of Finland and Åland, and Åland then became part of the Grand Duchy of Finland.

With the disintegration of the Russian Empire at the end of the First World War, the Ålanders decided they wanted to be reunited with Sweden. An overwhelming majority of the resident adult population signed a mass petition, and Åland representatives conveyed their wishes to the King and Government of Sweden. But Finland proclaimed itself an independent republic in December 1917 - and the Finns weren't prepared to comply with the Ålanders' demand for reunion with Sweden. Instead, they offered a form of internal self-government - an Autonomy Act was passed in 1920 by the Eduskunta1, but the Ålanders were unwilling to accept it at that stage.

The matter was referred to the League of Nations2. In June 1921, the League decided that Finland should receive sovereignty over the Islands. Åland received its autonomy combined with guarantees for its language and culture, and Sweden received guarantees that Åland would not constitute a military threat to Sweden.

Finland and the Soviet Union signed a demilitarisation agreement concerning the Islands after the Finnish-Russian War (1939-40), which was renewed after the Second World War. Åland remains demilitarised to this day - in contrast to the rest of Finland, there is no military service there.


Finland's parliament renounced the League of Nations' guarantee of autonomy in 1951 under pressure from the Soviet Union, but at the same time the islanders were accorded additional rights of self-government. Åland, while being officially part of Finland, remains an autonomous state. Their parliament is known as the Lagting3. While Åland does not crave independence, they do fiercely stick up for their individuality in the political arena, at both Finnish and EU levels.


Though linked by the archipelago to Finland, Åland lies much closer to Stockholm than it does to Helsinki, in the hearts of the people as well as on the map. The islands are these days semi-autonomous, the self-government building being situated in Mariehamn. Nevertheless, attitudes towards the rest of Finland are more jovial than resentful. Mainland Finns aren't hated in Åland, merely regarded as foreigners.


The cultural proximity to Sweden shows in the language of the Åland islands. Unlike other Swedish-speaking Finns, the Ålanders do not use many Finnish words in their slang, preferring to simply abbreviate Swedish words. Nor do they share the level pronunciation of the Finns, tending more towards the undulating tone of the Swedes. If you speak Finnish then the chances are that you are a Finn and will be warned in advance. But for those of you who have gone to the effort of learning Finnish, Åland is a place where you will not get much chance to practise it. The islanders conduct almost their entire lives in Swedish and few are prepared to speak Finnish.

To further clarify, mainland Finnish-Swedes learning Finnish as a second language begin at a higher level than Ålanders, as they are, at least in theory, surrounded by the language in daily life. Ålanders, however, start pretty much at beginner's level, just like any foreigner learning the language.


Visitors to the islands will notice a distinct lack of high-rise buildings. One reason given for this is that the fire department don't own ladders that will extend higher than three storeys, so buildings are kept as low as possible. Those familiar with the works of Lars Sonck will find many examples of his style around Mariehamn, a prime example being St. Görans Church (1927) on Storgatan4. Overall, Åland has the charming look of rural Scandinavia. Even Mariehamn has an atmosphere of suburban bliss.


If you like ships you'll love Mariehamn. The whole island has been more or less dependent on shipping throughout its existence. Two big names in shipping, August Troberg and Gustaf Erikson, both lived in Mariehamn and had large ocean-going fleets, Erikson once having had the largest fleet in the world. The Åland Maritime Museum in the Western Harbour5 has many exhibits for the enthusiast. In the Eastern Harbour there's a maritime quarter, featuring a boatyard, smithy and another shipbuilding museum6.

Duty Free

As the economy of the islands depends heavily on income from Duty Free/Tax Free goods, the Ålands are a rare exception in the EU in that Duty Free can be sold there. Baltic Sea ferry companies make a point of stopping at Mariehamn for this very reason.

A Bite to Eat

If you're looking for edible specialities then you can't go wrong with bread and cheese. Simple fare, but the Åland svartbröd ('Black bread') and their special cheese are worth tasting. As with all Scandinavian countries, imaginative and tasty fish dishes feature strongly on the menus.

Getting There

The main island has an airport some 2 miles or 3km outside Mariehamn. The most popular way to arrive at the islands, however, is by ferry. The companies Viking Line and Silja Line run regular services (about two a day - decide if you want to travel by night or by day) between Stockholm and Turku, stopping at Åland on the way. Be warned however that in winter or in seasons of high wind the large ferries may have problems pulling into Mariehamn. You could find yourself landing at or departing from Långnäs, about half an hour's drive away from the main city. Bus services may be provided in these circumstances. In extreme conditions, the ferries may miss the islands out altogether, so be prepared for an unexpected stay in Stockholm, Turku or Helsinki, depending which way you're travelling.

What to Do/See

The city of Mariehamn will offer a day or two's entertainment if you like shopping and shipping. See above. The Åland Museum exhibits the island's history since way back when and also incorporates an art museum. Lilla Holmen, meanwhile, is a small islet off the east harbour containing a park for kids and a jetty.

The Tourist Information Centre is located at Storgatan 8, a couple of doors uphill from the Viking Line ferry agency. However, the best pickings for tourists are beyond the town. By all accounts, Åland is best toured by bicycle.

Facts and Figures

  • Population: c25,000

  • Main city: Mariehamn7, pop. c11,000, 11.6

  • Language: Swedish.

  • Flag: A vertical-horizontal red cross, centred hoist side, outlined with yellow, all on a dark blue background. The island has had its own flag since 1954.

1The Parliament of Finland2The predecessor of the United Nations, which was disbanded after its failure to prevent the Second World War.3'Law Thing' - not all institutional names bear direct translation...4'Big Street' - once you've found a street that's at least twice the width of all the others, you know you're there.5Open May, June, July and August from 9-5. Open 10-5 other months.6Open mid-June to mid-August from 10-6. Open 9-11 other months.7'Maria's Harbour' named after a consort of Tsar Alexander. Founded in 1861.

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