“If you don’t care about your own history, you may as well leave the classroom.” Words from the geography teacher at high school Simon Vestdijk in the port town of Harlingen in 1988. We, the two Frisian bastards, were about sixteen years old and in the fifth grade of the VWO (i.e. pre-university education). The annoyed words were addressed to two giggling girls from the villages of Arum and Witmarsum, sitting in the back of the classroom. The teacher already opened the door, and told them they did not need to report themselves to the Vice Principal. Then, being somewhat surprised, our classmates grabbed their school bags and left the classroom. Two other girls, from the villages Witmarsum and Kimswerd, followed too.
The geography lesson was about terps (i.e. artificial settlement mounds, check our Manual). No idea what those things were. The teacher dedicated a lesson to terps because of his hobby archaeology. “On my knees picking in the clay on the flank of a terp in search of pottery sherds,” as he put it. A soil rich not only in minerals, but also in history. Until then we had little idea of Frisian culture. Typical kids of the ‘70s. A non-Dutch identity was not something that was actively promulgated or taught by parents. It should come as no surprise that there was little interest in Frisian heritage at a high school in the port town of Harlingen, where the Frisian language is regarded as something foreign. Until suddenly that geography lesson. The teacher’s words “if your own history doesn’t interest you” had a zoink effect for us. Did we, sitting there together as class, have our own history? We stayed put. We had to learn all kinds of things about China, the Dutch East Indies, WWII, but this we wanted to hear for ourselves.
A seed was planted, and since then interest in Frisian culture has grown. Looking back, that interest was initially focused on the conflict side and strive for equality. Struggle against Holland, standing up for equal rights, language and culture. To the icons Warns, Schurer, Radbod, Grutte Pier and Frisian Freedom. That is okay, but it has a downside. Who are you trying to convince, for what purpose? In other words, what do you add or create? The energy focuses on the strongest opposition, and therefore on where there may never be any real change. No matter how unjust. “Mar wat no as wy dêr sels ris wat mear oan dogge?” (‘but what if we do a bit more ourselves?’) as the chairman of the Jongfryske Mienskip ‘Young Frisian Community’ has said (Van Hes, 2019).
The lesson of the geography teacher got to the heart of the matter in several ways. Not proud of Frisian and all that, but simply out of interest. Just because it is there. Moreover, those who were not interested, could leave class without any consequences. He was not going to impose anything upon us about our own history and identity. But also, he made us aware of the uniqueness of the landscape. He taught us how to look and see. And he explained that landscape and culture, geography and history, are intertwined. Something that certainly applies to Frisian history. Is it not amazing that kids learn more about the Chinese Gang of Four than about the ancient terps on which they live?
And so, we arrive at our hobby: the Frisia Coast Trail. A long-distance trail that strings together the facts of this area’s history. Invented at the beginning of the year 2017. Admittedly, it took us a while to start this initiative, after that geography lesson about terps. It was after a hike in Spain we had walked together, that we came up with the idea. When guys from the port town Harlingen devise a trail, it is inevitable that this will be a coastal path. And that the Wadden Sea will have a prominent place in it as well. A sea where, according to Charlemagne, the Milky Way Galaxy even begins. The trail runs from Nature Park The Zwin in Belgium along the coast of the Netherlands, including a big curve inland via the town of Wijk bij Duurstede (former emporium Dorestat), continuing along the coast of north-western Germany, ending in the town of Ribe in Denmark.
The peoples, languages and dialects that were, and are, spoken along this path are countless. That is part of its history. A history of people living on the low-lying lands of a gigantic delta. On dunes, clay, and peat. On wobbly salt marshes, meandering riverbanks, and walking islands. The Marsh Arabs of Europe. A water culture of which the Frisian lands are a part of. Not just the Frisians. The Zeelanders, Hollanders, Groningers, Saxons and Ditmarsians also participate in this balancing act. Against this background, we have chosen English as the lingua franca of our website.
Unforeseen positive effect was that the website is also being read overseas, especially in the United States. About twenty to forty percent of the visitors are American. Perhaps partly Frisian emigrants and their offspring. If so, then with the Frisia Coast Trail we offer a piece of history, however modest, in a language that can be understood by the offspring of these emigrants. Whether they come from province Fryslân, region Ostfriesland or Kreis Nordfriesland, they have little or nothing to fall back on. Magazines and history books are in Danish, German, Frisian or Dutch, and thus are of no use at all to them. So different from descendants of Irish and Scottish emigrants in Australia, Brazil, Canada, and the United States. Also for us, the history of Ostfriesland, Dithmarschen and Nordfriesland is difficult to access due to language barriers.
