The Norwegian hytte: from peasant cottage to suburban fantasy?


Arne Lie Christensen
Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo
Translated by Jeremy Crump

Arne Lie Christensen

The ideal of the hytte (plural hytter, often translated in English as ‘cabin’ but, as we shall see, in fact a much broader concept), has a special place in the Norwegian consciousness. But how old is it, and what are its origins? I shall give some insights into what can be called the history of second homes.[1] This history follows two paths – a traditional, popular path which has its origin in the seter (plural setre) or seasonal mountain farm cottage, corresponding to the Scottish shieling, and a modern, bourgeois path with roots in the country house and the lyststed or summer residence. I shall also explore attitudes to work and leisure, and not least to freedom. The article was written, appropriately enough, in my own small hytte in the skerries outside Kragerø in southern Norway, a hytte which my father and I built the summer before I turned fourteen. But, as my title implies, there are signs that contemporary attitudes to the hytte and hytte culture are changing.

Johan Borgen and manual work

In the 1960s, the author Johan Borgen gave light-hearted talks for the NRK radio programme Søndagsposten (‘The Sunday Post’).[2]  He looked back to his childhood and his life in the country at the beginning of the century. Johan came from a well-to-do family and in the programme he reflected on the organisation of the family, servants and manual workers, which was a precondition for the upper-class way of life. The family consisted of two adults and four children, with two domestic servants. Every summer, they hired a small steamer to take them and their voluminous possessions to a summer residence on a small island near Oslo – or Christiania, as the city was then called.

There the family did not only need servants, but also gardeners and numerous other workers to help maintain the house and garden and so support the family’s high standard of living. Often whole families moved house for the summer months while the husband would commute by local ferry, as did Johan Borgen’s father. The boats in the Oslo fjord were known as pappabåtene (Daddies’ boats).

As he looks back, fifty or sixty years later, Borgen wonders whether he may have suffered a great loss. How had he really experienced nature, he asks. This luxurious way of life meant that although he had lived in nature, he had not really done so. “We wore shoes and socks in the summer, except for when we went bathing…  [We] were viewers of nature, I think, in the same way as people viewed works of art.” He recalls that fishing was one of their summer activities, principally for entertainment and pleasure, but they didn’t clean the fish themselves. They just took them up to the house and into the kitchen “with the guts in”, and the servants took care of the rest:

No, there was something fundamentally wrong with this relationship. A kind of fake. We always had to have all sorts of ‘men’ to do things for us. Boys don’t learn practical skills by watching skilful men, be they gardeners or carpenters.

Johan Borgen addresses the attitude of prosperous town dwellers to work and their surroundings just over a hundred years ago. Did they simply hold physical work in contempt?

Later in life, Johan Borgen insisted that people should “get a grip of things at first hand”, even though he never really acquired practical skills himself. One of the few things that he seriously criticized his parents for was that they hadn’t steered him more towards the practical. He now realized that the relationship between nature and our surroundings is mediated by physical experiences, “not by looking at things”. And this experience is acquired with the hands, he writes, “our most important tools”:

Two human hands – what wonderful tools. But if you don’t become accustomed to using them early enough, they just become like useless baubles at the end of your arms… There is no more telling expression in the language than to be all fingers and thumbs.

‘Seek the place where Freedom dwells’

In 1758, Christian Braunmann Tullin wrote the poem ‘May Day’ on the occasion of the wedding of two of the richest citizens of Christiania.[3] They were Morten Leuch, the owner of Bogstad Gård, and his second cousin, Matthia Collett. For Tullin, the town was a prison and he sought to escape to the freedom of the countryside:

My Muse, come, let us fly
from this melancholy prison
Where our desires are daily smothered
To be born anew and die again,
Where Art and Knowledge shower us
With plans only for new sorrows,
Where wealth starves itself to accumulate
The dust it is hoarding for its heir.

Seek the place where Freedom dwells;
Where affected sorrow and self-inflicted pains
Are never the source of life’s complaints,
But smiles grow even in poverty;
Where you and I can let loose
Those thoughts which lay in chains,
And far from tumult drink freely
The nectar poured for us by nature.

Here throngs an army of birds,
Of siskins, chaffinches, swallows,
And Norway’s’ nightingales, the song thrushes,
Flying infatuated hither and thither;
Each with note melodiously tuned;
Chirp and flute, pipe and call,
Sound in common harmony
From the whole flock in splendid chorus.

