Translated from Swedish to English by Eileen Gerber Palsson
Märket is a small, low skerry in the middle of the Baltic Sea, between Sweden and Finland. The national border actually goes across the skerry, dividing it equally between the two countries. On the Swedish half of this remote little island, there was for almost 100 years
a Russian — later Finnish — lighthouse. It wasn’t until the lighthouse was automated that something was done about the uncomfortable fact that there was a foreign lighthouse in Swedish territory.
Traveling east, we have just crossed the busy north–south passage used by ships traveling along the Swedish coast north of Stockholm. We are halfway across the wide 20-nautical-mile strip between Sweden and the island of Aland — an autonomous, Swedish-speaking province of Finland. Here we find the skerry of Märket, with its light station, so low on the water that it is very easy to mistake the island for a ship.
With us on the boat is Karl-Erik “Kee” Eriksson, the last lightkeeper on Märket. When the lighthouse was automated in 1977, he was transferred to a job as skipper on one of the pilot cutters at Aland. Kee is the expert to have with you on a ship that’s about to land at this portless and windy reef.
“It is very difficult to approach Märket, because the south side of the island is very shallow, with treacherous rocks here and there. The north side, on the other hand, is very deep but safe to use only in very light wind. Today we are lucky,” Kee says.
Kee worked out here almost constantly from 1959 to 1977. His father was the principal lightkeeper here in those days, and his brother and uncle were also part of the Märket staff. It was quite a family affair.
“But we never actually lived out here. Throughout its history, Märket was a stag station, and our families came out here only for brief visits in the summer.”
It’s easy to see why — this big flat rock in the open sea would not be a suitable place for children to play; nor is it possible for any vegetables, or even grass, to grow here.
We disembark the bigger boat that brought us to the island and take a small boat the last few meters.
For more than 700 years, Sweden and Finland were one country. But Finland was conquered by czarist Russia in the Swedish–Russian War of 1809, and the peace treaty stipulated that the new
Swedish–Russian border was to go right down the middle of the Gulf of Bothnia — and right across the little skerry called Märket.
In 1809, there was no light or any other navigational aid at Märket, which at that time was considered one of the greatest dangers to ships in this part of the Baltic. It took until the 1880s before anything was done about this, and, as is so often the case, disaster had to strike before action was taken.
The year 1873 was a disastrous one for Baltic mariners. Of the 28 ships that traveled along the area’s coasts, eight sank, with great loss of life as a result. The reason was that skippers feared Märket so much that they frequently stuck too close to the coasts.
The maritime authorities of Russian-ruled Finland subsequently resolved that a lighthouse should be built — at any cost. As an added impetus, the czar in St. Petersburg was very anxious to somehow manifest a new western outpost in his gigantic empire.
Construction began in the spring of 1885 and did not lack for dramatic moments. One day, a severe northern storm trapped the workers, who were forced to take shelter in their boat and raise it up in the iron pole that had been put up a few years earlier as the first navigational aid at Märket. Immediately after the stormy drama, eight of the workers quit.
However, in spite of various difficulties, the construction of the lighthouse was finished that same year, and the light of Märket was lit for the first time on November 10, 1885.
At that time, no one seems to have realized or cared that this Russian–Finnish lighthouse was built on Swedish territory, on the western half of Märket. It was probably not an intentional territorial intrusion; the western side of the skerry was simply the most suitable place to build the lighthouse. Neither the King nor the government of Sweden seem to have conveyed any protest to Sweden’s former archenemy. However, the charts and other maps were very clear: the Märket lighthouse was built on the wrong side of the border!
“We used to say that we slept with our heads in Sweden and our feet in Finland,” Kee tells us as we climb the stairs in the
three-story lighthouse building. That’s a good story, but
not technically true. The entire Russian — and later Finnish — light station was located in Sweden.
The 1950s brought great changes to Märket. Electricity replaced kerosene as fuel. A power station was housed in a new building near the lighthouse, and a third house — a workshop — was also erected. The three houses were connected by a high pedestrian bridge, a necessity due to the Baltic breakers, which often washed across the little skerry. And last but not the least, after 70 years, the lighthouse was finally equipped with a toilet, a “natural water closet,” housed in a little shed above a crack in the rock where water constantly flushed through.
It was near the end of this period, in 1959, that the young Kee Eriksson began his service at Märket. His first night on duty was a dramatic one. A freighter from the German Democratic Republic accidentally ran up on the skerry and “parked illegally” at the eastern tip of the island.
“For many hours, we did not see anyone above the deck,”
Kee recalls. “They didn’t show themselves until the Finnish Coast Guard came to their aid.”
For the most part, however, Kee and his fellow lightkeepers enjoyed a quiet life on the stormy little Baltic rock. Sometimes, they fished for herring or shot a seal.
When a couple of ham radio operators visited the light
station in 1970, they revealed that Märket was recognized by ham radio enthusiasts as an independent nation, because the autonomous province of Aland is positioned between the Finnish mainland and Märket.
“So I also became a ham radio operator, with my own country,” says Kee. “Märket Reef” was soon known all over the world.
In 1977, the lighthouse was automated, and the keepers left the island. Kee and his father, Ragnar, were among the last to leave. Except for occasional groups of visiting radio enthusiasts, Märket has been deserted for almost 30 years now. The buildings have gradually fallen into disrepair, and the light station, like so many others, faces an uncertain future.
Though the lighthouse was automated and the keepers left, one fact remained: there was a Finnish lighthouse in Sweden!
Of course, Märket was an insignificant little island. All the same, the situation caused some discomfort between the two Nordic neighbors.
So for the 1981–82 revision of the Swedish–Finnish border, surveyors went out to the skerry to set things right. The straight border across the island was replaced by a meandering new line, which gave the interior of the western half of the island, where the lighthouse is, to Finland, while Sweden got an exactly equal part of the eastern interior in return.
The light station of Märket was home at last!
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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