Culture & History of the Islands

The Saint Anna & Gryt archipelagoes boast a rich cultural heritage. Although sparsely populated these days, the landscape still bare many signs of human activity all the way back to pre-historic times.


A deep-dive into the past

From the very beginning thousands of years ago, settlers out here lived off fishing, hunting and farming.

The area experienced its heyday in the 1800s, when the population was at an all-time high. There was a flurry of activity around the islands, and many of the houses that still stand today were built during this period.  The islands had stores, schools, tradesmen of every kind, and even began hosting the first guesthouses for city dwellers seeking a retreat to the pristine air and scenic beauty of the coast. However, between the 1920s and 1950s, like much of rural Sweden, a vast majority of the residents packed up their few belongings and moved to urban centers.

Now, only around 800 people live permanently on the islands and along the coast.  Many continue the age-old traditions of fishing and farming, but these days tourism also plays an important role. Everything out here is small-scale family operations, and the archipelago is yet again coming alive with little cafés, restaurants and country stores.

As far back as the Stone Age

This archipelago's history stretches back millennia, with remains suggesting that the area was a hub for fishing and hunting as early as six thousand years ago. Stone Age inhabitants navigated the waters in rudimentary canoes carved from oak logs.  At that time, much of the outer archipelago was underwater, and vast stretches of what we now recognize as the mainland were submerged.

The most ancient settlements were probably situated on elevated terrains inland. During the summertime, these early residents would embark on hunting and fishing expeditions to the islands. They set up temporary camps for the night, using stone bases with sails stretched overhead for shelter. Evidence of their presence can still be found today, with stone remnants on the fishing islets around Aspöja, Kallsö, and Kråkmarö.

The Bronze Age through Medieval times

We don’t know exactly when residents began living permanently on the islands, but it’s certain that it was long before the first written record occurs in 1542. The oldest remains that indicate that the islands were settled, at least part of the year, are from the Bronze Age (1800-500 BC). Burial mounds can be found on for example Väggö and Harstena. For hundreds of years, all through the Middle Ages, inhabitants lived off fishing, raising livestock, and hunting birds and seals. Cattle and sheep were rotated across the islets for grazing, a practice that is still used today among the islands' few remaining farmers.

Due to higher water levels in the past, fishermen could row to distant markets, even as far as Linköping, to trade cod, eel, pike, perch, salted herring, and dried fish. Closer markets in Söderköping and Norrköping were also frequented.

Another significant livelihood was guiding cargo ships through the islands' treacherous waters. Skilled residents would row out to anchored ships, offering their expertise in navigating the shallow and perilous channels. This responsibility was not taken lightly; as per ancient charters, causing a ship to run aground was penalised by death!

Bustling activity in the 1800s

After centuries of challenging living conditions, easier times ensued from the beginning of the 1800s.  This positive change has been attributed to a prolonged period of peace, as well as the introduction of vaccines and the adoption of potatoes as a staple food. As nearby cities flourished, they provided new market opportunities for the island inhabitants, with a soaring demand for fish, coastal birds, firewood, livestock, and crops.

As a result, the islands experienced a rapid population growth, reaching its peak in the 1870s. The need to feed and sustain this booming populace led to expansive land cultivation and increased logging for firewood.  In the process, many stone fences were built. These still stand on some islands in the middle and inner parts of the archipelago, for example Styrsö – mementos of the laborious nature of farming in the rugged archipelago terrain.

By mid-century, legislative changes allowed trade beyond city limits. In no time, around a dozen stores sprang up across the islands, offering a wide range of products—from fabrics and tools to paint and fuel.  These establishments acted almost like small banks, as they sold their goods on credit and were paid only once or twice a year. Much like micro-loans of today, it facilitated entrepreneurialism in a major way. Construction was booming, resulting in many of the residences still in use today. Other trades, such as dairies, mills, shoemakers, seamstresses, and watchmakers, also saw a significant uptick.

A few guest houses also opened at this time, offering up the islands' serene beauty to city dwellers eager for a taste of the fresh coastal air and pristine waters. Indeed, this is probably the part of Saint Anna’s history that we can best relate to these days.

The Islanders leave their islands

From the 1920s to the 1950s, the landscape changed significantly, as many inhabitants joined the broader migration from the countryside to urban centers in Sweden. Houses were sold or simply abandoned, leading to the closure of schools and stores.

Today, remnants of the island farmers' laborious past can be observed in stone mounds, fences, and uniquely pruned trees that once served as winter fodder for animals. Overgrown fields now host wild apple trees and other domesticated plants that have adapted to their newfound freedom.

Some oak-covered grazing fields remain, housing cattle and sheep. These fields are vital for biodiversity, preventing grasses and shrubs from dominating the landscape. And, of course, while many buildings from the past are now gone, those that remain are often cherished as summer retreats.

Modern times and well-preserved history

These days, the vast majority of the islands that make up Saint Anna & Gryt are uninhabited wilderness. The ones that do have dwellings exude a feeling of a time long gone. Traditional wooden homes painted red with white trimmings, boat houses, and little jetties. A visit to Harstena Village is the perfect interlude to get a feel for what life on the islands used to be – strolling around the idyllic village is truly like traveling back in time.