What Is A Bunad?

On my first excursion to Norway in 2008, I arrived in Oslo in the very early hours of Syttende Mai, Norway’s National Day. After sleeping for a couple of hours – I was too revved up for more than that – I staggered outside and into the company of thousands of Norwegians, who’d journeyed the length and breadth of their homeland, to congregate in the capital and celebrate their country’s independence.

No matter which way I swivelled my head, I got an eyeful of bunad, Norway’s national costume. I’m sure I was unintentionally captured in family photographs snapped in front of the Royal Palace, wide-eyed, slack-jawed, bedecked in a Burzum shirt and a black leather jacket, looking laughably out of place amidst the radiant bunad wearers.

When someone puts on a bunad, it would seem magic happens. A bunad has the potential to transform a typically demure person into someone unrecognizably exuberant. It brings about shared feelings of togetherness, elation and pride. When I saw my first bunad, it pretty much immediatly shifted my dogged mindset – I used to recoil at the idea of wearing anything that wasn’t black – and left me with a hankering for one of my own.

Women in Hardangerbunad bridal costumes / Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket

“When it’s not easy to explain where you’re from, wearing a bunad shows where you’re heart is.”

Unni Irmelin Kvam

The beginnings of the bunad movement can be traced back to when, after years of rule under Denmark and Sweden, the Norwegians were in search of a national identity. Bunad – the word originates from the Old Norse búnaðr – was developed, ‘as a way to show a national mindset,’ to celebrate Norway’s freedom, and as a way of displaying Norwegian heritage.

A bunad – of which there are as many as 450 regional variants – is a unique and complex piece of clothing usually consisting of a shirt, a shift, the main woolen dress, and an apron. There are accessories including bags, stockings, shoes, scarves, shawls, and hand-made silver or gold jewelry known as sølje.

Designed to last a lifetime, a bunad is typically passed down through the family. The importance of its role as a family heirloom means it’s imperative it’s kept in pristine condition. One woman who’s mother’s bunad was damaged by moths was especially innovative and transformed the costume into cushions. The intricate detailing of a bunad has a story, which, as author Unni Irmelin Kvam says in her excellent Ted Talk, The Story Of The Norwegian Bunad ‘speak volumes if you know how to read it.’

Hardanger Bunad Photo Source: familysearch.org

In Norway today, there’s a bunad to be found tucked away in practically every wardrobe or attic. The estimated value of the bunads – a completed bunad costs in the region of 50.000 Norwegian kroner, about £4000 – is said to be around 30 billion Norwegian kroner.

The cost of a bunad depends on the design, the material used, the embroidery, and jewellery, as well as who actually makes it, whether it’s a renowned company, a local sewer or the person themselves. There’s a market for bunad in China. ‘China Bunad’ are made for a fraction of the cost of a traditional bunad, but it goes without saying, as they’re ‘not the real thing,’ that they won’t last a lifetime.

Photo: Laila Duran

For someone making their own bunad, the process can take upwards of a year. It’s long been tradition for parents to gift their children with a bunad for their confirmation at the age of 15. With the dresses, there’s always extra fabric in the seams so it can be altered as the wearer grows.

Silver, a metal which in Norway is steeped in legend and superstition, is an important part of the bunad. In days gone by, Norwegians used it to protect themselves against bad weather and illness. There are also tales of silver brooches being pinned on children’s clothing so trolls wouldn’t swap them for one of their own.

Marcus Selmer
Marcus Selmer
Marcus Selmer

It’s common, though not by any means mandatory, for bunad to be worn at weddings, baptisms, Christmases and birthdays, basically any major life event. However when Syttende Mai comes around, it’s expected the bunad will be brought out of storage and worn.

The Hardangerbunad is known as the ‘first bunad,’ and is renowned for its red body and white apron. It became known as ‘the national’ in 1905 and spread throughout the country. It was commonly used to represent Norway, but recently the East-Telemarkbunad has taken its place. Many people say Telemark has the most ‘Norwegianest’ bunads.

“If someone tells you you’re not Norwegian enough to wear a bunad that person is prejudiced and simply wrong.”

Unni Irmelin Kvam

There are dozens of ‘unwritten rules’ about the acceptable way to wear a bunad, and it’s expected that your bunad represents an area that you’re strongly connected to.