The poem, written at the time of the Enlightenment, is influenced by the ideas of the French philosopher Rousseau. It was much admired and translated into several languages. Christiania’s upper class was fascinated by this form of freedom, in which life in the country was seen as something authentic and original. Many were seized by the thought of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, while at the same time maintaining legions of servants. One may well ask ‘freedom for whom?’ The Enlightenment defines an important cultural turning point and development towards a more open and democratic society which culminated in the Norwegian constitution of 1814.

Ever since the 17th century, the town dwellers in many parts of the country had made seasonal migrations from their houses in town to smallholdings or farms in the country where they produced food for their own consumption. The biggest of these were known in Norway as herregårder (corresponding to the English estate). Bogstad was one of these. They had large tracts of agricultural land and forest, even if the owner was not an aristocrat. During the Enlightenment, when Tullin’s poem was written, these places increasingly acquired the character of lyststeder, summer residences where guests were entertained and extravagant parties held. There is a direct line from these 18th century lyststeder to the town dwellers’ summer retreats in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The walker and the primitive mountain shelter

This romantic urge to get back to the land and out into nature has been an important part of European culture since the end of the 18th century, serving as a counter culture during the emergence of modern society. For the same reason, it became the fashion among cultured people, not least artists and academics, to go on walking tours. They were free to survey the wild mountains and untouched nature much as though they were works of art. But going walking for its own sake was not a Norwegian invention, it was something we learned from Germans and Englishmen. The word hytte is originally a word borrowed from German.[4]

Figure 1. Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The picture above, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, gives a perfect impression of what is known as the sublime concept of landscape. We can see the walker, the man alone in the mountains, far from civilization, “alone but not lonely”, as Goethe said. Goethe could have added, “If I had taken a step sideways, I would have been dead”, but he knew that there was really no danger. A walker in the mountains at this time would have been accompanied by a local familiar with the terrain. The picture is in any case a work of the imagination, and the painter had probably never been to the mountains.

The dream of the wilderness, ‘far away from civilisation’, informs many of the articles in the yearbooks of Den Norske Turistforening (the Norwegian Trekking Association) at the end of the 19th century.[5] Walkers were often academics or students, who, unlike most of the population, were able to enjoy free time. They might make their way to a primitive stone shelter in the mountains, or they might seek lodgings in a seter. They shared the ideal of a simple life. The word tarvelighet (frugality, plainness) was much used among educated people, not least after 1814, as an expression for and representation of the economic crisis.[6] Tarvelighet could also have a positive meaning. It implied for example a desire to live thriftily, not due to straitened circumstances but because moderation was a deliberately chosen ideal. When the economy began to grow again after the middle of the 19th century, the ideal of tarvelighet could serve as a mark of class distinction. It was a counterbalance to the emphasis which the nouveau riche attached to luxury and excess, as exemplified by the extravagance of the tourist hotel.

In the 1909 yearbook, the architect Carl Berner criticises contemporary luxury tourism, represented by imposing and ostentatious hotels in the so-called Swiss style. Berner’s critique points out the two-fold division of tourism in the mountains between those who were looking for what was simple and unassuming, and those who preferred luxury.

I have a great fear that the days of our beautiful seter will soon be numbered, that the low buildings with turf roofs, with a slender thread of blue smoke rising from the chimney and with goats and cows bleating and bellowing down by the river, will disappear. I fear that hotels will rise above the ruins of this mountain idyll, with guests in evening dress, central heating, porters and livery-clad servants who bow and scrape as they welcome veiled and dusty motorists. All this at a cost which prevents ordinary mortals from getting a glimpse of the mountain’s glittering spectacle.

A cultural encounter in the mountains

I am looking at a photograph which was probably taken by Axel Lindahl in the 1880s (figure 2). It shows an encounter between a tourist and a budeie (plural budeier), a woman responsible for the work in the summer pastures, principally tending animals. In the background is Buarbreen, a spur of the glacier Folgefonna in western Norway. The male tourist is on a walk with his daughter and holds an umbrella in his hand. The budeie has a small child on her back and is carrying a bucket of water. The picture illustrates the meeting of two very different cultures, one the culture of the seter, the other that of walking. For the budeie, the landscape is primarily a site of production, a link in the primary economy. The tourist sees the landscape differently. For him, nature is first and foremost a site for recreation in which he will explore his own free time.[7]

Figure 2: Budeie and Tourist. Photograph Axel Lindahl, 1880s.

