In this article we take a look at the layout of the Norwegian farm and its surroundings - and how the land was utilised. The use of the land was very much a product of the landscape, the climate and the people who lived on it. What Mother Nature could offer was what man could have - and nothing more. This last part of the equation is something that we seem to have forgotten in our modern society.

The land of plenty
Norway has with her elongated shape - and her position on the world map - a great many variations in landscape, tradition and livelihood.

  • Along the rugged coastline it was harvesting the resources of the ocean that was the main way of living - farming the land often came second.
  • In the inland communities it was farming, hunting and freshwater fishing that put food on the table.

The peoples settling in Norway have a long history of being hunters, gatherers - and later farmers. It is estimated that farming began in Scandinavia around 4 000 BC.

Huge differences in climate and landscape meant that the utilisation of the land would vary significantly from region to region. One common feature, however, was that everyone made the most out of all available resources. For the most part it was Mother Nature dictating man - not the other way around.

Despite Norway being a land of plenty there has also been starvation and poverty. The winters can be long and harsh and if there was not enough food to harvest - and to store - then disaster would strike. And often it did. People knew too well what the consequences could be - and did their best to fill their barn, cellar and stabbur (storehouse) before the winter set in.

Modesty and diligence has traditionally been an important side to the Norwegian psyche.

A population that was growing fast
The population is an important factor when it comes to how heavily the land needs to be utilised. The population of Norway developed roughly as follows:

  • Year 1000: 175 000
  • Year 1300: 375 000
  • Year 1500: 170 000 (a setback as a result of the black death)
  • Year 1701: 500 000
  • Year 1801: 880 000
  • Year 1900: 2 240 000

Just by looking at the numbers we get an understanding of how the need for more arable land - and a greater utilisation of all available resources - became increasingly necessary. New generations would break more land and build new communities.

The huge population growth between 1800 and 1900 led to overcrowding within the social structure of the day and was one contributing factor to the wave of emigrants leaving Norway for North-America.

Recommended read: For those of you interested in getting a better understanding of what reality would be like for a man breaking new land somewhere in northern Norway, we recommend the novel ‘Growth of the soil’ by Knut Hamsun; a fascinating story. The book is in print and available in English.

Who owned the land?
From the Viking era onwards, the larger portion of the land was owned by either:

  • The king
  • The church
  • Other large landowners

The women and men working the land were often tenant farmers leasing the properties - paying their rent and their taxes.

After the Protestant Reformation in 1536, the king of the then Denmark-Norway confiscated the land belonging to the Catholic church.

During the next centuries, much of the farm land was sold off to the previous leaseholders and became private property for the many. Owning your own land has been - and still is - an important part of the Norwegian identity.

Common land: Norway also has a tradition for so called common land - or almenning. Wikipedia defines this as: ‘Common land is land owned collectively by a number of persons, or by one person, but over which other people have certain traditional rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, to collect firewood, or to cut turf for fuel.’

How the communities were organised in bygd, grend, gard and husmannsplass
If we disregard the way that the king and the church organised their domains, the rural communities were often organised in four main levels:

  • Bygd
  • Grend
  • Gard (gård)
  • Husmannsplass

Looking at the landscape surrounding these entities you will see that they are quite logical. If you sent a group of people out into the wilderness today - they might well follow a similar way of organising themselves.

Going back to the saga-times you also had a regional tingplass where the laws of the land were laid down and disputes settled. These places were also a meeting-point for trade and were often what later evolved into cities. 

Bygd: The word bygd is often translated into village - but that word doesn’t quite fit. Unlike the farming communities on the European continent and beyond - who often gathered in villages - the Norwegian farms were normally scattered individually around the landscape.

Two or more farms could sometimes have their sets of buildings placed very close to one another - but this is not the norm in most places.

The farms belonging to a certain geographical area - where people would naturally feel some kind of a connection - would form a bygd. The word community is probably a better translation than using the word village.

Grend: One can sometimes see this word translated into hamlet but that doesn’t quite fit either. A grend would be a section of the bygd where some farms naturally would form some kind of an entity. The farms would still be scattered individually throughout the landscape.