Women should accompany their dress with proper bunad shoes and purses. Sunglasses are frowned upon and heavy makeup is discouraged. There are even groups of people referred to as the ‘bunad police,’ who say bunads must be sewn and worn according to the strictness standards. To counteract this, there are folk who make ‘fantasy bunads’ by mixing and matching the styles.


There is much I haven’t talked about with regards to bunad, as I’m actually working on a much longer piece about its role in Norwegian culture. I haven’t for example, told you about Hulda Garborg or Klara Semb, two women who dedicated their live to bringing bunad into the Norwegian mainstream. But hopefully this post has inspired you enough that you want to go and investigate for yourself the part they played in the history and rise of bunad.

It’s been over a decade since I first went to Norway. I don’t have a bunad yet, but I have my heart set on the Sognebunad (the one in the slideshow) because, of all the places I’ve visited in Norway, whenever I go back my heart says ‘I’m home.’


Life In Norway / The Norwegian Bunad

Wikipedia / Bunad

TEDx Talks / The Story Of The Norwegian Bunad

Watching The North – Three Thousand

The other week, The Polar Museum (part of the Scott Polar Research Institute) organized a ten day online art festival called The Big Freeze. On the last night of the festival, three films by Inuit filmmakers Nyla Innuksuk, Asinnajaq and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril were shown, following a 50 minute discussion about Inuit film making and the value of historic collections and archives.

Three Thousand (2017)
Three Thousand (2017)

Three Thousand by Asinnajaq was one of the films, and it was so powerful, so heartrending, so original – I’ve never seen anything quite like it before – that I feel it would be somewhat criminal not to talk about it.

My father was born in a spring igloo – half snow, half skin. I was born in a hospital with jaundice and two teeth.


Released in 2017 and coming in at fourteen minutes (though I wish it was doubly as long), this art film/documentary mixes dreamlike animation – there’s moments where imaginary beings in the sky play football with a walrus head, while behind them the aurora borealis dances – with engrossing archival footage of Inuit living their lives – cuddling puppies, gutting fish, cleaning pelts. In one scene, a baby pokes a fish’s eye then licks her finger.

Three Thousand (2017)

The footage bought about so many feelings I didn’t know what to do with them all. I was taken into the past of the Inuit people, their present and their future, which Asinnajaq envisions as being full of ‘hope and beautiful possibility.’

In an interview with Shameless Mag, Asinnajaq said ‘I saw a need in the world for a film that could exist that showed Inuit coming from the land, from what’s more stereotypically known, you know people still asking if you live in a igloo, people who need to know more about life and Inuit and where we come from to take us from the starting point…wind, cold snow, igloo, to contemporary times and it’s still us. We come from here but we live right now.’

What Is Brunost?

Thirteen years have hurtled by since I first went to Norway and had my first mouthful of brunost (brown cheese). From the get go, I was dead set on eating like a local. For breakfast at least. Lunch and dinner was typically pesto and pasta or cheap muesli. You know the kind – more dust than anything else. Though I found tykk-lefse med kanel (a thick flatbread spread with a sweet cinnamon butter) to be graciously affordable, so that was consumed regularly too. Perhaps too regularly. I grew sick of it after two weeks. Note: My relationship with tykk-lefse med kanel has been rekindled in recent years and we’re solid these days.

Anyway, brunost. To make Norway’s favourite cheese is straightforward and involves boiling the water from the whey of goat’s milk for several hours until the water evaporates. This caramelizes the sugar, giving the cheese its distinctive tan colour and caramel (debatable) flavour. What’s leftover from the process is left to firm up (though it isn’t massively firm, it’s akin to soft fudge) then it’s more or less ready. Like other cheese – though brunost isn’t technically a cheese – there’s no maturation needed.

I bought a block of brunost with the happy thought it would see me through the next few weeks of breakfasts and snacks. Having read about it before embarking on my Norwegian odyssey, I was certain I’d enjoy its ‘distinctive caramel flavour,’ because I love caramel. Who doesn’t love caramel? But my tastebuds had other ideas.