The history of Frisia is one of continuous screw-ups and irresponsible use of land and natural resources. Immense pieces of land have been swept away by the water because of it. Deus mare, Friso litora fecit (‘God created the sea, the Frisian the coast’), is really too heroic a representation. Rather: God created the sea, and the Frisian devastated the coast. However, this hostile wetland offered economic opportunities. The landscape is still changing. Still there is no status achieved of a lasting balance. Where peat previously was extracted, now it is gas, salt and wind. With all its known and unknown future consequences. Moreover, how sustainable are ‘solid’ dikes? How long will the inhabitants of the last real terps on the Halligen of Kreis Nordfriesland survive? In sum, a fascinating, both old and current story.
It is addictive. Reading and writing about this history, and with that knowledge hiking through the soggy lands. Often along dikes strewn with slippery-green sheep droppings. (Re-)constructing this history feels like beachcombing and puzzling. The forty-year-old history book ‘Oorsprong en de geschiedenis van de Friezen’ (‘Origin and the history of the Frisians’) by S.J. Van der Molen, needs a reprint, as it were. Dutch history books quickly jump from the Roman Period to the Golden Age, and therefore offer little solace. Also, Van der Molen’s history book is a history of province Friesland. In other words, most history is written from the perspective of one’s own country or province. It is Dutch, Zeeland, Frisian, Dutch, German, Groningen, Saxon, Jutland etc.
We are not free from sin either. We too engage in politics a bit with the Frisia Coast Trail website, by placing everything within the frame of Frisia. The Coast Trail takes ‘the inhabitants of the southern North Sea coast’ as a starting point. Frisia is not Frisian. It is also Frisian. The inhabitants have a history in common which is largely determined by the fusion of fresh and salt water. These water people were, and remain, connected to each other by the sea. They are also connected by land via the Golden Ring. With the coastal dweller as our perspective, we want to highlight a history that connects. It belongs to everyone who thinks she or he is part of this coastal landscape. There are no ditches or dikes around this identity. Moreover, if there is something that traditionally typifies the identity of this long coastal strip, it is its external and international orientation. Indeed, an open mienskip ‘open community’.
The underlying story of this post is that young people can made aware of their own regional identity. And, we dare to dream. If a hobby of one geography teacher was able to spark the interest of two Ouwe Seunen (i.e. the nickname of any person originating from the port town of Harlingen, and meaning ‘Old Sons’) in their own history, and thus in a richer identity, than surely it must be possible that their hobby also sparks the interest of another four young people?
We like to make one appeal: Invest in the digital, visual narrative. When young people acquire knowledge, they search the web. They do not order expensive books. Let alone buy scientific articles. If it cannot be found on the internet freely, it simply does not exist. What is striking, is the scarcity on the web of images, cartoons and other visual stories about the (ancient) history of the Frisian lands. Only a few, otherwise beautiful, artist impressions by the illustrators Glimmerveen, Nijman and Zuidhoek. Of course, besides some former school teaching illustrations too, about the time the Frisians were Christened. But when you google for images of kampvechters (‘duel fighters’), the early-medieval villages of Wijnaldum and Rijnsburg, the battle of Norden, the battle of Cologne, trading place Dorestat or King Finn, then it is pure poverty. How different when you google for Saxons, Vikings, King Æthelstan or battle of Stamford Bridge. It is precisely these historical drawings, paintings, illustrations, and impressions that can stimulate the imagination and arouse the interest. If only we could ask Sir Lourens Alma-Tadema again!
Note 1 – This blog post is a translation of a guest article written by the Frisian bastards and published in the member’s magazine Nij Frisia ‘New Frisia’ of the Jongfryske Mienskip, edition June 2021.
Note 2 – The title “Wa bin ik, wa bist do en wa bin wy?” (‘Who am I, who are you, and who are we?’) is in Mid-Frisian language and is a quote from the song Trije (‘Three’) from the album Magysk Teater, allinnich foar gekken (‘Magical Theatre, exclusively for the insane’) written by the band Reboelje ‘Rebellion’, published 1991.
- Reboelje, Trije, Magysk Teater (1991)
- Molen, van der S.J., Oorsprong en geschiedenis van de Friezen (1981)
- Bazelmans, J., Zijn de Friezen wel Friezen? (1998)
- Knottnerus, O.S., De vergeten Friezen. Een mislukt pamflet van Benny Siewertsen over een boeiend thema (2008)
- Tuuk, van der L., De Friezen. De vroegste geschiedenis van het Nederlands kustgebied (2013)
- Kurowski, F., Die Friesen. Das Volk am Meer (2019)
- Steensen, T., Die Friesen, Menschen am Meer (2020)
- Doorn, van F., De Friezen. Een geschiedenis (2021)
- Hines, J. & IJssennagger-van der Pluijm, N.L. (ed), Frisians of the Early Middle Ages (2021)