The beautiful island of Seili is an excellent day-trip for anyone visiting the archipelago region in Southwest Finland. For nearly 900 people, Seili became a place of no return. The gripping, but dark past has fascinated visitors and inspired artists for decades. However there’s a lot more to Seili than its history. Charming buildings, stunning scenery and a chance to experience the best of the Finnish archipelago ensures there’s something for everyone. Here are twenty interesting facts about the island. For a complete guide, make sure you check out my previous post about the island here.
1. Animal Entertainment Online and IRL
Photo: A seagull has made its nest right by the ferry dock, unfazed by the fact that the ferry departs and docks several times a day.
Seili might be most famous for its history, but the island has a lot of other qualities that make it interesting. For example, particularly during spring, bird enthusiasts can spot numerous archipelago birds here.
For those unable to visit Seili in real life there’s an excellent opportunity to get a taste of the island life virtually. Through the osprey web cam, those interested can follow the mighty osprey going about its daily business on Seili. The first of June 2019 the nest got another resident as a tiny osprey hatched from its egg. Check out the osprey web cam here.
2. Seili – a Sacred Place Over One Thousand Years Ago?
We know for a fact that Seili has been permanently inhabited since the Middle Ages. However, archaeological evidence suggests that there’s been some sort of human activity on the island before the Middle Ages.
Several ancient remains, like a burial cairn and a sacrificial site, suggest that the first people must have arrived over a thousand years ago.
3. One of the Rarest Ecosystem in Finland can be Found on Seili
Photo: Over the centuries, human activity has shaped the island of Seili.
Human activity has influenced the landscape on Seili for centuries. The fields and flowery meadows found on the island are unusual in the harsh archipelago surroundings.
The cliff meadows and hazel bush groves found on Seili are some of the most rare ecosystems in all of Finland.
4. Home of Several Endangered Species
With rare ecosystems come rare species. To date, 29 endangered species, as well as several near-threatened species in Finland, have been recorded on the island. Seili is also home to many rare butterflies.
So what are the endangered species found here? There’s a reason that this information isn’t actively communicated to the greater public. There’s a fear that listing which these species are might draw unwanted attention.
5. Seili is a Protected Area
Photo: Remember that it’s prohibited to pick flowers on the island, as it is a protected area.
As stated earlier, Seili is home to both endangered species and near-threatened species. The island is part of the Natura 2000 program. Natura 2000 is a network of nature protection areas.
As Seili is a protected area, visitors should bare this in mind and act accordingly. For example, remember that picking flowers or any other vegetation is strictly forbidden.
6. The Island of Seals
The Finnish name for the island, Seili, has an interesting explanation. In this region of Finland, Swedish used to be the main language. Still today, around 70 percent of the inhabitants of Nauvo (that the island of Seili forms a part of) are Swedish-speaking. In comparison, only 5 percent of all the inhabitants in Finland have Swedish as their mother tongue.
The modern Swedish name for Seili is Själö. An older version of the name was spelled Sjählö. The word “Sjähl” is an old dialectal word for seal and “ö” means island.
In other words, Seili was the island of seals.
Nowadays sightings in this region are fairly unusual, since seals are shy creatures. But centuries ago, seals have played an important part in the archipelago culture. Seal hunting used to be an important livelihood for many people up until the 20th century.
7. Seilissä – Being Drunk
Photo: Being “seilissä” (in Seili) is a euphemism for being drunk. Some believe this expression has its roots in Seili’s history.
There are a ton of words referring to being drunk in the Finnish language. One of these is “seilissä”. Legend has it that this word has its explanation in Seili’s history as leper patients would produce and sell alcohol.
Ships passing by would stop by the island and buy alcohol. If the sailors had a bit too much they were said to be “seilissä” – in Seili. However, this is just a legend, who knows if it’s true or not.