In his book Ferdaminne frå sommaren 1860 (‘Memoir of a journey in the summer of 1860’), the author, editor and mountaineer Aasmund Olavsson Vinje addresses these different attitudes to landscape. Vinje, with a foot in both camps, certainly knew what he was talking about. He grew up in poverty and was well acquainted with the farmer’s earthbound perspective, but he subsequently acquired the city dweller’s and the artist’s aestheticizing gaze. This was very evident when he encountered Malene from Folldal while walking in the mountains. “Goodness,” she exclaimed on reaching the top of a steep slope, “it’s so desolate and ugly up here.”[8] What she saw in the landscape was completely different from what the cultured tourist saw. She had hardly ever been to the highest peaks – after all, what would she do there? She had her own familiarity with the landscape and was used to walking long distances and carrying heavy burdens, but the idea of taking long walks just for the sake of it was alien to her.

Norway is a country rich in natural resources. They are found up in the mountains, deep in the forest and out at sea and the geographical distribution of these resources led to seasonal migration to the seter, the lumberjack’s cabin and the fisherman’s hut. This regular migration to a second home, with its seasonal pattern, was an important aspect of the lives of country people. It contributed to the creation of the Norwegian conception of the hytte in so far as many of the old summer farm buildings became hytter. The use of summer pastures goes back to the first agriculture of the Neolithic period, and they were found all over the country, not just in the mountains but also in the forests and by the sea.[9]

Older budeier who I have interviewed in Gudbrandsdal in Eastern Norway and elsewhere, look back to life in the summer pastures with particular affection.[10] Budeier often mentioned fjelltrang, ‘the call of the mountains’, referring to their strong desire to go up there each year. Like the walkers, they must have felt some kind of freedom in the mountains, if in a different way. Sure enough, there was more work to do in the mountains than back in the main settlement, especially before it became usual for milk to be collected in liquid form by road, but to be a good budeie conferred high status. Moreover, companionship among the women, away from a more or less paternalistic rural society with its strong social controls, meant a lot. But what did the budeier make of the many walkers and hytte owners who visited nature in their leisure time?

Figure 3: City gents on a cycle tour, Stalheimskleiva. Photograph: Axel Lindahl, Norsk Folkemuseum.

From seter to hytte

In the course of the last hundred years, many places have seen a transition from seter to hytte whether the buildings stand alone or in groups. Most setre have been abandoned or turned over to new agricultural methods while the number of walkers and hytte owners has grown. The transition is driven partly by city people taking over the old properties and partly by the original owners and their descendants themselves using them as hytter. Sometimes this produces a benign form of regeneration, as when old setter paths are signposted and used as footpaths or old houses are preserved but put to use in new ways. An example of such a gradual transition is when an old cheese store is turned into a bedroom for tourists from the city. But, just as often, the old settlements come to be totally dominated by modern hytte development, albeit with the adoption of old architectural styles, as for example at Beitostølen in Austre Slidre in the mountains of central Norway.

What impact have country people and tourists made on one another, and how have they regarded each other? Urban tourists and hytte people (figure 3) have written a lot about this, including in the annual records of the Turistforening. The country people, on the other hand, have written little about the cultural encounter between town and country.[11] I shall draw on two theses in ethnology which are based on interviews with both tourists and local people in the period from the end of the war until the 1980s. They come to slightly different conclusions. That doesn’t mean that either is wrong, rather that they are based in two different geographical areas with very different histories.

Figure 4: Budeier at Tesse i Lom, summer 1970. Photograph: Arthur Sand, IKOS, Universitetet i Oslo.

Hilde Marianne Larsen researched the setre at Roåker in Øyer, Gudbrandsdal.[12] She gives a largely positive picture of the relationship between the two populations and of a gradual transition from summer pasture to modern farming. Some of the explanation is attributed to the fact that most of the hytte people were descendants of the old owners and many of those who used to farm the summer pasture turned their setre into hytter. It was already common as early as the 1930s, for example, for the young people from the district to go on walking holidays in the mountains at Easter, as the city people had been doing.

Knut Aastad Bråten draws a different picture of the development of Beitostølen.[13] Here too, some of the first hytte people were related to those who farmed the summer pastures. Relations between the hytte tourists and the local people seem to have gone smoothly for the first ten years. But Beitostølen quickly turned into a hytte town, with a café, a hotel and a hostel for tourists. A budeie wrote that “Farming the summer pasture and tourism didn’t go together” in a number of letters to the local newspaper in Valdres. Development was no longer working in favour of agriculture. The pasture was built on, the land that surrounded the hytter was fenced off, there was too much traffic. The basis for an active social life in the seter was challenged by expanding hytte tourism. Irritation was felt on both sides. Animals were a source of complaint, not least when they inconsiderately defecated in front of the steps of the hytter.