I ate it like the Norwegians do; thinly sliced with jam and fresh bread (though they also eat it with crispbread or waffles) but, despite its delectable creaminess, the actual taste, best described by another blogger as ‘salty goat’s fudge,’ wasn’t all that pleasing. Needless to say, I was distraught.

I tried it again later in the day, then again the next morning, determined to enjoy it, and not only because I’d paid nearly ten pounds for it. I can’t remember exactly what happened to the block – I was staying in a guest house at the time – I think I might have stuck a note on it and said anyone who wanted it could help themselves.

I haven’t given up on brunost though. Far from it. I’ve only eaten one variety – and there are many – and I’ve only tried it on bread and with jam. There are countless other ways I could eat it. I could make into a sauce for pancakes, add to gingerbread or use it in – Scandi Kitchen came up with this – mac’n’cheese.

When I was living in Sweden, I would eat something similar to brunost – though it was a soft and sticky spread instead of a firm-ish ‘cheese’ – called messmör. It was similar taste wise to brunost, just a bit sweeter and milder. After a few years of eating it, smeared almost transparently on bread, I found myself looking forward to it, and towards the end of my time in Sweden, would slather it on so thick you couldn’t see there was a slice of bread underneath.

Brunost has caused some controversy in recent years. Despite containing calcium and Vitamin B, due to its high sugar and fat content, one municipality considered banning it in schools. Whether this went ahead or not, I’m not sure, but I do like the idea of kids revolting against the banning of their salty goat’s fudge.

Watching The North – The Terror

I’m not very good at watching TV. More often than not, it’ll take me a week or more to get through an episode of something, even if it’s a mere forty minutes. My books are like sirens you see, and they’re almost always successful in luring back my attention.

But I thought I’d share some words on The Terror, one of the shows – it’s common for me to have a few on the go at the same time, so I can pick and choose depending on my mood – I’m making my way through. (I actually started it last night…though it was first aired in 2018. I’m late to everything.)

A few years ago, I tried hard, really hard to read Dan Simmon’s novel The Terror – I borrowed it from the library twice – on which the TV show is based, but found it difficult to get into. I don’t think I was in the right headspace at the time.

Nevertheless, I wanted to give the 10 part show a go because the trailer was too enticing and the subject matter too close to my heart. Plus, it’s directed by Ridley Scott, and I have faith in him. (Also, Scott hails from the North of England, so it sort of my duty to watch it.)

The Terror is a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition in search of the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. In the story, the British Royal Navel ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror become trapped in ice. With limited resources and ebbing hope, the crew must try and survive the unforgiving Arctic conditions, as well as each other, while being stalked by something horrifying and nameless.

Interesting Note: The wreak of Erubus was discovered in 2014 and Terror was found two years later in 2016. Inuit knowledge played a valuable role in the discoveries.

If you’re too involved now to turn back, there’s much to be found about the lost expedition here. Also, Kat Eschner wrote an excellent article for Smithsonian Mag on the TV show, and the ways in which it ‘succeeds in being inclusive of indigenous culture.’

Update: I’ve just finished watching episode one and it was so good. Harrowing and riveting, with meticulous attention to detail. I’m in two minds as to whether I should give the novel another go. I probably will.

What Is Akutuq?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about akutuq an awful lot. So much so that I’ve written a poem about it and developed a real hankering to try some, despite usually shunning meat.

Also known as ‘Alaskan ice cream,’ ‘Native ice cream’ or ‘Eskimo ice cream,’ akutuq is animal fat – caribou, usually – mixed with seal oil and whipped together with handfuls of berries, freshly fallen snow or water. Each family has their own recipe, and it’s said the berries you choose to use is a lifetime decision. It’s alright to eat any flavor made by others, but your social standing will be lost if you’re found using berries different to the ones you initially chose.

Interesting Note: Seal oil is used to enhance pretty much all native foods.

The word akutuq means ‘to stir,’ and is pronounced ‘AUK – goo – duck.’ The Inuit have been making akutuq for centuries, and up until fairly recently, would store it in permafrost cellars, so it was ready for when guests dropped by.

