The Lean Island

This is what the end of the world looks like:

End of the world

Where there’s no more land to traipse, no further to go, the sun at midnight is far from set. This is the essence of døgnvill – the jet-laggy feeling of not wanting to sleep because of the sun. This is how the sky might look from a London park after an all-nighter. But I’m sober and I’m tired and I smell of reindeer.

Earlier, three generations of herder, several families, gathered to earmark their calves. What this means is the youngsters grapple with baby reindeer, popping one hand in their little grunting mouths as a pacifier, while the adults carve intricate notches into their ears. (The calves, not the kids.)

We stood up high, almost touching the clouds, up by the local siida‘s fences. Further out, tundra rolled down to the distant sea. But here, slats of wood mesh into a large, circular corral. One opening leads through a corridor to a larger pen, hugging the north side of the central chamber. This, in turn, leads to a still-larger area where the bulk of the herd was gathered. From the open pasture, fewer and still fewer reindeer trot through the series of antechambers, trickling into the central room in dribs and drabs. Viewed from above, the structure might look a bit like whorls on an aged snail.

Every person, each herder, owns an earmark – a pattern of cuts designed and bestowed at birth, inherited from your parents and personalised just for you. There are broad resemblances among markings, similar to how you look a bit like your mother and a little bit less like your uncle but everyone can see you are family. The ability to recognise earmarks – yours, your family’s and your neighbours’ – is an important skill for reindeer Saami. Earmarks signal your property, your wealth, and earmarks may be tampered.

Earmarks (source:

Hundreds of calves will be marked over the next few days. The discarded offcuts form a morbid rug of ears. The air smells of shit and we’re surrounded by a chorus of hoggish grunts. Various distant family members sheath their bloody knives and wander over for a chat and clotted handshakes.

Lesson 3: Don’t shake hands with a man who’s spent his day lopping off reindeer ears.

In the soggy mud sprinkled with grey-white fur, the herders have been working for much of the past 24 hours. Eventually we interview one person, drained, dosed up on coffee and hotdogs, and clearly craving his bed. He has passed through the other side of døgnvill; mine is just beginning.

. . .

We’ve been staying in Skarsvåg on the island of Magerøya. ‘Mager’ translates as thin, lean, and it shows. The rocky, rolling pastures, the flat breadth of the tundra, even the absence of mosquitos – the land is more slender here at 71 degrees north.

But you wouldn’t know it from the people. We’re staying with one of the grandmothers who runs the local duodji shop. At the end of the main pier into Honningsvåg – a prime footfall site, in the language of The Apprentice – three little old ladies spend their days sewing and nattering.

One, with that particular, mischievous kind of grin and sparkle in the eye that only little old ladies possess, asks me, “Why do you keep that dirty beard?”

Good start.

A tourist (more touristy than I) steps off the boat and spots the cabal in their traditional North Saami finery: flesh-cut-red hats and slate-grey ponytails; midnight blue smocks hemmed with reds, whites, greens and golds. He spots a photo opportunity. He snaps just as my beard-inquisitor is shovelling some bread into her mouth. She swiftly sends him packing. Later, a local drunk walks in to bother the cadre of grandmothers. He, too, is berated then sent on his merry way.

Lesson 2: Don’t mess with little old ladies.

. . .

Magerøya is littered with the world’s northernmost fishing village, each boasting just tens of residents. On the drive in, we skirt around thin mountainside passes, winding up the latitudes of the planet. Stacks of shale cover the brae of the hills; great slabs aligning over the land like a reptile’s skin. Or maybe a troll’s…

Water damage has gutted half of Grandmother’s cabin. Stacks of saucepans, plates, a refrigerator and a solitary, standalone stove – all have been moved into the living room. A chunk of floor lies cracked open, it’s yellow filamentous guts glistening in the sunlight. We check downstairs, with the aid of a stepladder. Only one room is habitable. We will be sleeping on the floor of a workroom-cum-garage, at just the right level for midnight sun to penetrate the windows.

We only get episodic, mosaic sleeps. Time goes strange again.

Reindeer wander down the mountain for a grassy snack in the backyard. A tiny, musky dog barks away the clodhopping intruders. The dog, she feels like old carpet and has an endearing tendency of burying her face between your leg and the sofa while you attend to scratching behind her ears. She is the mother to a puppy I met in Kokelv. Family is everywhere.

And all families everywhere have one kind of person in common: The Character. This one, way up here, is the berater of the hungover, the lazy, the uncooperative and the bearded. Later (or is it now earlier?), we would sit in his kitchen, curtains pulled, old cigarette smoke hanging in the air while he grandstands about the future British democracy. His son and grandson doze on camp beds in the back room, occasionally shouting agreement or something else through the door.

With a fag jutting from corner of his mouth, arms waving in apoplexy, belly sticking out through his purple shirt, The Character explains how I should take his advice immediately to the Prime Minister (hello, Dave). This is not quite the interview I was expecting. We nod politely, smile and smile and escape without ceremony.

Back up at the fences, three generations of herders sit around the table in somebody’s caravan, predicting what the fog will do. An old man – the Saami doppelganger of Worzel Gummidge – lies back, murmuring stories about the old days. Empty jars of cloudberries and detritus from too much coffee are the sole decorations as we look out on the lean island.

The fences on Magerøya
The fences on Magerøya

Some people we want to interview are herding reindeer down by the sea. When will they be back? We don’t know. When they’re back.

This is a lesson for my antsy, urban self, always wanting to be somewhere, doing something, when’s our next appointment, what shall we do now. This is the Saami art of waiting. If the fog does the wrong thing, they can’t work for the next few days.

Lesson 4: This is how it goes.

We kill some time with a drive to Gjesvær, a village near Bird Island. It’s empty: the perfect setting for a zombie movie. A bit too perfect… We escape back to Nordkapp, back to the end of the world.


Now it’s 2am and earlier it was 4am – wasn’t it? – when we were discussing the family traditions. Some relatives came around for breakfast before they went to bed. Time to hit the mattresses.

We only get episodic, mosaic sleeps. Time goes strange again.

Back in the duodji shop, a younger Saami woman clutches a jam jar containing an odd-looking fly – all red eyes and menace. Apparently, it’s a warble fly: a common reindeer parasite. She found it burrowing into some pelt. Apparently, their larvae can crawl into your eyes, potentially leading to blindness. This is not good, given my hypochondria and my current reading material: a book about zoonotic diseases. At the fences, I kept my distance. I still feel itchy, just thinking about it.

The little old ladies make fun of us again, and we scatter.

Another day, or the night before – or possibly that same morning (it was late) – Grandmother presents us with stories of the Saami handicraft tradition, the old clothes and the old ways. These yarns she spins as we tuck into a platter of meats, eggs, cheeses, breads and – a food I’ve been dying to try – tørkekjøtt: dried reindeer: A hulking great shank that Grandmother carves into with gusto and surprising strength (see Lesson 2). We sip Lipton tea and the night drifts on by.

In a few days, it would become time to return home, back to the woods. With the missing sleeps, the late-night discussions, the unusual working hours, all the ‘earliers’ and the ‘laters’ and the reckless swapping of tenses, I’ve completely lost where I am. Or when I am.

Lesson 1: If your sleeps go weird and you end up skipping through time, do it in only one direction.