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The Secret of Selje Island and a Recipe for Solskinnsboller (Sunshine buns)

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

Guest post by Romayne Kilde of The Fika Kaffe Klubb

Selja island, Norway
Selja island

Along the rugged coast of Western Norway lie thousands of desolate, rocky islands. Just north of Måloy, near the mouth of the Nordfjord in Sildegapet Bay, is a hilly green island that at first glance appears like all the others. But this island, called Selje (or Selja), holds a secret that makes it a unique and significant island in the history of Norway: The Legend of Saint Sunniva: Patron Saint of Bjørgvin (Bergen), Norway, the Irish princess who chose exile on the Norwegian island of Selja over marrying a heathen Viking king.

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Saint Sunniva
Irish princess Sunniva

Saint Sunniva's Story Saint Sunniva was born in the tenth century and is the Patron Saint of the Norwegian Diocese of Bjørgvin (Bergen), as well as all Western Norway. She was a Christian and the heir of an Irish kingdom but escaped with her brother when a pagan Viking king, who wanted to marry her, invaded her country. She and her companions became shipwrecked off the coast of Norway, but eventually landed on Selje Island where they took refuge in a cave.

Norway was at that time ruled by Jarl Håkon Sigurðarson (r. c. 975-995 CE), a pagan king known for strongly opposing the Christianization of Norway. The people living on the mainland not far from Selja were sceptical about the new Christian settlers and sent word to Jarl Håkon accusing their new neighbours of stealing sheep. Jarl Håkon went to the island with a group of armed men with the intent of killing the Irish princess and her companions. St. Sunniva and her group hid in the cave and prayed to God for a miracle to protect them from the wrath of the heathens. Their prayers were heard. Stones fell from the mountain above blocking the entrance to the cave, stopping Jarl Håkon's attack. Unfortunately, Saint Sunniva and her followers were trapped inside the cave, and all died.

The Episcopate of Selja

Olav Tryggvason visited the cave later and found Sunniva's body preserved, looking like she had only been sleeping. This was taken as a sign of her sacredness, and the island was soon established as an important pilgrimage site. In 1068, Olav Kyrre decided that a bishop's seat should be established on Selja. Later, a monastery for the Benedictine order was erected called Selje Abbey, the ruins of which can still be seen today. Several churches were built, and it was believed that the water from the cave where the virgin was found had a healing power attracting many Norwegians to make the pilgrimage to Selja.

Saint Sunniva
Statue of St. Sunniva, Selja Island, sculptor Arne Mæland

Sunniva is moved to Bjørgvin (Bergen)

The legend of Sunniva continues when Bishop Pål of Bjørgvin moved her body and casket to Christ Church on September 7, 1170. Sunniva was named the Patron Saint of Bjørgvin (Bergen) and gained fame during the fires of 1170-71 and in 1198. Sunniva’s remains were taken from the monastery and placed near the flames. This action halted the advance of the fire and was hailed as a miracle. It is unknown what happened to Sunniva's casket during the Reformation, but Christ Church was demolished in 1531.

Pilegrimstur til Selja: Seljumannamesse

On most Primstav (prim staffs), the mark on 8 July is a ljå (scythe), a sign that the mowing should begin. In Bjørgvin dioceses, a krone (crown) is the most common symbol, which indicates that Sunniva was a princess. Seljumannamesse, 8 July, was a Catholic feast day and pilgrimage day in memory of Saint Sunniva and her companions. According to the old landscape laws, the day was to be kept as Sunday with work stoppages. The national conversion to Lutheranism in the 16th century put an end to the official Sunniva pilgrimages. In recent times, however, the legend has been revived and is celebrated for various purposes by the local Lutheran state church, the tourist business, and individuals who are attracted to the symbolic complex of Selja-Sunniva for spiritual reasons. The revival of the legend converts the old site with its ruins and landscape features into a narrative space, re-establishing a sanctuary with a variety of symbolic references. Selja meets the requirements of modern seekers and pilgrims, while its history and myth are excellently fitted to serve local identity construction.

Sunshine Buns to Celebrate Saint Sunniva

The name Sunniva is a girl's name of Norwegian origin meaning "sun gift.” It only seems fitting to celebrate Sunniva by preparing Solskinnsboller (Sunshine Buns) on Seljumannamesse (8 July).

Solskinnsboller (Sunshine buns)

Solskinnsboller (Sunshine Buns) Makes about 20 boller

(Recipe by Fiona McKinna)


For the dough

850g / 1 lb 13 oz plain all purpose flour

135g / 4.75 oz sugar

35g / 1.2 oz fresh yeast

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg

500ml / 17 fl oz warm milk

125g / 4.5 oz room temperature butter

For the filling

150g / 5.3 oz room temperature butter

150g / 5.3 oz sugar

6 teaspoons ground cinnamon

A quantity of either crème patissiere, vanilla sauce or custard

Egg white

Icing sugar or powdered sugar


For the dough, put all the dry ingredients and egg into the bowl of a mixer. Attach the dough hook. Blend the yeast with the milk, and with the mixer on low, gradually add the milk to the dry ingredients to form a soft dough. Knead for 10 minutes on low speed.

Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the dough. Knead again until mixed together. Knead once more for 10 minutes. At the end of the kneading time you will have a pliable and shiny dough that comes away from the sides of the bowl. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to prove in a warm place until doubled in size. This will take about an hour (depending on how warm your weather is, of course!)

Preheat the oven to 180C / 355F

Whilst the dough is proving make the filling. Beat together the butter, sugar and cinnamon until well mixed and fluffy. When the dough has proved turn it out onto a floured surface and shape into a rectangle. Roll out to a rectangle about 70cm x 30cm. Try to get it nice and even throughout. Spread the filling mixture all over going to the edges. Starting at one long edge, roll the dough into a sausage shape with the cinnamon butter filling on the inside. Using a sharp knife cut into slices about 1.5cm thick and place on a baking tray that you have lined with baking paper. I like to put the solskinnsboller touching each other because I like the softer texture when they cook. But if you prefer something a little firmer, then space them about 3cm/2 inches apart. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to prove for about 45 minutes. Once the boller are about one and a half times bigger remove the damp cloth and using a teaspoon make a dent in the middle of each boller. Spoon in 1-1.5 teaspoons of vanilla sauce or crème patissiere. Bake in the centre of the oven for 12-14 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. Cool for a few minutes on the baking trays before transferring to a wire rack.

To make the icing, lightly whisk the egg white and gradually add enough icing sugar to make a smooth and slightly runny icing. You will need to beat well between each addition of icing sugar. Drizzle the icing around the edges of the boller and leave for about 30 minutes to set before enjoying with your favourite beverage.

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