On my wanders through the crevasses of the internet, I encountered Zona Spray Starks’s excellent article ‘What Is Eskimo Ice Cream?’ in which she talks about her experience of akutuq:

My favorite jaunt was out on the river to watch men haul fishnets up through the ice, sending whitefish flapping like crazy over the frozen surface. Seeing me, a neighbor named Old Jim would grin widely and yell “akutuq!” as he stooped to pick up a fish. Holding it belly up, he’d bend it until the skin snapped open and eggs popped out onto the ice.

Jim would quickly smash the egg membranes with a rock. With splayed fingers he’d stir, faster and faster, pulling little handfuls of snow into the mass. Within ten minutes a cloud-like batch of frozen akutuq would take shape. We devoured it on the spot, scooping up portions with our fingers, savoring each mouthful as it melted over our tongues. Old Jim’s version of the dish is one of many, and perhaps the most basic.

Zona Spray Starks
More photos can be found here.

A century back, women would hurry the process by chewing the fat to soften it. This had the potential to spoil the dish though, if the woman chewing was a pipe smoker. Watching videos on YouTube of the process of making traditional akutuq – splayed, experienced fingers whipping the fat until it triples in volume, adding a tablespoon of seal oil at a time and a little water to maximize the fluffiness – is akin to magic.

It takes about forty-five minutes for the fat to be transformed into something that looks very much like cake frosting. At this point, berries are added and perhaps a little sugar. (Whalers brought sugar to the Arctic in the 1800s.) The taste of akutuq is apparently ‘delicate, slightly sweet and rich, with a smooth and silky texture.’ It could also be made for hunters to take with them on long trips, by using dried meat instead of fruit.

In 1842 there was a gathering along the Yukon River and an akutuq cooking contest took place. Husbands heckled their wives to create bizarre variations. Some of the ingredients that found their way into the mixing bowls were blood, beaver, otter, caribou stomach contents and bird eggs.

Crisco (shortening) is often used to make akutuq these days, along with raisins. There are several ‘How To’s’ on YouTube – this one is particularly good – if you’re feeling intrepid. You can use a whisk instead of your fingers though, unless you’re keen on a more authentic experience.


Smithsonian Magazine / What Is Eskimo Ice Cream?

What’s Cooking America / Akutaq

Living North : My Nordic ‘To Read’ List

I haven’t been able to read much recently. Depression made the thing I enjoy doing most in the world an agonizing challenge. But now my concentration is slowly returning to some sort of normality and I’ve been spending massive amounts of time on Amazon, hunting down literature about the Nordics that I haven’t read yet. I thought you might like to see what I’ve found!

The Path To Odin’s Lake By Jason Heppenstall


“Ex-newspaper editor Jason Heppenstall, worn down by the constant drumbeat of dire news in the world, decides to set out on a journey in search of some answers. With not much more than some walking boots, a notebook and a wooden staff, he sets off from his old home in Copenhagen with a vague idea to “head north”. It isn’t long before a series of bizarre coincidences leads him to believe that his journey is being guided towards an ancient lake in Sweden where the Norse god Odin was once worshipped.

Along the way he falls foul of the authorities, endures the wettest weather in living memory and meets a peculiar man of the forest who gives him a special gift. He discovers a modern day Sweden caught between a desire to do good in the world and one struggling to come to terms with the refugees from war-torn Syria and beyond.” – Amazon

Buy it here.

Blond Roots: A Cross-Cultural Journey of Identity By Marilyn E Fowler

“The Western world insists on following rational dictates, but there is freedom in allowing our deeper intuition to show the way forward. By surrendering to the heart, we can navigate the unknown world to come to a new understanding of ourselves.


Author Marilyn E. Fowler, PhD, begins her journey with very little information about her cultural heritage. A family search uncovers an old picture of her great-grandmother Karoline, who was born somewhere in the northern reaches of Scandinavia among the indigenous Sámi people.

Fowler’s inner compass and a sequence of powerful, metaphysical events push her to venture alone to this distant territory. On this journey she has the honor of meeting Elina, a Sámi elder, who provides more clues to Fowler’s ancestral heritage.

Slowly, guided by intuition, she begins putting the pieces together, discovering the identity of her ancestors. She wants to understand them, and what she finds is a completely fresh perspective on life. As Fowler slowly learns about Sámi culture, she allows herself to let go of conventional reasoning and discover a new understanding of who she is and a new sense of connection with the earth. When she finally returns home, she finds that her perspectives on life have forever changed.” – Amazon

Buy it here.

