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The barn at Framgarden farm in Valldal, Møre og Romsdal, Norway
The barn at Framgarden farm in Valldal.
Photo: Oddleiv Apneseth

The barns have been landmarks in the cultural landscape of Norway for centuries. Some beautiful and magnificent, others marked by the ravages of time and standing like monuments of the past.

Text: Petter Løken

You might have seen it before, the barn built by farmer Lars Petter Olsen Valldal in Valldal valley in Fjord Norway in 1885. More than three million people have seen the picture of the barn with its distinct circular barn bridge on the online image sharing community Imgur. The photo was taken by the award-winning photographer Oddleiv Apneseth.

Legend has it that the farmer spent seven years constructing the special barn bridge after the outbuilding itself was finished.

But this famous barn is not alone. Far from it.

Hundreds of thousands of barns

The barns have been landmarks in the cultural landscape of Norway for centuries, but their days might be numbered.

“While there are still hundreds of thousands of them, many are sure to disappear”, says Eva Røyrane, author of the book The Barns of Norway.

Together with photographer Apneseth, she spent two summers travelling all over Norway to collect stories and take pictures of more than a thousand Norwegian barns. And even if the barns come in different shapes and sizes, they have one thing in common:

“They are mostly painted red – because that was the cheapest colour”, states Røyrane.

The farmer’s centre of activity

“It’s the large building that would contain the farm animals, food for the livestock, farm equipment and also act as storage for grain”, Røyrane says.

Until 1850, the Norwegian farms normally consisted of several smaller buildings, but in modern agriculture that was no longer practical.

“The barn brought the farmer into the monetary society and played a big role in farming during the barn’s heyday between 1850 and 1950”, she says.

The even older farmsteads, by the way, are still standing in places across Norway, as well as in open-air museums.

A barn at Levanger, Trøndelag, Norway
Photo: Oddleiv Apneseth

Red memories

Thanks to its rich, fertile farmlands, Trøndelag is an important breadbasket for Norway. That fact is reflected in all the great barns in the area. Their farm buildings had to accommodate a large herd of cattle, as well as hay and grain.

“The houses on a typical big farm in Trønderlag forms a square, framing the yard”, the author says.

Even if the barns are normally painted red, you sometimes find one in yellow or white. Then you can be fairly sure that a prosperous farmer used to live there. Furthermore, the Trøndelag barns are often built at an angle and with a gateway that you drive through to get into the yard.

“They are mostly painted red – because that was the cheapest colour.”

A barn at Midtre Gauldal, Trøndelag, Norway
Midtre Gauldal.
Photo: Oddleiv Apneseth

Barns can also have fun local characteristics. In Stadsbygd at Fosen, for instance, you find barns with doors painted in a more expensive blue colour.

“It can be explained by the fact that the farmers here also made money from cod fishing in Lofoten in Northern Norway. We call it a local barn dialect”, Røyrane says.

The barn bridges give access to the second floor. These also differ from district to district. Some have roofs, whilst the big farms in Trøndelag have stone bridges with no superstructure.

Mostly unused

According to Røyrane, the barns have constantly had to adapt to new uses. As in other countries, farming in Norway has been through a great technological development, like the invention of the tractor and the silo.

Many of the Norwegian barns are still in use, but after 1950 an increasing number of farms have constructed buildings specialised for a new era in agriculture instead. For example by building houses exclusively for sheep husbandry.

Today’s farmers often have their animals in new farm buildings, and sometimes also in large, specialised barns that they share with their neighbours.

“Nowadays, the typical Norwegian barn is mostly unused. The owner isn’t practising farming anymore, and he or she just lives on the farm”, says Røyrane.

A lot of the barns just function as storage rooms, but since it’s such a great expense to maintain these signature buildings, many choose to tear them down.

New usage

Travelling around the Norwegian countryside you most likely will experience that many barns have been adapted for new purposes.

“We found barns used as second-hand stores, party venues, production premises for local food, music studios, fitness centres, and dormitories”, Røyrane says.

The barn at the monastery on Tautra island just outside Frosta Trønderlag is dated as far back as the 1700s. It is now used as a cafe.

“Today, many consider the barn as a resource that can be used for activities that bring a new income to the farm”, the author says.

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