Lapland - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Lapland: the Bradt Travel Guide

Over the centuries the history of Lapland has been characterised by countless struggles by greater powers, notably Denmark–Norway and Sweden–Finland, for domination. Lapland’s rich natural resources proved alluring as early as the Viking period. However, it is perhaps in more modern times – particularly during and after World War II, when large tracts of Lapland were destroyed and seemingly every building burnt to the ground as occupying Nazi forces implemented their scorched earth policy as they retreated south – that the world became aware of Lapland and its fate. The resettling of refugees who had fled the fighting only to return to discover their homes reduced to piles of rubble and the rebuilding of an entire region’s infrastructure after the war proved some of the toughest challenges Lapland has ever faced. This, and the repeated abuse of the rights of an indigenous people, the Sami, has greatly influenced the face of today’s Lapland.

Natural history

Lapland’s unique geographical position has produced a highly distinctive natural history. The range of flora and fauna is not huge but it is certainly impressive. Whether it is whales or reindeer, eagles or the three-toed woodpecker, you are likely to encounter some unusual wildlife as befits the unusual terrain. The landscape varies from tundra to lush river valleys with heavily forested hills, fells and swamps in between. Despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that much of it is still a virtual wilderness, it is little surprise that Lapland has always been a favourite destination for nature lovers.


The main dividing line in terms of what vegetation to expect is the treeline. Above it is mostly tundra, literally ‘treeless plains’ where all plants struggle to survive. Below it there is much greater variety and, at certain times of the year, a colourful display of plant life, most spectacularly in the early autumn as leaves turn red and gold on the trees.


The reindeer is emblematic of Lapland and is undoubtedly the most eyecatching of the region’s animals. But it is far from the only one. Regrettably perhaps, insects are to be found everywhere, including midges, mosquitoes, blowflies and wasps. More happily, butterflies can brighten up the terrain in summer.


As many as 175 breeds of birds have been identified as breeding in Lapland. Most take advantage of the summer sun to nest and raise their young before flying south again. A few stick it out for the harsh winters, notably grouse, crows, woodpeckers and owls. You will find the biggest variety of birdlife and the largest numbers in the more temperate coastal areas. The long hours of daylight in summer can make birdwatching in Lapland particularly rewarding. There are large populations of breeding ducks, sandpipers, greenshanks and dotterels.

Land mammals

Having originated from the wild caribou, Lapland’s reindeer are now domesticated and semi-tame. They are plentiful – literally running into hundreds of thousands – and hard to miss, although they move about depending on the season and the available grazing. Every square millimetre of their bodies is covered in fur and to provide extra insulation each hair is hollow.

The Sami have traditionally depended on the reindeer for meat, hides, bones and oil, and also materials for clothing, tents, fuel and tools. The herdsmen round up their reindeer in summer into specially made corrals, where the fawns are marked with the same mark as their mothers’. These round-ups can make for impressive photo opportunities if you’re lucky enough to catch one. There’s a second round-up every autumn when the reindeer that are to be slaughtered are separated from the herd. This is also the time for a stock-take and to treat the animals for parasites.

Marine mammals

On the face of it, the orca has little in common with the Norwegian lemming, but it too suffers from an unearned reputation. They are better known as killer whales, creating an image of huge bloodthirsty monsters prowling the deep on the lookout for anything to kill. In fact they are very intelligent, social and surprisingly gentle. They are also one of the most common whales off the coast of Lapland and very impressive to watch. They generally live in large pods of around 20 animals, have distinctive black and white bodies, and the males have large dorsal fins.

Minke whales are much smaller, sleeker and not at all carnivorous. They are mostly grey in colour and generally less striking to watch. But fortunately for them the whale’s only predator, man, has shown limited interest in them and their numbers are plentiful. The white-beaked dolphin, though small, is actually a close relative of the orca whale. They travel in large groups and go surprisingly far north for animals that can’t cope well with ice. Although they are protected by a thick layer of blubber that keeps them warm, it is not unusual for dolphins to get trapped in pack ice and die.

People and culture


Today, one of the best-known features of Sami culture is the joik, or chanting, akin to that of some North American Indian cultures which, until 30 years ago, was outlawed because of its alleged association with paganism. Sung a cappella or occasionally accompanied by a drum, the joik is not a song about a person or a place, rather an attempt to transfer the essence of someone or something into song; the Sami, therefore, joik their friends, rather than joik about them. A joik is often personal and may even be composed for an individual at the time of birth. In recent years, the joik has found an appreciative audience outside Lapland, thanks in part to the group Enigma, which had a hit with the joik-influenced ‘Return to Innocence’ in 1994; the Norwegian jazz saxophonist, Jan Garbarek, who has used Sami rhythms in his music; and the Sami singer Mari Boine, who hails from the Finnmark province of Norwegian Lapland, and enjoyed international recognition with her debut album, Gula Gula.

Sami shaman Finnish Lapland by Popova Valeriya ShutterstockA Sami shaman and his dog, Finnish Lapland © Popova Valeriya, Shutterstock


One of the most tangible elements of Sami culture is handicrafts. As you travel around Lapland, you will see examples of Sami handicrafts seemingly everywhere you turn: everything from cups made of hollowed-out birch wood, which were traditionally used for drinking from rivers and lakes while reindeer herding, to exquisite wallets and purses made of reindeer hide. Although targeted at the modern tourist trade, most elements of Sami handicraft have a long tradition of fabrication. Their shapes have been honed over centuries: there are no sharp edges, for example, to Sami knives or other similar tools to avoid getting caught in knapsacks or trouser pockets while out on the fells.

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