On Time And Water By Andri Snær Magnason


“Icelandic author and activist Andri Snær Magnason’s ‘Letter to the Future’, an extraordinary and moving eulogy for the lost Okjökull glacier, made global news and was shared by millions. Now he attempts to come to terms with the issues we all face in his new book On Time and Water. Magnason writes of the melting glaciers, the rising seas and acidity changes that haven’t been seen for 50 million years. These are changes that will affect all life on earth.

Taking a path to climate science through ancient myths about sacred cows, stories of ancestors and relatives and interviews with the Dalai Lama, Magnason allows himself to be both personal and scientific. The result is an absorbing mixture of travel, history, science and philosophy.” – Amazon

Buy it here.

Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: A Memoir of Iceland By Tory Bilski

“Each June, Tory Bilski meets up with fellow women travelers in Reykjavik where they head to northern Iceland, near the Greenland Sea. They escape their ordinary lives to live an extraordinary one at a horse farm perched at the edge of the world. If only for a short while.51mCiBg78jL

When they first came to Thingeyrar, these women were strangers to one another.  The only thing they had in common was their passion for Icelandic horses. However, over the years, their relationships with each other deepens, growing older together and keeping each other young. Combining the self-discovery Eat, Pray, Love, the sense of place of Under the Tuscan Sun, and the danger of Wild, Wild Horses of the Summer Sun revels in Tory’s quest for the “wild” inside her.

These women leave behind the usual troubles at home: illnesses, aging parents, troubled teenagers, financial worries–and embrace their desire for adventure.

Buoyed by their friendships with each other and their growing attachments and bonds with the otherworldly horses they ride, the warmth of Thingeyrar’s midnight sun carries these women through the rest of the year’s trials and travails.” – Amazon.

Buy it here.

Curious North : 5 Narwhal Facts

Narwhals Are Descended From An Evil Woman

In Inuit folklore, there’s a tale about an evil woman who kept her daughter well fed but starved her blind son. The mother and daughter feasted in secret on the meat of a polar bear the son had shot with a bow and arrow. The son didn’t know he’d killed it, what with him being blind, and his mother insisted it had fled. (For the record, his sister helped him get the shot. In some versions of the tale, she’s sympathetic to his cause.)

Eventually, the son’s sight returned and he found the bear’s skin outside their hut. One day, there was a pod of white whales which the mother intended to harvest, but the son had other ideas. He lashed a rope attached to a harpoon around his mother’s middle and harpooned a whale. The whale dragged the boy’s mother from the ice floe she was standing on and out into the sea. Her transformation into a narwhal began when she twisted her long hair into what we know as the narwhal’s distinctive spiraling tusk.

Paul Nicklen

There Are None In Captivity

The last narwhal in captivity was in 1969/1970. It was an orphaned calf that had been caught at Grise Fiord in Canada (one of the coldest inhabited places on earth) and was airlifted to the New York aquarium. A month later and it was dead. At around the same time, the Vancouver aquarium captured six narwhals. Unable to handle the stress of captivity, they all died within months.

Paul Nicklen

They Change Colour With Age

Newborn narwhals are mottled -blue-grey, juveniles are blue-black, adults are spotted grey and old narwhals are almost completely white. James Mead, the curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History says the speckles complexion of the narwhal is ‘weird’ as whales are usually a more uniform colour.

Paul Nicklen

It’s Tusk Is Actually A Tooth

The narwhal’s tusk is actually an exaggerated front left tooth. (Its right tooth is smaller and remains inside its mouth.) While most teeth, humans included, have a hard exterior and a sort interior, it’s the opposite in the case of the narwhal. Covered in thousands of nerve endings, this tooth can grow up to ten feet long and is able to bend about a foot before breaking off.

Paul Nicklen

Narwhal Tastes Nutty…To Some

Muktuk is the name for the Inuit staple of whale skin and blubber. Apparently, when it’s eaten raw, muktuk becomes quite chewy and tastes nutty.  However, ‘nutty’ isn’t how one writer describes it. When Abigail Tucker when to Greenland she sampled some muktuk and this is her experience: “With the tips of my fingers I seized a tiny, half-frozen piece of raw blubber, dunked it soy sauce and put it in my mouth. That first bite was exactly like chomping down on a thick vein of gristle in a great aunt’s holiday roast. It was tough as rubber, with a taste like congealed gravy.


