The Origin of the Rorbu Cabins

The characteristic rorbu (fisherman’s cabins) are one of the hallmarks of the coast of Nordland. The cabins were originally intended for the Lofoten fishermen. Today rorbu cabins are available from the simple to those of very high standard.

The History of the Rorbu Cabins in Lofoten
The first rorbu cabins in Lofoten were built by King Øistein in the year 1120 as temporary accommodations for visiting fishermen during the Lofoten Fishery. They were simple cabins built on stilts at the water’s edge and usually consisted of  2 rooms: a work room and a common room with bunk beds. The work room was used for storing food and fishing gear, and for making ready for a new day’s work on the seas of Lofoten. Today, rorbu cabins are available in all categories, from the rudimentary to those of extremely high standard.

Even before the year 900, the sagas tell us of boats being made ready for the voyage to Lofoten and participation in the winter cod season there. In addition to their own local fisheries along the coast, people heard tell of the extremely abundant winter fishery in and around the Lofoten Islands. They began sailing for days and even weeks in their small, open rowing and sailing vessels in order to take part in the plentiful Lofoten Fishery that took place throughout the winter.
This created a need for lodgings. We know little of how this problem was solved during the first centuries, but from the sagas we know that in the 1100’s, King Øistein decided that rorbu cabins should be built in Kabelvåg, formerly known as Vágar, to accommodate the visiting fishermen in Lofoten. This tells us something of how important the fishing was to the national economy even at such an early stage.

The name RORBU?
Where does the word come from? The syllable “Bu” means  a (small) house and is derivative of the Norwegian verb “å bo”, to live, i.e. a small house to live in. The word is also used in another context, “redskapsbu” for instance, meaning a house where tools (redskaper) are kept.
The first part of the word, “ror”, derives from the verb to row (å ro). Throughout the ages, fishermen came to Lofoten in rowing boats, and it was not until the beginning of the last century that engines were installed in the fishing vessels.
They literally “rowed” out to fish. Even after three generations of motor boats, the term “rowing out to fish” (ro fiske) is still used in everyday speech with regard to taking part in the fishery. A “rorbu” then, is the house the fishermen lived in when they were away fishing.

Unique Environment
In the past, rorbu cabins were built on the shore, on stilts right on the water’s edge with direct access to the rowing boats. In many fishing villages buildings became more and more closely packed together, and the red rorbu cabins, and fish wharf buildings, dominated the scene. Red paint made from cod-liver oil was cheapest and most commonly used, later we note that another colour appeared, ochre. The rorbu cabins, together with the innumerable fish racks used to dry the catch, create a unique and distinctive architectural environment in the fishing villages of Lofoten.

In recent years the term rorbu has also been used to describe houses/cabins situated in places other than Lofoten, but historically, the genuine rorbu cabins are still linked to the Lofoten Islands themselves. And indeed, many of the rorbu cabins that you can stay in there today are authentic rorbu cabins, even though they have been renovated in order to meet the modern traveller’s demands on comfort.