I have long been drawn to places 'in between', territories which enjoy some degree of autonomy from larger sovereign states, more often than not a consequence of historical tensions or geopolitical compromise. Northern Ireland, for example, fascinates me both professionally and personally, as do the three Crown Dependencies (the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey), neither part of the UK nor the European Union, three statelets within the British Isles.
Europe, in particular, is full of similar examples, not just the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar (which last week temporarily fused with South-West England region in order to elect Members of the European Parliament), but also islands or peninsulas which manage to be both in and outside the European Union. The monks of Mount Athos in Greece, for example, ignore the European Convention on Human Rights in prohibiting female visitors, while the tiny island of Heligoland (once a British territory, now part of Germany) sits outside the Customs Union, making it a prime destination for cheap, duty-free alcohol.
The same is true of the Åland archipelago, equidistant between Finland and Sweden (though closer to Stockholm than Helsinki). Åland – pronounced Awland – forms part of Finland but has its own flag (since 1954), parliament and opt-out from EU trading regulations. It is also culturally distinctive, its lingua franca being Swedish, reflecting its historic links with that Scandinavian kingdom. Swedish is Finnish Åland's only official language, and any documents despatched to Åland from mainland government agencies have to be in Swedish.
I reached Åland via a short flight from Helsinki and, for only the third time in my travels, managed to walk from the bijou airport to my lodgings for the only night I spent there. The weather, as in the capital, was dispiriting. My host, a theatre director who knew Edinburgh well from August sojourns, told me that Åland was renowned as the sunniest part of Finland, but not while I was there. It was 9˚C and windy, conditions for which I was ill prepared.
The main settlement of Mariehamn, named after a former Russian empress, possessed limited sights but all spoke to the trappings of nationhood – a 'national' museum, a box-like parliament building (which houses the Lagtinget) and Scandinavian cross flag. A leaflet I picked up at the (world-class) museum and art gallery was subtitled 'an autonomous region', and in crisp prose it articulated Åland's unique status to doubtless curious visitors. In certain areas, it boasted, Åland 'functions practically like an independent state'.
The parliament of Finland in Helsinki, based in a beautiful modernist building I toured upon my return to the mainland, governs Åland's foreign affairs, law and order, customs and taxation. Financially, the Finnish State repays part of the taxes raised on the islands in a 'lump sum', which in 2015 amounted to €220m. But Åland's autonomy has other, distinctive features: international treaties require the consent of both Finland and Åland, thus when Finland became a member of the European Union in 1995, so too did Åland, but only following two separate referendums and negotiation of a special protocol which formed part of Finland's accession treaty.
It's this protocol which places Åland outside the Customs Union, something a display at the island’s museum explained had both pros and cons, creating bureaucracy at the 'tax border' but also offering 'opportunities' for European e-traders. The EU also accepted Åland's right of domicile, which restricts those who can start businesses and own waterfront property on the islands – usually summer homes – to Finnish nationals of five years' residency.
This contemporary pragmatism reflects the compromise which constituted Åland almost a century ago. In 1917, the ravages of war and fear of overspill from the Russian revolution led many Ålanders to agitate for reunification with Sweden (it had most recently formed part of the Tsarist Grand Duchy of Finland) and an 'illegal' parliament – as in Ireland during the same period – was convened to that end. Sweden encouraged this nascent 'Åland Movement', annoying the Finns, who offered autonomy in 1920, which was rejected.
The so-called 'Åland Question' was thus brought before the fledgling League of Nations in Geneva, and the organisation's first secretary-general, the Scottish Aristocrat Sir Eric Drummond (later the 7th Earl of Perth). In 1921, he and the league ruled that Åland would remain a demilitarised part of Finland but with a degree of self-government and specific protections for its Swedish language and culture. This took effect the following year when Åland’s parliament met for the first time. This, the 9th of June, is now celebrated every year as, rather drily, 'Autonomy Day'.
The League of Nations – founded a century ago this year – proved a failure, although the enduring Åland settlement reveals a more positive legacy. Today, the vast majority of islanders accept Finnish sovereignty but feel equally at home in Sweden, although the 'Åland's Future' party – which has two seats in the 30-member parliament – wants Åland to become a Scandinavian Monaco. The islands' main sights speak to this multi-layered identity, from the shelled remains of a Russian fort at Bomarsund to the 14th-century Kastelholm which once imprisoned Swedish royalty.
Another of Mariehamn's engaging attractions, the award-winning Maritime Museum, bulged with evidence of more contemporary links, a period in which Åland was as connected to Hull and Glasgow as it was to Stockholm and Helsinki. It included a startling array of figureheads, many from Clyde-built tall ships, one of which, the Pommern, was moored nearby. Eventually I found the usual proud plaque of provenance on its upper deck: 'John Reid & Co Ltd, Shipbuilders: Whiteinch: Glasgow'.