I am currently on an island in the Baltic Sea, at the mouth of the Bay of Bothnia. It is a Finnish island called Åland. The island is about 170 km from Stockholm and 160 km from Åbo in Finland. Åland consists of Fasta Åland on which 90% of the population resides and about 6,500 skerries and islands, of which 60–80 are inhabited. The capital city, where I am, is called Mariehamn where around 15,000 people live.
So how come the official language of Åland is Swedish?
The island was originally a part of the Swedish Empire, but has also belonged to Russia, France, Germany and Sweden again, before becoming a part of Finland. After much conflict, the League of Nations decided in 1920 that, although belonging to Finland, the island would be independent and self-governing. By law, Åland is politically neutral and entirely demilitarised, and residents are exempt from conscription. Åland was granted extensive autonomy by new legislation of the same name in 1951 and 1991. Åland remains exclusively Swedish-speaking by this act.
Speaking to the locals, the accent sounds like an interesting blend of Swedish, Finnish and Gotlandic (another Baltic island).
Åland, as an autonomous region, has its own parliament, police force, bank, postal service and flag. It is also a tax-free zone, and is a daily stopping point for ferries from Sweden and Finland where passengers are able to buy duty-free alcohol, tobacco and other goods. In fact, about 2 million people a year visit Åland, but usually only to switch boats. I have to confess this has been the way for me also. This trip is the first time I’ve actually ventured into the town and further onto this beautiful island.