In search of Denmark’s soul

  • Themes: Scandinavia

Jutland, land of bad beer and cheap pork, of beautiful heaths and shifting sands, of millennia-old corpses preserved in peat bogs, of Viking myths, and of wind, lots and lots of wind, continues both to define and contradict contemporary Denmark.

The families of fishermen await their return in an approaching storm from the west coast of Jutland. A painting by Carl Bloch.
The families of fishermen await their return in an approaching storm from the west coast of Jutland. A painting by Carl Bloch. Credit: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

Imagine Denmark. Just picture the little Nordic nation for a moment. What springs to mind?

Hmm, okay, yes. I think I can say with some certainty that what you are really thinking about is Copenhagen.

The Danish capital has been the focus of almost all of the considerable global media coverage of Denmark, at least during the past 25 years or so that I have been familiar with the country. This is where all of those breathless, utopian depictions of the happy Danes with their enviable work-life balance, sustainable food habits, pragmatic political system and cool lampshades have been written (I know, because I wrote many of them).

Copenhagen, and its posh suburbs-by-the-sea to the north of the city, is also where most of those alluring TV dramas were shot, like the glossy political drama Borgen, and where most of the recent compelling Danish films were set, too, such as The Hunt and Another Round, and even some that didn’t star Mads Mikkelsen. Unsurprisingly, then, this is where most foreign TV crews come to film sexy, tattooed Danes swimming in the harbour, drinking beer, and riding cargo bikes.

If you are Danish, then your thoughts might well have strayed to another place. A place of broad, blustery beaches, fragrant pig farms and queues at Legoland. A place of windswept heaths, colossal wind turbines and windsurfers (a clue: wind is a key feature of this place).

You, kære Danskere, you were thinking about the Jutland peninsula, weren’t you?

Jutland, or ‘Jylland’ in Danish, is the bit of the country which thrusts phallically from Northern Germany towards the Oslofjord. To its west is the North Sea; making it Northumbria’s nearest neighbour to the east (something Northumbrians had cause to regret when Danish Vikings sailed on Lindisfarne in 793 AD).

Jutland occupies a strange place in the Danish psyche. It is part soul-of-the-nation, part embarrassing relative. For the 2.2 million Jutlanders who call it home, it is, well, home. For the 3.7 million other Danes, it is myriad things, but not least a place most are glad not to call home.

In a sense, Jutland is where Denmark began. The so-called ‘birth certificate’ of the nation, the Jelling Stone, still stands in the south-eastern Jutland town after which it is named, and is a pilgrimage destination for every Danish schoolchild (handily, Legoland is 25 minutes away). The 10th-century stone’s red-painted runic inscription proclaims Harald Bluetooth to be king of all the Danes. Bluetooth (after whom the wireless technology is named) was the first monarch to unite the nation and the first christian king of Denmark.

Despite being ground zero for the Danish monarchy, Jutland was never as dominated by a feudal ruling elite as Zealand (Sjælland). Instead, the monarchy and aristocracy gravitated to the largest Danish island to the east where, first Roskilde, and then Copenhagen became the capitals. And, so, relatively free of meddling kings, Jutland’s farmers tended to own their own land, or leased it from a distant monarch.

In the 19th century, Jutland became the centre for the blossoming co-operative movement, driven initially by dairy- and pig-farmers and with a focus on standardising their bacon and butter for the lucrative British market. Perhaps because of this agrarian focus, the Jutlanders have always cherished their fertile farmlands and bracing coastline that bit more than the rest of the Danes. One of the more telling differences between Danes and their northern Scandinavian neighbours, the Swedes and the Norwegians, is that the latter especially, consider it a badge of honour to spend as much time as possible amid their spectacular scenery, regardless of the weather. The more sociable Danes, on the other hand, would generally prefer to gather together indoors, watching handball or fest-ing in some or other way. Occasionally, even cosmopolitan Copenhageners feel a hankering for a bracing encounter with raw nature, an experience of a type on which Jutland has the Danish monopoly. It boasts the highest point in Denmark, Ejer Bavnehøj (170m), for example, numerous fjords and rivers, and Klitmøller, the town in north-east Jutland that is considered northern Europe’s surf paradise, earning it the nickname ‘Cold Hawaii’.

Farmers the world over share similar preoccupations and this perhaps explains why Jutlanders are perceived to be careful with their money, to drive a hard bargain, prioritise the bottom line and to favour practical, low-cost solutions rather than fancy fripperies. Modesty, parsimony, traditional values and straight talking are the norm. The architecture of Jutland tends to be more conservative than in the east of the country; people dress more uniformly; drive more practical cars; and eat more simply. Southern Jutlanders very much enjoy the proximity of Germany’s budget hypermarkets, filling their trailers with cheap candy, beer and – during the time of a short-lived fat tax – butter.

