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Visit to An Encampment of Laplanders

by William Hurton


OF all the wonders of distant climes of which we read in childhood, perhaps none make a stronger impression on our imaginations than such objects as exist beyond the mystic Arctic Circle. The pictorial representations of the Midnight Sun, the North Cape, the Aurora Borealis, the Laplanders and their reindeer, which all of us have gloated over in our dreaming youthful days, sink indelibly into our memory. While I sojourned on the Island of Tromsö, learning that on the neighboring mainland some Laplanders were encamped, I resolved to pay them a visit. Procuring a boat, I rowed over to the opposite shore (on the 17th July, 1850), where I met with a Nordlander, who informed me that the Lap encampment might be found somewhere toward the extremity of Trömsdal—a magnificent ravine commencing at no great distance from the shore, and running directly inland. He stated that the Laps had a noble herd of reins (the name universally given to reindeer), about eight hundred in number, and that, when the wind blew from a certain quarter, the whole herd would occasionally wander close to his house, but a rein-hund (reindeer-dog) was kept by him to drive them back.

The entrance to Trömsdal was a rough, wild tract of low ground, clothed with coarse wild grasses and dwarf underwood. There were many wild flowers, but none of notable beauty, the most abundant being the white flower of that delicious berry the moltebær. The dale itself runs with a gentle but immense curve, between lofty ranges of rock, which swell upward with regularity. The bed of this dale, or ravine, is from one quarter to three quarters of a mile across, and the centre was one picturesque mass of underwood and bosky clumps. All shrubs, however, dwindled away up the mountains' sides, and the vegetation grew scantier the higher one looked, until, at an altitude of not more than one hundred yards above the level of the sea, the snow lay in considerable masses. Overhead hung a summer Italian sky! Looking backward, the entrance to Trömsdal seemed blocked up by towering snow-clad mountains; and, looking forward, there was a long green vista between walls of snow, closed at the extremity by huge fantastic rocks, nodding with accumulated loads of the same material. Down the gray rocks on each hand, countless little torrents were leaping. They crossed the bottom of the ravine every few yards, and all of them hurried to blend with Trömsdal Elv—"the river of Trömsdal"—which runs through the dale, and falls into the sea at its entrance.

I had probably wandered four or five English miles down this noble dale, when a wild but mellow shout or halloa floated on the crisp, sunny breeze from the opposite side. I listened eagerly for its repetition, and soon it was repeated, more distinctly and more musically, and then I felt sure that it was the call of a Lap to the herd of reins. I paused, glanced keenly between the intercepting branches, and lo! there they were, of all sizes, by twos and threes, and dozens and scores. There they were, "native burghers of this desert city," denizens of the wilds, gathering together in one jostling mass of animated life! See their tossing antlers and glancing sides, as they pass to and fro among the green underwood.

They were on the far side of Elv; and just as I reached one bank of the stream, they came up to the other. The water here flowed with extreme violence, and was piercingly cold, but I unhesitatingly plunged in, and waded across. In a minute I was in the midst of the herd, and then saw that a Lap youth and Lap girl were engaged in driving them to the encampment. The youth had very bright, playful, hazel eyes, rather sunken, and small regular features of an interesting cast. His hands, like those of all Laps, are as small and finely shaped as those of any aristocrat. The simple reason for this is, that the Laps, from generation to generation, never perform any manual labor, and the very trifling work they necessarily do is of the lightest kind. His pæsk (the name of a sort of tunic, invariably worn by the Laplanders) was of sheep-skin, the wool inward, reaching to his knees. His boots were of the usual peaked shape, a few inches higher than his ankles, and made of the raw skin of the reindeer, the hair being nearly all worn off. On his head was a round woolen cap, shaped precisely like a night-cap, with a red tassel, and a red worsted band round the rim. This species of cap is the favorite one worn by the Laps.