A grend could also be a place where there had originally been one larger farm - which later had been split into several entities.

The grend would normally have a common name - and this was often the name used by the emigrants when they came to North-America or generally moved away. The individual farms would have their own names - often indicating its location within the grend - how old they were and so on. The local history books (bygdebok) are often organised by grend and then farm.

Gard or gård: This is the actual farm - owned by the farmer and it is the registered entity for tax purposes and so on. Norway has a long history of keeping land registers, going back to the 1200s and beyond. The farm and its produce was for a long time the main taxable object.

Whether the word gard is spelled with an ‘a’ or an ‘å’ depends on the dialect.

The buildings on the farm would often be situated in such a way that the arable land was surrounding them, making it easier and quicker to get to the various fields. However, this is not always the case.

Husmannsplass: This is often translated into a cotter’s holding. The husmannsplass was not a separate legal entity and the land - and often the buildings upon it - belonged to the main farm.

The husmann - or cotter - was a tenant and as part of the tenant agreement he and his family would normally have to work a set number of days on the main farm during the year.

The cotters and their families could have a vulnerable existence. The children often had to work and fend for themselves from a very early age.

The husmannsplass would normally have some arable land but not always. The cotter often had an additional profession, for example shoemaker, tailor, lumberjack and so on. As the husmann did not own his own land, he was also the one being the socially most inferior - something that the below recommended read is a good example of.

Recommended read: The cotter’s boy and the farmer’s daughter: 'Old love never dies - 1895 anno domini’.

Of animals the cotter might have had a cow or two and some sheep. Maybe a pig and some chicken.

A husmann along the coast would often have a greater chance of making a good living - as harvesting the resources of the ocean had less limitations than the use of the land.

The number of cotter’s holdings increased significantly as the population started to grow in the late 1700s. A lot of these holdings were homesteads where a young couple would break new land - and create a home for themselves and their children.

If the cotter’s holding was later abandoned, the land would go back to the main farm.

The people living at such a cotter’s holdings could also often be the second, third child etc. of the main farmer - unless they were able to marry into other farms in the community.

From 1900 onwards in particular, the husmann started buying his husmannsplass and it became a separate legal entity. This is what we today often call a småbruk.

The basic elements of the farm’s land - and how it was utilised
The land belonging to a traditional Norwegian farm can be split into various areas of use and utilisation. There will be many regional variations but here are some elements.

  • The farmyard = tunet
  • A nearby, healthy and reliable water supply = brønnen or bekken
  • The infields = innmarka
  • The outfields = utmarka
  • A river or creek that could be harnessed to power a water wheel

The farmyard - tunet
Tunet is where the main buildings would be situated - with every building having its own and traditional purpose.

The word tun has a very deep-rooted meaning and emotional connection for many Norwegians even today: tunet is where home is. One can imagine the sense of longing for the farmyard back home felt by many of the earlier emigrants back in the 1800s, unable to ever return to their place of birth.

Recommended read: Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg wrote the 4 volume epic ‘The emigrants’ which is highly recommended. Although being about a Swedish emigrant family it will have a strong resemblance to the Norwegians. The books were made into a film-series in 1971 starring Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow. The books are in print and are available in English. Make sure that you get the film with English sub-titles. The scene where one of the main characters, Kristina, dies is heart-breaking. Finally, she is back home in Sweden - and she will be waiting for her beloved Karl Oskar there. 

A nearby, healthy and reliable water supply
In connection with the farmyard there would often be a healthy well containing water for human consumption – and maybe a dam, creek or other water supply for the animals. Often, of course the water supply would be the same for both man and beast.

It is easy to forget that cows and horses require large amounts of water every day. Undoubtedly, a constant supply of water could be a challenge during cold winters and dry summers. Many a bucket of water has been carried from a creek or a dam to the eagerly awaiting animals - forever still wanting more.

Water was also needed for laundry and cleaning in general. The water from the well was sometimes too valuable to use for this purpose and a creek, river or lake was the best option.

The infields - innmarka
The infields would normally be the most arable land on the farm. The farmyard and the infields were the heart and the most productive part of the property.