The less appealing characteristics of provincial Jutlanders were codified by novelist Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 satire A Fugitive Covers His Tracks as the ten Jante Laws. They read today just as comically suffocating and oppressive as Sandemose presumably intended, but over the past century they have taken on a strange cultural power becoming a kind of pan-Scandinavian ten commandments of social conformity. The laws still shape attitudes throughout the region, but in Denmark are most strongly present in Jutland. They start with ‘1, You’re not to think you are anything special’, and ‘2, You’re not to think you are as good as we are.’ And continue in that vein but they have persevered in the Danish national consciousness – in the Danish soul – I think because, within them, lies both a truth about who the Danes are, but also some perhaps unfashionable virtues. After all, no one likes a braggart. Neither boastfulness nor conspicuous consumption ever did anyone any good. I don’t know, perhaps sometimes individual ambition ought to be sacrificed as we strive for societal egality. Maybe you shouldn’t think you are anything special…

There are exceptions to the laws of Jante, particularly in the modern era of performative social media and increasing economic inequality – the heirs of the Lego fortune are big spenders when it comes to horses, fast cars and big houses, for instance – but generally Jutlanders remain a modest bunch, who still tend to underplay their achievements, success and (not inconsiderable) wealth.

There is an obvious echo in these attitudes with the predominant religion of the North here. The tenets, if not the practice, of the Lutheran church remain potent in Jutland. Some communities, particularly on the west coast but admittedly dwindling now, still resemble the sect depicted in Karen Blixen’s short story which was set there, Babettes Gæstebud (Babette’s Feast), the elderly members of which recoil from the corporeal pleasures offered by their French visitor and her culinary skills. ‘It will be as if we never had the sense of taste,’ avows one of the sect members as she prepares to deny herself any enjoyment from the eponymous meal. Some would argue that, to this day, Jutlandish food remains largely devoid of sensual reward.

It’s not that Jutlanders could not afford to splash some cash, should they so desire. Much of Denmark’s considerable wealth is generated here. The world’s largest toy company, LEGO, was founded, and is still based there, as is the Danish wind-turbine industry, most of the pig farms and, though its HQ is closer to Copenhagen, Novo Nordisk (not merely the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, but the largest company in Europe in terms of market value), has a major manufacturing base here.

I happened to chat with Google co-founder Sergei Brin recently, while visiting Google HQ in Palo Alto. When he heard that I lived in Denmark, he grew animated as he talked fondly of Aarhus. Google Chrome and Google Maps were both developed in the city, something of which even few Danes are, I think, aware. According to a rare 2009 profile in the Financial Times, the programming genius behind these globally transformative technologies, Lars Bak, moved back there simply because he believed it was a better environment in which to raise his family. He lives and works, on his own terms, in a farmhouse outside of Aarhus, about as far as one could get from the ethos and lifestyle of Silicon Valley.

Jutland may be where all the money is made, but Danish cultural and political power is entirely focused on the capital, Copenhagen. If the Copenhageners consider Jutland at all, it is either to express gratitude that they don’t live there (or, indeed, that they left, as many Jutlanders do), pity for those that do, or relief that they rarely have to visit. Either that, or to mock the agricultural-sounding Jutlandic accent.

I once worked with a producer at Danmarks Radio, the state TV company, who proudly boasted that he had only set foot in Jutland three times in his life. The man was in his early sixties. This is not an uncommon sentiment from Copenhageners towards their country cousins in the west. The daughter of a friend, who was born in the capital, claims to feel physical discomfort whenever she visits Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, the de facto capital of Jutland. The feeling is mutual. Jutlanders consider people from the capital to be overly loquacious, untrustworthy and shallow.

And, yet, for a couple of weeks in midsummer a certain strata of Copenhagen society (once old money, now more nouveau) decamps to the north Jutland seaside resort of Skagen, to be seen on the terraces of the seafood restaurants and to socialise with precisely the same people they socialise with for the rest of the year back home. And it is to Jutland’s west coast that most Danish minds will drift if you ask them about this part of their country. To the gorgeous, epic beaches and, inland from them, the Middle-Earth landscapes of sandy hillocks and flat heathlands, peppered with thatched summerhouses and old-time seaside resorts beloved of touristing Germans (who are banned from buying property here).

The German influence is strong in Jutland, particularly in the south. You see it in the stout, functional architecture – southern Jutland has traditionally been a major brick-producing region – and in the Jutlanders’ these days rather un-Danish love of the automobile. While elsewhere in Denmark, the bicycle or public transport rule, neither will get you very far in Jutland. Every significant town there is entered via broad highways lined with car dealerships.

The German influence goes beyond an unfashionable love of the motor car. For centuries, there were significant German-speaking populations in Jutland’s southern duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. In 1864, following the second Schleswig War, the Treaty of Vienna awarded the entirety of Holstein and southern Schleswig to the German Confederation. It was the single most devastating moment in Danish history, much more scarring than the occupation in 1940. Denmark lost a third of its land and 40 per cent of its population.

Understandably, this astonishing partition cast a long shadow and, to my mind, formed the modern Danish soul. The loss was epitomised by lines of poetry written a few years later by HP Holst: ‘Hvad udad tabes, skal indad vindes’ (What was lost without shall be found within), which are familiar to every Dane.