The dress of the girl was similar in shape, but her pæsk was of very coarse, light-colored woolen cloth, a material frequently used in summer for the pæsks of both sexes, as being cooler than reindeer-skin or sheep-skin. Her head was bare, and her hair hung low over her shoulders. Her features were minute, and the prettiest and most pleasing of any Lap I ever saw either before or since. The complexion was a tawny reddish hue, common to all Laplanders. The legs of the nymph in question were bare from the tops of her boots to the knee, and were extremely thick and clumsy, furnishing a striking contrast to the delicate shape of her hands. The twain were accompanied by three little rein-dogs, and were very leisurely driving the herd onward, each having a branch of a tree in hand, to whisk about, to urge the deer on. The girl had a great coarse linen bag slung round her neck, and resting on her back. This she filled with a particular kind of moss as she went along. I asked her what she gathered it for, and she gave me to understand it was used in milking the reins; but in what manner, was as yet to me a mystery. I found both the girl and the youth very good-natured, and the eyes of the latter especially sparkled with merry humor. They could speak only a very few words of Norwegian, but understood some of my questions in that language, and very readily answered them. They were driving the herd to be milked, and on my telling them I was an Englishman, come from afar to see them and their reins, they repeated the word "Englesk" several times, in a tone of surprise, and regarded me with an interest and curiosity somewhat akin to what the appearance of one of their people would excite in an English city. Yet I must remark that, except in what immediately concerns themselves, the emotions of all Laplanders, so far as my opportunities of judging enable me to conclude, flow in a most sluggish channel. I asked the girl to show me the moss the reins eat, and she did so (after a little search), and gathered me some. It is very short in summer, but long in winter. In Sweden, I learn that this most admirable provision of nature for the sole support of the deer during nine months in the year (and in consequence, the existence of the Laplanders also depends on it) grows much more abundantly, and is of a greater length; which is the reason most Laps prefer Swedish Lapmark for their winter wanderings. Coming to a marshy spot where a particular long, sharp, narrow grass grew, I plucked some, and asked the Laps if they did not use that to put in their boots in lieu of stockings? They instantly responded affirmatively. This is the celebrated bladder carex, or cyperus grass (the carex-vesicaria of Linnæus). I gathered some, and afterward found it in several parts of the Island of Tromsö; but it only grows in marshy spots. The Laps at all seasons stuff their boots quite full of it, and it effectually saves their feet from being frost-bitten.

Onward we went, driving the herd, in which I gleefully helped, the three little dogs at times barking and fetching up stragglers. The Laps occasionally gave a short cry or urging shout to the reins, and I burst forth with my full-lunged English hallo, to the evident amusement of my companions. The scene was most exciting, and vividly brought to my recollection the forest scenes in "As you like it." The brilliant sunlight, the green grass, the sparkling, murmuring Elv, the picturesque glen, the figures of the Laps, the moving herd of reins—the novelty of the whole was indescribably delightful. I found the reins did not make such a very loud, "clicking" noise as most travelers have asserted. Here were hundreds of reins striking their hoofs together, and yet the noise was certainly any thing but loud from their cloven feet and horny fetlocks, and would hardly have been noticeable had I not particularly listened for it. But another thing, of which I had never read any notice, struck me much—the loud, snorting noise emitted by the deer at every step. Unpoetical as my fancy may seem, it reminded me most strongly of the grunting of swine, but was certainly not so coarse a noise, and, at the same time, partook much of the nature of a snort. The cause of the noise is this: when the deer are heated, they do not throw off their heat in sweat—their skin is too thick for that; but, like the dog, they emit the heat through the mouth. The size of some of the reins astonished me. In many instances they were as large as Shetland ponies, and some had most magnificent branching antlers of a very remarkable size. This is the only animal of the deer genus which invariably has a horizontal branch from the main antlers, projecting in a line over each eye. These antlers are covered with a short gray hair. Some of the herd in question had broken pieces off their antlers, which hung down bleeding by the skin. The does also have antlers, but very small, and generally straight, which, when skinned and dried, can be distinguished from those of the male by their whiteness. All the herd were casting their winter hair, and consequently their coats looked somewhat ragged and parti-colored—the new color being generally a dark, and the old a light gray. In some cases, however, the deer are white; and in winter all are more or less of a light color. There were many pretty young does running among the herd.

The eye of the rein is beautiful; it is rather prominent, with clear, dark eyeball and reddish iris. One noble deer was the leader of the herd, and was distinguished by a bell hanging beneath his neck, just in front of the chest, and suspended from a broad slip of wood bent round his neck, and tied with a thong.

We at length drew nigh the Lap encampment, consisting of two large gammes (summer huts), most rudely constructed of earth, stones, and trunks of trees; and also of a summer canvas tent. Besides these, were two or three extraordinary erections of trees and branches, which I shall hereafter describe. Between us and the encampment flowed a bend of Trömsdal Elv, and on the north side of this (the side we were on) were inclosed circus-like open places, each of a diameter of one hundred and fifty feet, as nearly as I could estimate. They were formed by stumps of trees and poles, set upright on the ground, and these were linked together by horizontal poles, and against the latter were reared birch poles and branches of trees, varying from six to ten feet in height, without the slightest attempt at neatness, the whole being as rude as well could be; but withal, this inclosure was sufficiently secure to answer the purpose of its builders. On the south side of the Elv, and about one hundred yards distant, was a third similar inclosure.

