Rorbua's history

The tradition of rorbue as housing for fishermen in Lofoten and Vesterålen has its roots far back in time.

Already in the 12th century, King Øystein Magnusson built the first rowboats in Kabelvåg. Before that time, the fishermen had to seek shelter under the boats which they pulled up on the shore and vaulted over themselves as protection from the weather.

The oldest rorbu that we know of had dirt floors and a fireplace in the middle of the floor. The first window was a small window covered with halibut skin. The arches almost resembled an old lyre in the ceiling. They were often dug halfway into the ground and had woodwork in the outermost part.

From the end of the 18th century, most of the rorbuen were built only of wood, but in the second part of the 19th century, glass windows and cooking stoves were added to the bows. They could now house from 8 to 16 men.

The fishing boat passes the buildings that today house Henningsvær Rorbuer.

Due to the great boom in fishing in the 19th century, there was a rapid development in the fishing villages.

Until this time, most of all land in Lofoten was Crown property – “Belonging to His Majesty”. In the first part of the century, the State sold the rams, and the ram owners took over. At this time – when fishing was carried out from open boats – the fishermen were dependent on living on land. In a small fishing village, with a small permanent population, a relatively large number of rowboats had to be built to accommodate thousands of visiting fishermen.

Eventually, a certain pattern emerged in the development of a fishing village. At the bottom of the lake, the rowboats were lined up, eventually also jetties and seahouses. Behind them stood the fishing huts, and at the top was the owner’s house, or “Nessekongens slott” .

The Være owners soon took advantage of their powerful position, and gathered all business under them.

Old stories tell that the fishermen were in a dependent relationship with the owners of the boats. They bought their goods, rented rowboats from them and paid with fish. The sheep owner stipulated a right of first refusal for the catch. This right was abolished by law in 1899.

The Rorbuen were simple one-storey houses, furnished with the bare essentials. The arches had no foundation or basement. Most of them stood on stilts at the very edge of the sea. The roof was thatched with fists, cardboard or zinc sheets.

The cabin consisted of 2 rooms. The living room was built of timber, while the outer part - the "Budøra" - had plank walls.

This part was intended for storing equipment and tools, and had no window. Originally, the living room was unpainted and very dark, poorly insulated with cold floors and often leaking from the ceiling. Up to 10-12 men would live in here. The bunks were located both down by the floor and up under the roof. They were covered with grass and straw.

The bedding was wool and sheepskin that the men had brought with them from home. The food was cooked on the stove away in the nook, and it was eaten at the fixed table under the window. Everything happened in this room; drying clothes, washing body and clothes, softening yarn and fitting liners.

At night, the two and three of them lay together in the bunks, and it goes without saying that the sanitary conditions were poor. The risk of infection was great.

Eventually, the boat teams got their own cook, who also lived in the wheelhouse. To get some privacy, she had a curtain in front of her bunk, which was often placed up under the pitched roof. There was not enough space for food and clothes, and it happened that the fishermen had to put their things outside the bow wall because there was so much space inside. The water conditions were miserable.

Often there was only one well in the fishing village where the fishermen could get water, and it happened that it was so small that there was not enough for everyone. The public authorities gradually built State wells, but it happened that these too were empty, or without a cover, so that they became contaminated.

To make cleaning easier, in many old wheelhouses there was a loose plank in the floor, where you swept down the boss and waste.

The interior of the rorbues depended on the types of tools the fishermen used at sea. The net fishermen usually lived on board the boats, but had berths on land for net repairs, and the netters lived in the tillers throughout the season. Garnbøting is a clean job and can therefore easily be adapted to life in the living room.

The line fishermen, on the other hand, work with bait (herring or shells) which is put on the hooks, so-called fishing. This caused great inconvenience inside the bow, where the fishermen both cooked, ate and slept. Stamper and liner also took up much of the much-needed space.

The cheat fishermen lived in the bows, but did not need much space for their gear. The line fishermen needed more space, and the hut was therefore converted into a separate hut.

Over the course of our century, development has also left its mark on the fishing villages.

A series of crises in the fishing industry, and the technical development of the fishing fleet, have meant that the use of tillers has changed. At the beginning of this century, there was room for approx. 40,000 fishermen in rorbues and lodging houses in Lofoten. Within 25 years, the number fell to 13,000, and in the interwar period the number decreased further.

Many tillers were demolished, while some were moved to other locations. Instead of living in rowhouses, many of the fishermen switched to living in their well-equipped boats, and boat owners’ interest in new construction and maintenance of the rowhouses therefore decreased significantly. In addition, the fishermen now gradually made certain demands for hygiene and better space.

In 1927, NOK 50,000 was allocated annually for five years from the Pengelottery's profits for the construction of rowhouses in fishing villages in Lofoten and Finnmark.

From this, five modern rudders were built in Kabelvåg and Henningsvær on State grounds, the so-called “Statsbuene”. These were planned and designed by architects. They have two floors, a study and storeroom downstairs and a bedroom upstairs.

Each half of the house can accommodate 12 people. The Directorate of Fisheries also arranged for type drawings for tillers for those who wanted to build privately. The grant funds from the State could be used as write-down contributions. The owners could furnish the hut at their own discretion.

These contributions were primarily given to the fishermen, then to the vessel owners and others. However, minimum requirements were set for construction method and size.

Since then, new wheelhouses have been built – partly on 1 ½ floors. These have work and living spaces downstairs and a sleeping loft upstairs. In addition, larger sea houses have been built on 2-3 floors with several modern apartments, where the chef and crew have their own bedrooms. There is also a shower room and large living room and kitchen.

The designation “Sjøhus” is completely new and has no tradition in Lofoten. From olden times, these houses have been called wharves, and in more recent times we speak of fish farms where modern production and fish processing takes place.

The oldest piers we have in Lofoten are today approx. 200 years old.

The need to process and store fish indoors meant that houses had to be built for this purpose. The wharves had several floors, here, for example, dry fish was stored and steamed. There was probably a small office here and “chambers” for necessary accommodation during busy times in the season. Some wharves also had simple sleeping quarters for the workers. Quays were not common before the turn of the century, before boats were allowed to go all the way to the wharf when they had to launch or unload.

Eventually, the wharves got other and new functions, and some of the rooms were now furnished as living rooms with sleeping space. As in the rorbues, the equipment was extremely spartan, it was all based on the short fishing season. Both rudders and wharves/seahouses are still used during the Lofoten fishery each year. Many have been converted into modern housing for the fishermen and their families or others connected to the industry.

In recent years, however, these houses and environments have taken on a completely different function.

Tourists from all over the world today come to the fishing villages in Lofoten and Vesterålen to experience the magnificent nature and the unique environment. The rorbuen – which were once necessary accommodation for thousands of visiting fishermen during the winter season – are now popular accommodation for today’s holidaymakers.

In 1962, the term rorbucamping was launched for the first time, that is, affordable accommodation in simply equipped rorbucamps and sea houses. Today’s tourists would like to experience the rorbu as they once were. It is therefore important to preserve the environments in their original simple style.