The infields are where the farmer would grow his grains and vegetables – often in rotation with grass for hay making. As a curiosity it can be mentioned that the potato became a very important part of the diet as the population increased - but was not fully introduced in Norway until around 1800.

Less arable land - which still was part of the infields - would be used as pasture land (hamnehage) - at least for certain parts of the year. Or for animals that had to be close to the farm, for example the workhorses which would be used all through the seasons.

Recommended read: The last workhorse at Sandaker farm - Råde, Norway.

In colder parts of the country, the main growth on all of the infields was grass - which would be used for hay. The hay was the main feed for many of the farm’s animals during the long winter months and on such farms animal husbandry would be the main source of food and income.

Securing sufficient feed for the winter could become critical in keeping the livestock alive and healthy until next year’s growth. There are many stories of the cattle being so weak in late spring that they didn’t have the energy to stand up anymore.

The freedom to roam another person’s land is a strong principle in Norwegian law – but that right would naturally be – and still is – limited when it comes to both the farmyard and the infields. You will normally never find an uninvited Norwegian in someone else’s field during the growing season. However, on a sunny day during winter many a skier will cross these oceans of white snow.

The outfields - utmarka
Simply put one could argue that the outfields were all the land that was not included in the infields: islands, forests, lakes, rivers, marshland, summer pasture and outer hay making fields, mountain land etc.

Some of this land would belong to the farm - some of it could be rented - and in many instances age-old rights allowed the local farmers to utilise certain resources on the land owned by others (common land).

The two most important uses of the outfields were probably using it as a summer pasture - and for securing additional winter feed for the animals. The infields were normally not large enough to both be able to feed the animals during the summer and for securing feed for the winter.

Often there would be separate buildings placed in the outfields where the hay would be stored. It was later brought back to the farm during the winter using horse and sleigh; or by boat in the coastal areas. If the farm was situated in a steep and mountainous landscape, the hay and other feed had to be carried on the farmer’s back. This was hard work.

Collecting branches with leaves from trees was also a very important addition to the winter feed in many areas. Moss could also be collected and used for feed.

In the valleys and in areas where the arable land was scarce, it was common to send the animals with one or two maids deeper into the forests or further up onto the mountainside - to the seter or summer farm. The maid (seterjente or budeie) and the animals would spend the entire summer there.

The seter would have a set of simple buildings - a cabin for the milkmaids to live in, a simple milking shed for the animals - and maybe buildings where the milk was processed and the end products stored. From cow’s and goat’s milk the maid would make butter, cheese etc. During the season this was collected and brought back to the farm.

The sheep were - and still are in many places - sent into the forests or up into the mountains and were roaming free and unattended all summer. Finding them all and getting them back to the farm in the autumn could be quite a task. All the sheep were branded so as to make it possible to separate them.

Hunting and fishing also took place in the outfields and was an important addition to the farmer’s table. However, hunting and fishing was a lot more regulated than other uses of the outfields and was not for everyone.

For those farms with little forest of their own - or for the cotter - the outfields often provided them with enough firewood for the winter.

The forests and the mountains also provided berries and other edible plants. These were important additions to the farmer’s diet.

A river that could be harnessed to power a water wheel
Lucky was the farmer that had a river or a creek nearby. It could of course serve as an important water supply – but running water would also be a valuable source of power for the watermill or a sawing mill. The grain had to be made into flour and the trees had to be cut into material for building and repair. Or maybe the farm had a stamping mill for the making of cloth.

A river could of course also be a valuable resource for fishing. During the later centuries, many rivers in Norway also provided additional income derived from those passionately interested in salmon fishing etc.

Some ending comments
Much more could be said about the farming landscape of Norway - but the above gives a small introduction to a landscape and a structure that we Norwegians often take for granted.

Variations from one part of the country to another are great and there are many nuances in the way that people lived. We have tried to cover at least some aspects of it.

One very important part of Norway and the utilisation of the resources in the northern regions is of course the Sami people and the Sami culture. But this is a vast topic which deserves a great many articles on its own.

For now we bid you goodbye - and thank you for your visit.

Sources: Statistics Sentralbyrå,

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