Soon we were joined by the whole Lappish tribe, who came by twos and threes, bringing with them all the instruments and appliances necessary for the important business of milking. These consisted of long thongs of reindeer-skin, and also hempen cords of the manufacture of civilized men, for noosing the reins, and of bowls, kits, &c., to receive the milk. The bowls were thick, clumsy things, round, and of about nine inches in diameter, with a projecting hand-hold. They would probably each hold a couple of quarts, and the edges inclined inward, so as to prevent the milk from spirting over during the operation of milking. The large utensils for receiving the milk from these hand-bowls consisted of four wooden kits with covers, one iron pot, and a long keg or barrel.

All the Lap huts I have seen are furnished with one or more small barrels, containing a supply of water for drinking. The utensils enumerated were set apart together on the long grass, close beside the fence, in the inner portion of the circle, and in their midst was placed another object, which I regarded with extreme interest, viz., a child's cradle! This was the last thing brought from the encampment, which then did not contain a living animal—men, women, children, and dogs, being one and all assembled in the inclosures. The cradle was ingeniously made entirely of reindeer-skin, shorn of hair, and, as it appeared to me, also hardened or tanned by some process. Its shape much resembled a huge shoe of the fashion of the middle ages, having a high back, and turned up at the foot or toe. It reminded me strongly of the bark cradles of the North American Indians, and was equally adapted to be slung at the mother's back on a journey, or to be hung up in a gamme, or on a tree, out of the reach of hungry dogs or prowling wolves. The head of the cradle was spanned by a narrow top, from which depended a piece of coarse common red check woolen stuff, drawn so tightly over the body of the cradle that one would have fancied the little creature in some danger of suffocation, and it was only by an occasional feeble struggle under the cloth, that I was apprised of the existence of a living creature beneath it. Evidently this cover was necessary, for I saw a huge musquito—the summer pest of the North—settle repeatedly upon it, as though longing to suck the blood of the innocent little prisoner.

The entire number of Laps now assembled could not be less than forty, men, women, and children included; and the three dogs had been joined by at least a score of their brethren. The men, generally, were attired in rough and ragged pæsks, either of reindeer-skin or of sheep-skin; the hair of the latter being worn inward, but of the former, outward. The women had all pæsks of cloth, but their appearance was so strikingly similar to that of the men, and the hair of both sexes hung down over the shoulders and shaded the face so much, that it was, in some cases, difficult, at the first glance, to distinguish the sex of the younger adults. The heads of the women were bare, and they all wore girdles of leather, studded with glittering brass ornaments, of which they are excessively proud. The men wore caps, as already described, and plain leather girdles, with a knife attached in a sheath, and in some instances the woman also wore a small knife. The children had miniature pæsks of sheep-skin, their only clothing. I had read of the generally diminutive stature of the Laplanders, and found them to be truly a dwarfish race. On an average the men did not appear to exceed five feet in height, and the women were considerably less. They were most of them very robust, however, and probably the circumference of their chest nearly equaled their height. The complexion of all was more or less tawny, their eyes light-colored, and their hair either reddish or auburn, and its dangling masses added much to the wildness of their aspect. Some of them wore mustaches and beards, but nature had apparently denied the majority such hirsute signs of manhood.

The gait or bearing of the Laps is indescribably clumsy, when they are walking on level ground, and as unsteady as that of a person under the influence of liquor; but they appear the reverse of awkward when engaged in the avocations incident to their primitive life. They are exceedingly phlegmatic in temperament, greedy, avaricious, suspicious, very indolent and filthy, and by no means celebrated for strict adherence to truth. The Nordlanders one and all spoke of them, in answer to my questions, with mingled distrust and contempt, and my own limited experiences most assuredly did not tend much toward impressing me with a more favorable opinion. The countenances of most of the Laps present a combination of stolidity, low cunning, and obstinacy, so as to be decidedly repulsive; yet it is undeniably true, that crimes attended with violence rarely occur among them, though I take that as no decided proof of the mildness of their disposition. They also are strict in their attendance at church, whenever opportunity serves; but their conduct immediately on quitting the sacred edifice, too frequently evinces that hardly a spark of genuine religion has lightened up the darkness of their souls. Drunkenness has long been, and is still their besetting sin, but I am assured that this failing, so common to all uncivilized races, is rapidly decreasing.

The tribe of Laps whom I am particularly describing were not Norwegian but Swedish Laps, and for a number of years have regularly resorted to Trömsdal, as affording a very fine pasturage for their herds, as well as being in the immediate vicinity of salt water, it being absolutely necessary for the herd to be driven to the sea-shore during the fervid summer season, to avoid the deadly pests of musquitoes and other insects, and to be within the cooling influence of the sea-breezes.

