On Parade with the Buekorps of Bergen

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A spring Sunday morning in Bergen, Norway wouldn’t be the same without the boisterous boys (and girls) of the buekorps, keeping tradition alive… and themselves out of trouble.

It rains a lot in Bergen, Norway. I mean a lot. Three days out of four, in fact. And while this isn’t what you’d call a small town—it’s actually Norway’s second-largest—the last thing a concerned parent needs in a dim northern city is a horde of pre-teens and teens with too much time on their hands. Fortunately, thanks to Bergen’s thriving buekorps tradition, unique to this beautiful coastal city, the kids are all right.

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We arrived in Bergen on a rare sunny Sunday morning with the intention of checking out one of the fine local museums. But the beautiful blue skies and newly-green trees suggested an outdoor excursion instead, so we began wending our way toward Mount Fløyen and its gorgeous walking trails on the edge of the historic Bryggen district. We weren’t the only ones with the idea; it seemed all of Bergen was out taking in the intense spring sunshine. But as we walked, we were intrigued by the sound of military drumming in the distance. Again and again we heard it: from the west, from the south, and again just behind us as we walked. Finally we caught  glimpse of its source: a crisp troupe of boys, dressed in formal black and white, parading solemnly through the streets, mock guns and crossbows over their shoulders.

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In Bergen’s early history, the city was protected by local militias. Each borough had its own, and as the men patrolled the city, their sons banded together to imitate them. By 1850, the boys had organized themselves into formal battalions, ranging from young privates aged 7 or so to older officers aged up to 20. Apparently in their early days these troops got up to a fair bit of mischief, bordering on genuine violence as they went about defending their neighbourhoods’ honour. But over time it evolved into an elaborate and formal service organization requiring dedication and discipline.

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By 1991 the girls of Bergen got into the act—an innovation not without controversy at the time— and now it’s a mixed affair, through boys certainly seem to be in the majority.

Formal buekorps season is from March through summer, but the high point is May 17, Norwegian Constitution Day. So preparations were in full swing this Sunday, and they spent hours at it. Drumming is a large part of the appeal, it would seem, and the locals explained that while they were very proud of this unique Bergen tradition, the groups did get started “very, very early in the morning” on weekends.

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And they were tireless. What struck me most was that it looked a lot like work. They were on parade for at least two or three hours, and some of the kids were really young. But nobody was complaining. While the 7-year-olds lacked the precision of their seniors, dropping their mock crossbows and giggling distractedly through the drills, everyone seemed to be having a whale of a time. We witnessed a particularly elaborate ceremony in one of the squares at the base of Mt. Fløyen. Everyone lined up at attention while the oldest officer invited one youth after another to be recognized for some honour he or she had earned. The ritual was detailed and formal. Each tribute was endorsed by the group with a hearty “hep-hep-hep hurra, hurra, hurra!” (the only Norwegian I could understand), and proud parents stood on the sidelines to applaud.

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While the buekorps tradition was once widespread through the cities and towns of Norway, today it lives on only in beautiful Bergen. Judging from the young people’s enthusiasm this past Sunday, it would seem that the buekorps will live on for a good long while yet.

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