The Kattegat: What and Where It Is

Made Famous on TV, But Not What You Think

Araldo81 / Wikimedia Commons

Viewers of the History Channel's hit series "Vikings" know Kattegat as the village in southern Norway on a spectacular fjord where the Viking Sagas legend Ragnar Lothbrok and his warrior-maiden wife, Lagertha, live with their children on a farm during the ninth century. The Vikings of the TV series take their iconic longships out to sea to raid and explore through this fjord that comes right up to the village.

As Ragnar goes on raids to Britain and brings back valuable plunder, wins a fight with the Earl of Kattegat, and his power grows, he becomes the Earl, or king, of Kattegat. Throughout the series, this village is at the heart of the lives and the story of these raiding Vikings, and it grows as time passes in the series. It serves as the domestic, Norse center of the tale.

But there is no actual village or city called Kattegat in Norway, and as far as anyone knows, there never was. This quintessential Nordic name was co-opted for the series, and the village itself was filmed on location in Wicklow County, Ireland.

The Real Kattegat

But what of the real Kattegat? It is not a village in Norway, but rather a narrow bay in southern Scandinavia. It lies between Denmark's Jutland peninsula on the west, Denmark's islands in the Danish Straits on the south (the location of Copenhagen), and Sweden to the east.

The Kattegat takes the waters of the Baltic Sea to the Skagerrak, which connects to the North Sea. It's sometimes called Kattegat Bay by the locals.

A Narrow Passage

The name comes from old Dutch for "cat" and "hole/throat," an allusion to it being a very narrow outlet of the sea. It's full of shallow, rocky reefs and currents, and its water has been known to be difficult to navigate throughout history.

The Kattegat has widened considerably over time, and today the Kattegat is 40 miles wide at its narrowest point. Until 1784, when the Elder Canal was completed, the Kattegat was the only way to get in and out of the Baltic region by sea and thus held major importance for the entire Baltic/Scandinavian area.

Shipping and Ecology

Because of its prime location, access to and control of the Kattegat has long been prized, and the Danish royal family long benefited from its proximity. It sees heavy seagoing traffic in modern times, and several cities are on its shores. And it has ecological issues. In the 1970s, the Kattegat was declared a marine dead zone, and Denmark and the European Union are working on ways to contain and repair the environmental damage. The Kattegat is part of the Sulfur Emission Control Area of the Baltic Sea, and its shallow reefs, which are spawning grounds for fish and marine mammals, and many threatened birds are being protected as part of environmental efforts that strive to maintain the Kattegat's biodiversity.