Whilst the budeier were hard at work with practical tasks (figure 4), the hytte people were on holiday and saw the life of the seter and the local culture from outside and as something quaint and exotic. This proximity could be a positive thing for children. The social life which developed was nevertheless on terms dictated by the city people and new class distinctions appeared in mountain communities. When they were interviewed, it was apparent that each group had developed certain stereotypical conceptions of ‘the others’. The country people described the city people in more negative terms than vice versa. The city people, they said, hadn’t a clue about the kind of work they did and just stood there watching and getting in the way.

The eight-hour day and utferdstrang

Let’s go back to the islands near Oslo. Johan Borgen’s account of the time before the First World War could be taken as indicative of the development of a new, modern hytte culture – at least on the part of some of the upper class. But change was afoot, not least in the working class, both in the capital and elsewhere in the country. The eight-hour day was introduced in 1919. Later, holiday entitlements were introduced by law and a larger proportion of the population now wanted to get their own hytter. Many of the workers in eastern Oslo came from the country. They were familiar with practical work, including collecting food to supplement their diet, and they liked to fish from boats or from tents on the shore.

In their theses in ethnography, Ingun Grimstad and Inge Johanne Lyngø described how the so-called Hytteøyene (hytte islands) grew up, with small hytter built close together.[14] People preferred to build hytter themselves, often with help from friends and relatives. Here, too, it was common for the men to commute into the city by boat whilst the mothers and children lived on the islands for the whole summer. Working-class hytte life and holidays were filled with work, but it was on the workers’ own terms and at times of their own choosing. In the workers’ movement – and in the country more generally – Sunday was redefined as a free day rather than a holy one. In the country, after all, the tradition had been that no work should be done on a Sunday.

Workers used the expression utferdstrang (‘the desire to get out’) when they went out into the country from their crowded and often dark and miserable accommodation in the city, a parallel to the fjelltrang of the budeie. An important difference between the old tradition of the bourgeois summer residence and the culture of the worker’s hytte was in their respective views of the social. For the former, emphasis was on the family and the individual, while for the latter it was on social interaction between neighbours.

Figure 5: Einar and Werna Gerhardsen. Gerhardsen was Prime Minister of Norway 1945-51 and 1955-65. He was given this hytte as a 60th birthday gift in 1957 from the Norwegian Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) and the trade union movement. (Photograph: private collection)

The middle class and social democracy

Development between the wars and the early post-war period is to be seen in the context of the development of social democratic Norway (figure 5). Class differences narrowed and for most people it was less important to have servants to manage the house. In addition, there was an attitudinal change in the growing middle class. I believe that we can talk in terms of a new spirit of the age, in which physical labour was given a higher status than previously. Making things for oneself – building, repairing and painting a hytte – could bestow status. This became a part of hytte culture for many people, both from economic necessity and as something to take pleasure in, and if possible boast about. It is surely in this context that the ideal of the Norwegian hytte and the simple life in the country took shape, not least in the middle class. It was a kind of hybrid of the seter, the summer residence and the working-class hytte, encompassing the budeie’s fjelltrang, the worker’s utferdstrang and the bourgeois ideal of frugality. The common thread was a feeling of freedom, which was – and still is –  experienced by many as challenging conventional social constraints.

This ideal of the simple hytte lives on, but most hytter aren’t very simple today. They are more like detached houses, with correspondingly high energy consumption.[15] Nor is life in the hytte any longer taken up with practical labour. That’s why I wonder whether hytte culture has changed in both form and content – from being a place for working to one for jogging. The exercise which is no longer to be had from physical labour can be had from recreational sports. But contemporary hytte culture is also associated with freedom, a life out in the open, preferably where social interaction is different from that back home.[16]  When people today look back and contemplate their life in the seter, hytte or summer residence, they see it as among the most valuable times they have experienced.