Smithsonian Mag

Mental Floss


North Of Instagram : CVLT FVCK

Antti Kertsi Keränen is the Finnish photographer behind CVLT FVCK, one of the few Instagram accounts which I retreat to when everything just gets too much. You’ll understand why in just a moment…

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Among the Giants..

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Can you hear me, Major Tom? 📡

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Surnia ulula. #Northernhawkowl

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Oblivion. #CVLTFVCK

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Sleeping giants.

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What Is Skyr?

I spent three months in Iceland back in 2011 and I ate my body weight in Skyr. I tried every flavour I could and had Skyr withdrawal symptoms when I came home. I remember when Skyr first arrived in Tesco a few years later. I squealed and stashed a couple of tubs in my basket, ignoring the hefty Icelandic-esque price tag attached to them.

Once home, I promptly posted a photo of my Skyr to Facebook. My family, meanwhile, thought it bizarre me getting so excited about some dairy.

Pronounced skeer (with a slight trill on the r if you’re really going in for authenticity) Skyr is a cultured dairy product that’s been sustaining Icelanders since it was brought over from Norway in the 9th Century. Today, Skyr is probably Iceland’s most valuable contribution to the world’s culinary culture.

Uber, uber thick (yes, those two ubers are necessary) creamy and stacked with protein, Skyr has a tart taste to it. Icelanders traditionally eat it whipped with cream and topped with sugar. Though the most popular flavours among locals today are vanilla and blueberries. (I can vouch for vanilla. It’s awesome.) 

While most people think of Skyr are being a yogurt, its technically a soft cheese. After the whey has been removed, it goes through a process of ultra-filtration, and that’s how it gets to be so thick you can stand your spoon up in it.


5.3oz_Vanilla_IcelandicSkyr-400x400Although Skyr was hardly known about beyond the shores of Iceland for a thousand years, the word of this ‘superfood’ has spread worldwide, and it’s made some folks their fortune, including Siggi Hilmarsson. A native Icelander living in the US, Siggi found himself homesick for what had been a part of his staple diet back home – Skyr.

Using a recipe that his mother found (I think in some magazine from the 1960’s), Siggi started to make Skyr in his little New York kitchen. And it tasted like home. Within a few months, Siggi quit his day job, bought a bunch of dairy making equipment and boom, his Skyr making empire – Siggi’s Dairy – was born.

If, like me, you find yourself becoming just that bit obsessed with Skyr, get yourself to Iceland and visit the National Museum where you’ll find three Viking-era jars that contain Skyr residue. Now if that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.

Living North : Thrifting An Inuit Art Calendar From 2015

I haven’t had a calendar in years. Well, not a calendar for the right year. Old calender’s though, plenty of those have made their way into my life, namely for the purpose of cutting out the pictures and framing them.

The other day I was in Hebden Bridge, a gorgeous little town in West Yorkshire, famed for being quirky and devoid of chain shops and, as I do whenever I’m in a new place, I made a beeline for the charity shops, in this case, Oxfam. My purpose is always the same when I’m thrifting – look for northerly stuff.

After about forty minutes of rooting, I was all about ready to give up, when my eye caught the words INUIT ART. I scrambled to a box packed with photo frames and peeking from between the frames was a Cape Dorset 2015 Calendar for 99p. As I maneuvered my way to the counter, I held onto my calendar like someone was going to come into the shop and challenge me to a duel for it.

In the Canadian Arctic community of Cape Dorset, Nunavut, Inuit artists have been making limited-edition prints for half a century.


Through this little – but dynamic – collection of art, I’ve been introduced to several celebrated Inuit artists including Ningeokuluk Teevee, Tim Pitsiulak and Papiara Tukiki. It was a real thrill to find the Qalupalik in there. (September.) This creature which dwells in the waters of the Arctic and snatches children who venture to close to the water’s edge has been a source of fascination for ages. (I’ve written more about her here.)

I’ll cut out these pictures, and, as is tradition, frame them and find a special place on the wall to hang them. I’ll show you when I have!