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The History of Bohuslän

The land we today call Bohuslän was inhabited already during the Stone Age. There are several findings, such as the large settlements at Sandarna and Bua Västergård and a large quantity of megalithic tombs. Bohuslän was also the homeland of the "Stångenäs male" -considered to be one of the oldest Homo Sapien findings in the Nordic area. However, most renowned are the numerous rock carvings, dating back to the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. You find them in many places but the majority, and the most well-known ones, are situated in Tanum. The figures were carved into rocks nearby the ocean but since then, the landmass has risen about a 100 meters. In total, the province has risen 100-170 metres since the glacial era about 9 000 years ago. During the Bronze and Iron Ages the coastal people had little or no contact with the people inland. All the communications were south and northbound.

Even if Bohuslän has been inhabited for a long time, it has been Swedish for only 337 years. The province enters modern history in the Viking Era ( 800-1000 BC) when Bohuslän, as well as the southern part of Norway, belonged to the Danish kingdom. In the 12th century the Norwegian kings managed to break loose and the new border became the Göta Älv (just south of today's Kungälv). The first Kungälv (Kongahälla) was founded at this time. Bohuslän was called Viken and it was divided in two parts. The northern part called Ranrikesyssel and the southern called Älvsyssel.

An expansive period started during the Norwegian king Håkon reign. The population went up and many buildings were built.He is said to have built the first fortress on Ragnhildsholmen in the Nordre Älv at Kongahälla. He also started the colonisation of inhabited islands in the area, such as Marstrand and Öckerö. There was also plenty of herring during this period. The German Hansa merchants travelled the coast all the way up to Norway and the province flourished. The good days would not last...

The Bohus Fortress. Photo: Lars Olofsson
Towards the end of the century, King Håkon ganged up with noble Danish rebellions and the civil wars started again. King Håkon gave Kongahälla and the Ragnhildsholmen fortress to the Danes but when he thought the better of it, he could not get it back. In 1308 he built the Bohus fortress, which was to be crucial for the future of the province. It is located close to the other fortress but it is situated on an island in the middle of the river with a better controlling position than the other one.

The civil wars were tough on the locals and the Black Death in 1349-50 added to it. It ravaged the whole Nordic area, with Norway being hit worst. Despite the devastation, the province became more valuable, thanks to the strategic position at the ocean and thanks to the fish, especially the herring.

The Carlsten Fortress. Photo: Lars Olofsson
In the years from 1319 to 1523 there was a union between the Swedes, the Danes and the Norwegians. The kings ruled from the two fortresses in Bohuslän. At this time, the Swedes had no access to the western ocean or to the trading at the coastline. However, as their internal affairs stabilised during the 15th century, they rebelled against the union several times. They fought their way into Bohuslän but never managed to conquer the Bohus Fortress. Instead the Swedes built the Old Elfsborg Fortress (close to Göteborg), which they time and time again lost to the Danes - being forced to buy it back.

The warfare continued and the locals were suffering. In 1523 the Gustav Vasa revolt brought an end to the union. He became king over Sweden and managed to conquer the northern part of Bohuslän but the Bohus Fortress held its ground. Norway was more or less a province of Denmark at this time. For the following two centuries, the province was a battlefield and the locals suffered. The life saviour was the herring. The first great herring period arrived in the late 16th century. During that time the sea was bubbling with fish. One could literally pick the herring by hand from the shore.

In 1619 Göteborg was founded by the Swedes They had at last managed to get a foothold on the seashore. The battles intensified. Kongahälla was once again destroyed and moved closer to the Bohus Fortress. Bohuslän then became Swedish in the Roskilde peace treaty of 1658 but remained a poor province until the herring came back in the later part of the 18th century. The province was more or less forgotten by the nobles in the capital. It was looked upon as an unproductive stretch of land inhabited by people speaking Norwegian only - there was even talk of selling it back to the Norwegians.

In 1750 the largest herring-period started and it lasted until 1805. The province was no longer poor and it got the attention of the nobles as well as the Göteborg merchants. A large industry arised based on fishing; herring salteries and train oil boileries, the manufacturing of barrels for the herring and small ship yards building more boats. The train oil was exported to cities around Europe to be used in lamps. Wood was needed for many of these activities and the forests of Bohuslän were quickly diminishing. When the herring eventually disappeared, so did the merchants' money. The poor days arrived once again and the island villages were depopulated. Still, this was the start of the offshore fishing and the sail freight shiping that would, meagrely, support the archipelago during the 19th century.