I can give myself as an example as I sit, bathed in beautiful evening sunlight, writing this text. I thrive in the simple hytte life with outside lavatory, water from the well and a cold bath in the sea every morning, and with a lot of practical work to do. But I’m in a minority nowadays. Something must have happened since the end of the 1980s alongside the growth in our prosperity. Times have changed. Most of the new hytter which are built today, whether on the coast or in the mountains, are as big as detached houses and have all the domestic appliances and facilities with which we fill our homes. The idea of building a hytte yourself is foreign to most people. With all the regulatory requirements which have been imposed, I would hardly get permission to build a hytte like the one which means so much to me. Nevertheless, even though the simple hytte life only became a reality just after the war, the belief in it as something quintessentially Norwegian lives on.

Copyright © Arne Lie Christensen 2018

[1] The article is based on Christensen, Arne Lie 2016. Ut i det fri. Livet på setra, hytta og landstedet. Pax Forlag. Oslo. An earlier version of this article appeared in Syn og Segn 3.17 under the title ‘Den norske hytta – frå jobbing til jogging’ and in Morgenbladet 5 October 2017 [downloaded 18 October 2017].
[2] Borgen, Johan 1965. Barndommens rike. Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. Oslo.
[3] Tullin, Christian Braunmann [1758] 1972. «Maidagen» I: Utvalgte dikt. Det norske språk- og litteraturselskap. Oslo. Bull, Edvard og Valborg Sønstevold 1936. Kristianias historie. Bind II. J.W. Cappelen. Oslo.
[4] Ellen Rees 2011. ”’Det egentlige Norge’ – hytter i norsk litteratur.” I: Norske hytter i endring. Om bærekraft og behag. Tapir Akademisk Forlag. Trondheim. See also Ellen Rees. Cabins in Modern Norwegian Literature: Negotiating Place and Identity. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014.
[5]  Gaukstad, Haakon Christian 1998. Gripe og bli grepet. Om natursyn og naturskildring i DNTs årbøker. Hovedoppgave i idéhistorie. Universitetet i Oslo..
[6] Schnitler, Carl W. 1911. Slegten fra 1814. Studier over norsk embedsmandskultur i klassisismens tidsalder 1814–1840. H. Aschehoug & Co. Kristiania. [1989:46–47]. Christensen 2016:52ff.
[7] Christensen 2002. Det norske landskapet. Om landskap og landskapsforståelse i kulturhistorisk perspektiv. Pax Forlag. Oslo. 250ff.
[8] Vinje, Aasmund Olavsson [1861] 1962. Ferdaminni frå sommaren 1860. Det norske samlaget. Oslo.
[9] Reinton, Lars 1955. Seterbruket i Noreg. Bind 1. Setertypar og driftsformer. Institutt for sammenlignende kulturforskning. H. Aschehoug & co. (W. Nygaard). Oslo. Reinton, Lars 1976. Til seters. Norsk seterbruk og seterstell. Det norske samlaget. Oslo.
[10] Christensen, Arne Lie 1982. Et seterbrukslandskap i Nord-Gudbrandsdalen. Kulturminner fra nyere tid ved Jora/øvre del av Lågen. Riksantikvarens rapporter 6. Alvheim og Eide. Akademisk forlag. Øvre Ervik.
[11] Gaukstad 1998.
[12] Larsen, Hilde Marianne 1985. Seterdrift og hytteliv på Roåker i Øyer 1900–1980. Magistergradsavhandling i etnologi. Universitetet i Oslo.
[13] Bråten, Knut Aastad 2006. Eit skigardsdele. Det kulturelle møtet mellom hytteturistar og bygdefolk på Beitostølen fram til 1980. Hovedoppgave i kulturhistorie. Universitetet i Oslo.
[14] Grimstad, Ingun 1990. En stat i solen. Utformingen av et fritidsmiljø. Lindøya Nakholmen Bleikøya. Hytteøyene i Indre Oslofjord. Masters thesis in ethnology. Universitetet i Oslo. Lyngø, Inger Johanne 1991. Hyttelivets gleder. Om tid og tidsforståelse. En undersøkelse av hytteøyene i indre Oslofjord. Masters thesis in ethnology. Universitetet i Oslo.
[15] Helene Jøsok Gansmo, Thomas Berker og Finn Arne Jørgensen (eds) Norske hytter i endring. Om bærekraft og behag 2011. Tapir akademisk forlag. Trondheim. Gardåsen, Kjetil 2012. «Hytteliv». I: Ferieliv i Kragerø. Telemark Museum.
[16] Vennerød, Christian 1985. «Jeg har en drøm». I: Folkevett. Februar 1985. Oslo.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.