Typically for Swiss understatement, its most important national monument is simply a meadow. Like Quinten only accessible by boat or, with some difficulty, on foot, the Rütli (in French “le Grütli”) is just a farmer’s field surrounded by woodland, high on a cliff overlooking lake Uri (part of Lake Lucerne) and for most of the year that really is all it is.
Its history is obscured by legend, but at some point, it became central to the story of Switzerland’s origins as a union of cantons – representatives from Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden are supposed to have gathered on the Rütli in 1291 to swear allegiance, although there is no proof that they did or that it was on this spot. The document that is attributed to the occasion is dated to the beginning of August 1291 but refers to a previous document that is no longer extant and for many years, the “beginning” of Switzerland was considered to be 1315 (the Brunnen Union) or 1307. This document, the Bundesbrief, or letter of union, had actually gone missing for around 600 years, mentioned a couple of times in the 18th and 19th centuries but only given the importance it has today in 1891, which was a good excuse to celebrate 600 years of Switzerland! (The mid-19th century was a period where nationalistic feelings ran strong all over Europe!)
But back to the Rütli. Swiss National Day is now August 1st and a holiday. In the middle of the 19th century, the owner of the land had decided to build a hotel on the land -the farm was a wreck, the water system clogged – but the Swiss NPO took notice and started a call to save the Rütli… This was very successful and the land was eventually bought thanks to the efforts of all the cantons and many town and village councils, but also children who campaigned to raise money: even today, there is an unwritten rule that all 6th grade children will get to go on a school trip to see the Rütli at some point in the school year! (History teaching doesn’t go much further than that, here, I’m afraid!) The area was given to the Federation as a gift in 1860.
And so, for the last 150 years, the Rütli has grown to fit the legend, with annual celebrations, visits, hikes, trips and a variety of events that have taken place, here. Queen Victoria arrived in 1868 and had her portrait painted (she also did a watercolour of her own, apparently) and in 1970, Queen Elizabeth II made a speech from here. In WWII General Guisan spoke to the troops with very impressive rhetoric in 1940, when Switzerland’s borders were under threat, and many of our Federal Councillors have spoken to the nation, too. In recent years, security has had to be introduced after rightwing radicals spoilt the national day celebrations in 2005, but on the whole, it’s very much owned by the public, with facilities for picknicking and hiking, a Gasthaus and a working farm, and popular for family outings as well as school outings. On August 1st there is a bonfire tradition with fires lit all over the country (a little like when the Armada threatened England!) and of course, a lot of patriotic feeling. Sometimes it rains, sometimes it doesn’t. There is music, dancing, theatre and eloquence – not bad for a small field on a mountainside.
Further reading for your amusement…
Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad includes his travels in Switzerland and a hike up the Rigi, also not far from the Rütli/Lake Lucerne.
The Canadian writer J.K. Swift has written novels about the history of the area that are very entertaining, Morgarten and Altdorf, and make 14th century history a lot more accessible – available on Kindle.