You can see this ‘making the most of what we have left’ attitude in everything from the briefly fashionable concept of ‘hygge’, to the renowned Danish design tradition (‘What have we got? Lots of wood. Okay, wooden chairs it is then!’). In the years immediately after 1864, the Danish adult education or højskole movement gathered pace: there was an urgent need for what remained of the population to be educated to the highest level in order to maximise the benefits of the Industrial Revolution. Jutland’s barren heathlands became cherished symbols of Danishness: writers including Hans Christian Andersen and the Jutland-born Steen Steensen Blicher romanticised them as exotic wildernesses and when, in the 1870s, the Society for Heathland Reclamation began to attempt to replace the land lost to Germany by cultivating the heath into farmland, there was much hand-wringing among Denmark’s poets. (A century earlier, Ludvig von Kahlen – played by Denmark’s Depardieu, Mads Mikkelsen in the recent film, Bastarden – The Promised Land – had unsuccessfully attempted to turn this heath into farmland.)

Jutland continues to attract writers; its landscape is an irresistibly evocative backdrop for bleak and turbulent lives of emotional repression. In Mirror, Signal, Shoulder, a 2017 International Man Booker finalist, Jutland-born Dorthe Nors writes about a woman who has left the peninsula and finds herself disconnected from nature in the capital. In her first non-fiction work, A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast, the protagonist is Nors herself, returning to Jutland after having lived in Copenhagen. Though she was born there, the locals – as merciless as the weather – consider her an outsider. The book contains an evocative description of a certain type of older Jutland woman, who has been the mainstay of the fishing industry in these parts for centuries: ‘Their skin is tanned leather, their hair clipped short. They have tattoos and big, wrinkled cleavages… They’ve been skinning fish since before they started school. They’ve ridden Puch Maxi mopeds, they’ve gone cruising with drunken men in Ford Taunus cars by the dam. They’ve cooked more chips than you’ll ever eat.’

In a lighter vein, Stine Pilgaard’s best seller, Meter i Sekundet (Metres per Second, made into a successful film in 2022), tells of the culture shock experienced by a woman called Marie who reluctantly relocates from Copenhagen to remotest Jutland. Among many lessons, Marie discovers early on that the locals do not share her ease about discussing sexual matters.

If the Danish soul lies in Jutland, in recent years it has become a soul in conflict. Denmark is becoming polarised, between rural, provincial, traditional Jutland and modern, sustainable, globalist Copenhagen. Jutland’s values and its role in the Danish economy have been under attack. In the past year, it has been revealed that the farmers have polluted so much that the Danish seas have been pronounced officially bereft of life, and there are serious questions about the cleanliness of the nation’s drinking water. One of the most discussed political issues in Denmark right now is biodiversity, of which precious little remains in the industrially-farmed wastelands of its countryside. The resentment hasn’t been helped by the fact that the mink farmers, virtually all of whom are based on Jutland, appear to have stiffed the Danish state for DKK 30bn (circa GBP 3.5bn) of compensation for being forced to cull their animals (some of which it turns out never actually existed) during the Covid outbreak.

I visited a mink farmer in northern Jutland recently to hear his various complaints about the government in Copenhagen. He had yet to receive his compensation money, became improbably misty eyed at the fate of his cherished animals, and gave every impression of being on the verge of bankruptcy (his trousers were not literally held up with string, but might just as well have been). As I left, I wondered aloud about the luxury golf course which abutted his farm. Oh that? That was his, he admitted.

The Venstre Parti (the Danish equivalent of the Conservatives), which has traditionally been associated with the agricultural industry and has held a hand over the farmers for decades, has recently suffered a collapse in voter support and, following the last election, was forced into an improbable coalition with the Social Democrats and the Moderates, founded and led by former Venstre prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen. Meanwhile, in 2021 prominent Jutland Venstre politician, Inger Støjberg, was found guilty of illegal conduct while immigration minister, sentenced to 60 days in prison and kicked out of the party and parliament. Despite her voter base being limited to the very northern part of Jutland, Støjberg formed a new, right-wing party, was elected back into parliament and has subsequently attempted to drive a wedge between the peninsula – which in her view represents the ‘real’ Denmark – and what she terms the ‘cultural elite salons’ of the capital (where she spends most of her time, residing in one of its most bijou quarters, Christianshavn). Currently, one of the major political battles in Denmark concerns a proposed CO2 tax on agriculture. Needless to say, Støjberg opposes the tax.

So, this land of bad beer and cheap pork, of beautiful heaths and shifting sands, of millennia-old corpses preserved in peat bogs, of Viking myths, and of wind, lots and lots of wind, continues both to define and contradict contemporary Denmark.

Personally, I value the diversity it brings to a sometimes homogenous-seeming country. Jutland offers a different perspective on the Danish utopia, but one which is every bit as valid as the artisanal bakeries, pro-Palestine student camps and Michelin-starred restaurants of the capital. Is it the ‘authentic’ Denmark, the ‘soul’ of the nation. For some, maybe, but for the rest of us, we are glad that it’s there, but glad that we don’t live there.


Michael Booth