8. Leper Patients Brought the Planks to their own Coffins
During the 17th and 18th century hundreds of leper patients were sent to Seili to spend the rest of their days. Leprosy was a feared disease and considered to be God’s punishment for some sin the person affected had committed.
Patients were isolated from the rest of the community and sent away to the remote island in the archipelago. Legend has it that the leper patients had to bring with them the planks for their own coffins.
9. It’s Still a Mystery Where the Leper Patients are Buried
Photo: The remains of the leper patients haven’t been found. Where were they buried?
There’s a lot of rumours surrounding the leper patients, but how much do we know for a fact? One thing that continues to puzzle archaeologists is the final resting place of these people. Where were they buried? Why haven’t we found their remains?
Leprocy was considered God’s punishment. Leper patients were believed to have committed some horrible sin that God was punishing them for. This is why the patients weren’t buried in the church’s graveyard.
For a long time it was believed that the leper patients were buried by the meadow near the church. However, when archaeological digs were carried out, no remains proving this theory could be found. Some have suggested that these people might have been cremated. However, this would have been very unusual during this period.
10. Seili was once Two Islands
Photo: The wooden church on the island of Seili is built on an area of the island that was once a separate, smaller island. Two islands became one during the 18th century as a result of post-glacial rebound.
Once covered in its icy grip, the Ice Age has left its mark on Finland. The thick ice – up to three kilometres thick – weighed immensely, pushing down the land it covered.
After the ice melted, the land it had pressed down slowly started to rise. This is called post-glacial rebound and is a process that is still ongoing.
The highest parts on the island of Seili rose above sea level around 5000 years ago. Today the highest parts have an altitude of around 40 metres above sea level.
When the Swedish king Gustaf II Adolf issued an order to build a leper hospital on the island of Seili, the island was in fact two islands. There was a larger island and a smaller island (the church is built on the smaller island). The post-glacial rebound resulted in the two islands merging into one during the 18th century.
11. Leper Patients had their own Entrance to Church
Photo: The wooden church of Seili is beautiful in all its simplicity. When entering, you’ll notice there’s a section to the left of the church that’s separated from the rest with a fence.
Visiting the church of Seili, you’ll notice that there’s another entrance. This door leads to a smaller, separate seating area, which is fenced off from the rest of the church. This area was for the leper patients, who weren’t allowed to sit with the others.
12. Wild Cats Emerge
Photo: In 1962 a new chapter in Seili’s history begun as the mental asylum was closed for good.
After the mental asylum on Seili closed in 1962 something surprising happened. Suddenly cat after cat started to emerge from between the floorboards.
While the asylum was still open, patients would apparently feed these cats that lived under the house through cracks in the floor.
Once the patients moved out, there wasn’t anyone feeding the cats anymore. Driven by hunger they started appearing one by one.
13. Attracting Artists and Politicians
Photo: The ferry M/S Östern transports passengers to and from the island of Seili several times a day during high season.
Being such a legend, it’s only natural that the island has attracted some pretty famous visitors.
The island has seen several important political figures like for instance former presidents Urho Kekkonen and Tarja Halonen.
Many artists and authors have been inspired by the island’s dark past in contrast with its breathtaking beauty. For example the famous Finnish singer Jenni Vartiainen named an entire album as well as a song after the island. The Swedish-speaking author Johanna Holmström spent a night in the island while writing her book, Själarnas ö (The Island of Souls).
14. Nearly 900 People Were Sent to Seili
Throughout Seili’s history, first as a leper hospital and later as a mental asylum, people were sent to live here. Many of these people were sentenced to a life on Seili and they were never allowed to return.
An estimated 663 leper patients and 192 mental patients were brought to Seili from the 17th century up until 1962 when the hospital was closed.
15. More than Patients
Photo: To the left is the old sauna building. Before the hospital closed in 1962 the sauna would be heated every Friday for patients and on Saturdays for the staff and their families.