The herd was now driven within the inclosure, and all outlets secured. I stood in the midst of the animated, jostling mass of reins, Laps, and dogs. I found myself naturally an object of curiosity to the tribe, who questioned the youth and girl, whom I had accompanied to the spot, concerning me; and, from the glances the Laps cast on me and exchanged with one another, it was clear that I was regarded with some degree of suspicion, for they evidently considered I must have some secret ulterior object in visiting them. The Lapponic language is as liquid as the purest Italian, but it always struck me as being pervaded with a plaintive, melancholy, wailing tone. Anxious to conciliate my Lappish friends, I addressed a few words of Norwegian to one after another, but a shake of the head and a dull, glowering stare was the only answer I got. At length, finding one who appeared a principal man of the commonwealth, who spoke Norwegian very well, I made him understand that a desire to see a herd of reins had alone drawn me to the spot. He exchanged a few amicable "Ja, Ja's" with me, but was too intent on the great business of the day to say much.

Throwing my wet stockings and shoes aside, I walked about bare-legged among the throng, bent on seeing all that was to be seen. The first thing to be done was to secure the restive reins. Selecting a long thong or cord, a Lap took a turn of both ends round his left hand, and then gathered what sailors call the bight in loose folds held in his right. He now singled out a rein, and threw the bight with unerring aim over the antlers of the victim. Sometimes the latter made no resistance, but generally no sooner did it feel the touch of the thong than it broke away from the spot, and was only secured by the most strenuous exertions of its capturer. Every minute might be seen an unusually powerful rein furiously dragging a Lap round and round the inclosure, and occasionally it would fairly overcome the restraint of the thong, and whirl its antagonist prostrate on the sod. This part of the scene was highly exciting, and one could not but admire the great muscular strength and the trained skill evinced by all the Laps, women as well as men. The resistance of a rein being overcome, the Lap would take a dexterous hitch of the thong round his muzzle and head, and then fasten him to a trunk of a prostrate tree, many of which had been brought within the level inclosure for that especial purpose. Even when thus confined, some of the reins plunged in the most violent manner. Men and women were indiscriminately engaged, both in singling out milk-reins and in milking them. The wooden bowl, previously described, was held in the operator's left hand, and he then slapped the udder of the rein several times with the palm of the right hand; after which, moistening the tips of his fingers with his lips, he rapidly completed the operation. I paid particular attention to the amount of milk yielded by a single rein, noticing only bowls which had not previously received contributions, and I found that, although some yielded little more than a gill, others gave at least double, and a few thrice, that quantity. I think the fair average might be half a pint.

This milk is as thick as the finest cream from the cow, and is luscious beyond description. It has a fine aromatic smell, and in flavor reminded me most strongly of cocoa-nut milk. No stranger could drink much of it at a time—it is too rich. I bargained with the Laps subsequently for a large bottleful, and never shall I forget the treat I enjoyed in sipping the new, warm milk on the ground. When a rein was milked, the operator took up a small portion of the particular species of moss spoken of, and carefully wiped the drained udder and teats with it. From time to time, the bowls were emptied into the kits, &c.

It is impossible to give an adequate idea of the impressive, exhilarating tout ensemble of the whole inclosure. Every soul seemed fully occupied, for even the little Lap children were practicing the throwing of the lasso, and evinced great dexterity, although their strength was insufficient to hold the smallest doe. Many of the young reins attempted to suck the parent doe, but were always beaten away by the Laps. Great quantities of the loose hair on the backs of the reins fell to the ground at a touch, and I observed that the women failed not to gather it every now and then, and put it aside in large handfuls. Inquiring the reason of this, I learned they used it to form beds, on which to stretch their reindeer-skins, and thus save them from contact with the mud floor of the huts. I seated myself on a fragment of rock in the centre of the circle, and made hasty notes of what I beheld around me. This act excited very general dissatisfaction among the Laps, who regarded me with increased suspicion, doubtless imagining me to be enumerating themselves and reins for the purpose of taxation, or something worse. Several came close up to me, and peered over the cabalistic signs on my paper with a sort of gloomy inquisitiveness. I spoke to the Lap who understood Norwegian, and he acted as tolk in interpreting anew to his brethren the purely amicable nature of my intentions. As to the half-dozen of little wild imps of children, I had already won their confidence by distributing among them large rye cakes, with which I had filled my pockets at Tromsö, expressly with that view. At first it was with difficulty they were induced to approach me to receive my gifts, but they soon came readily enough, and, as fast as I broke up the cakes and distributed the fragments, just so fast did the said fragments disappear down their hungry little stomachs. They gave no sign of acknowledgment of the treat—as it truly was to them—no more than so many automata. The tolk, however, marking this, made one of them say, in the Norwegian, "Taks, mange taks" (thanks, many thanks).