In 1842 the nation-wide compulsory school was founded and the Bohuslänians learned to speak Swedish. Slowly they became more Swedish than Norwegian. In 1850 the stone quarries appeared and the stone cutting industry became important in the late 1800's. The Bohuslän granite was exported all over the world; to Rio, South Africa, the quays of Buenos Aires and, in recent times, to the Sydney Opera House to mention a few. When the herring came back in the 1870's, the canning industry in the fishing villages flourished. Small ship yards were common along the whole coast line, the coastal freight shipping was frequent; in Uddevalla the wood and textile industry grew to importance.

Copyright © GP/Bildservice
In this century the population of the province doubled. New narrow-laned fishing villages were founded in many places. Most of the islets and the peninsulas of Bohuslän were owned by the Crown- the King's property - which today would be the government. This meant that it was free of charge to build on the land. A young couple starting a new home would put out some pieces of wood in a spot they fancied. If there were no protests within a couple of weeks, they would start the construction of their house. This is the explanation how such places as Käringön, Smögen and Mollösund, to mention just a few, was founded.

Yet better days arrived in 1887, when the American mackerel fishing went wrong. To ensure themselves of future whiskey snacks, the bid went to Bohuslän. The fishermen "swallowed the bait" and bought English cutters for the job. Each one took about 10 crewmembers and lots of hired hands were brought into the province. The First World War could not stop the offshore fishing but the American alcohol prohibition in 1920 did.

However, the character of the work at sea changed during this century. In some fishing villages the inhabitants gave up fishing and became freight skippers instead. The end of the sailing freighters' era was close and the Tjörn skippers were keen on motorising their freighters. As a result of this, Skärhamn is still the principal area for small freighters. At the turn of the century, the fishing cutters became motorised as well. Some installed Laurin's engine - today world renowned as the Skandia engine. That was the start of a valuable engine manufacturing industry in one fishing village-the community of Lysekil.

The end of the 19th century brought along many changes. One that indeed was to affect the Bohuslän of today was the seaside health resort era. This was a favourite pastime for the noblility and the renowned, as well as the Swedish king Oscar II. Up to now, they had travelled to the Alp countries to improve their health (and to enjoy themselves) but a Swedish doctor realised that Bohuslän had ideal conditions. The looks of the province's fishing villages started to change. Societie houses, boarding houses and large villas with verandas and fancy carpentry were added to the existing tiny red houses. The locals saw strange things such as tennis-courts appearing in the midst of the fishing-nets and herring - all to keep the guests happy during their stay. The five large resorts were Gustafsberg, Marstrand, Lysekil, Grebbestad and Strömstad. When the W.W.I was approaching you could enjoy clay and kelp baths. The resort guests brought along passenger steamships and artists. The roughness of the coast and the withdrawn squareness of the inhabitants were brought onto canvas. The Bohuslän characteristics became known as something truly Swedish and finally the "Norwegian" province was recognised as part of its new country. All in all, the "infrastructure" and good-will of this period paved the way for the tourism of today. But yet again, the glorious days came to an end somewhere between the two World Wars. The fishing industry moved towards larger and fewer (more expensive) vessels, concentrating to a few landing spots. The stone quarries reached their peak in 1929, then concrete and bitcheman replaced the granite. The youngsters of the fishing villages and the stone cutter's communities left for work in Göteborg.

In the period 1940-1960, the Bohuslän parliament representatives were working hard to find solutions for the province's survival but it was not until the large industries moved in that enough jobs were created. Once again the access to water was crucial. The Uddevalla ship yard building tankers, the paper-mill in Munkedal, the petro-chemical industry and a steam power-plant in Stenungsund arised during this period. A decade later in the 1970's, the largest refinery in the Nordic area, Scanraff, was built in the Lysekil community.

The fishing industry has been important to the province for centuries but during the latest decades both the amount of employees and the captures landed have diminished. Many of the fishing villages would be completely deserted today if they did not have a great tourist appeal. Today the tourism and the fishing industry equally share the throne as the largest industry in Bohuslän. Most likely, the tourism category will continue its climb to, eventually, be the sole "emperor" of the province.

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