Not all who lived on Seili were mad. Around 200 people permanently lived on the island. In addition to the patients there were a lot of different people who called this place their home.
Most of the people who lived here had jobs that were somehow related to the hospital. For example there were washers, gardeners, bricklayers and nurses living on the island. Some lived alone, others had their families with them.
16. White Crosses for Mental Patients
Photo: Only a few white crosses remain in the graveyard by the church.
Once one of the mental patients died, they were buried in the graveyard by the old wooden church, built in 1733-1734.
Their graves are easily recognisable, since they are the ones with white wooden crosses. Very few of these crosses have stood the test of time, but there are still a few left for modern-day visitors to see.
17. Skulls and Bones
Photo: The small graveyard by the church is the final resting place for hundreds of people. Many of them have been buried in layers over the centuries.
Hundreds of women were sent to Seili and only a few of them ever got to leave. These women lived on the island until their final days and were also buried here.
If you’ve visited the island you might have noticed that the graveyard isn’t all too big. So where did they fit everyone? It was decided that once a cross got so old and worn that it fell or broke, the grave that it marked was considered empty. The next deceased could be buried in the same spot.
At some point this made the gravediggers job pretty gruesome. There are so many people buried in the same spot, that with every shovel of soil a few skulls would appear.
18. Thousands of Visitors come to Seili Every Summer
Photo: On this map in Nauvo (Nagu) the two Archipelago Trails can be seen, the larger one and the smaller one. Seili forms part of the latter.
The island attracts all kinds of visitors – those fascinated by the history, those interested in the unique ecosystem, families with kids and older couples. Around ten thousand people visit Seili each summer.
During the past two years a lot of effort has been made to make this a more visitor-friendly destination. The restaurant that opened in 2017 is a welcome addition as there is no shop on the island.
19. Rare Archipelago Architecture
Photo: A large, neoclassical building in the archipelago is a pretty unique sight. Somehow, the hospital building still manages to fit in quite nicely in the archipelago milieu amongst the more traditional wooden houses.
In the archipelago of Southwest Finland houses are traditionally wooden and often painted in the characteristic archipelago red and white colours. Seili’s main building, the hospital building, stands in stark contrast to this.
This stone-built yellow beauty in neoclassical style, is a real rarity in the archipelago. The oldest part of the building is the adjacent so-called gate building that was designed by architect Carl Ludvig Engel and finished in 1803.
Architect Per Johan Gylich has designed the main building.
20. A Summer Paradise for Many
Photo: Beautiful old wooden buildings charm visitors on the island of Seili.
Although hundreds of people once lived on the island of Seili, today Seili is more of a summer getaway. There are around ten privately owned properties on the island, mainly used during the summer months as summer cottages.
Remember to bear this in mind during your visit and to respect both the unique and beautiful nature as well as the people who have their homes here. Don’t litter, wander into people’s gardens or damage the sensitive flora and fauna.
21. Private Cell
Photo: A cell on the island of Seili.
On Seili all patients had their own rooms, which was very rare at this time. At other mental asylums in Finland patients shared rooms. This is what a typical cell looked like.
22. Gruel and Potatoes on the Menu
Photo: A menu from back in the days.
On the wall of the restaurant on Seili, visitors can find a framed menu from the days when Seili still was a mental asylum. The menu is interesting as it allows visitors to see what kind of food the mental patients were served.
For example liver casserole, carrot casserole, bread, salted fish, potatoes, sauce made of pork meat and gruel in different forms were all typical foods.
23. A Famous Architect Designed Several of Seili’s Buildings
Photo: The building in this picture is called Fyyri and was designed by Carl Ludwig Engel.
Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the famous architect Carl Ludvig Engel has designed no less than three buildings on the island of Seili.
One of them is Fyyri, pictured. The others are the gate building by the main building and the piggery near the old sauna building.
Carl Ludvig Engel has designed many of Helsinki’s famous landmarks, including the iconic Helsinki cathedral.