Revisiting the Faroes

Small islands have often inspired dreams of total knowledge in those who love them…familiarity with a place leads not to absolute knowledge but only ever to further enquiry. (Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways)

My partner and I spent five days on the Faroes in early June 2014. I delved deeper over the course of that summer, reading everything I could get my hands on, setting up a short-lived blog and compiling one of my first a-z’s. What has particularly stayed with me was how different the islands were from Denmark, and, conversely, how similar to Scotland.

I’ve just read the latest addition to the slim Faroes literary canon in English, Tim Ecott’s The land of maybe: a Faroe Islands year (Amazon; excerpt). I did wonder if this was a example of Nordic bandwagon-jumping, but Tim has been battling the elements on the Faroes for over a decade, a complement to his earlier tropical island-hopping. His focus is “the relationship the islanders have with nature” (source), so somewhat different from my concerns, which centre around place, culture and identity.

Opening with killing a gannet to prove his worth to the locals isn’t a great start for me, and as the book progresses there is much more in this vein. While Ecott highlights the role of the islands as a Celtic outpost, finding connections with his own childhood in Ireland, the bulk of the book describes at length life on the smaller islands, where “many of the old ways remain, and they go beyond some kind of quaint folk museum exhibit”. These old ways seem mostly to concern men hunting; women appear only marginally, running cafes or as a hunter’s wife. There are extended passages of landscape description, especially in the Ravens section between the chapters.

As the book goes on the focus seems to narrow, epitomised by the chapter on the Grindadráp (pilot whale drive), which Ecott finds more troubling than the other forms of hunting he describes. It’s a one-sided look at the Faroes, omitting the rather more familiar and mundane lives of the majority of the population who live in or around Torshavn and Klaksvik, or in the more dense urban areas on Streymoy and Eysturoy.

FWIW, I noted at the time that while bird hunting is still going on – 25K puffins on Mykines each year, several hundred fulmars, 600 gannets…it is now mainly a leisure pursuit, with most sold to restaurants to bring in cash. Stuffed puffin is served as a delicacy in Torshavn, for that authentic edge, while the locals prefer burgers,

There is exoticisation, as reflected in the readers’ comments on Amazon, but the extended passage on the painter Mikines at the start and the stories retold of those lost at sea throughout lead me to suspect Ecott has more to say. For a more rounded take on a ‘remote’ Nordic society see Sarah Moss’s Names for the sea (Amazon). Updates: Ecott’s eight things in the Gdn; Faroes PM pledges dolphin hunt review amid outcry at carnage.

Below are some short (to longer) pieces inspired by the Faroes which I wrote in 2014. I also have 200+ photos, a glossary of geographical terms used in place names, an a-z (from alcohol to wood) and timeline, plus two lenghty sets of notes (on topography and places, and on tourism, language and arts). All can be made public.

Celts vs Vikings

Once upon a time there were Smyril ferries between the Faroes and Scrabster on the north coast of Scotland, as well as Lerwick – the latter stopped running as recently as 2008, citing lack of demand. Now the only ferry to the Faroes sails out of Hirtshals on Jutland.

Orkney and Shetland were under Norwegian rule until 1472 and hence have Scandinavian heritage, forming a nice contrast with the Faroes, originally settled by Celts. Orkney is about as British as the Faroes are Danish, which is to say, not much. It lacks the Faroes’ pricey bridge/tunnel infrastructure, but has hobby farmers.

The Shipping Forecast

Ask any dedicated BBC Radio 4 listener where they first came across the Faroes and many will mention the Shipping Forecast, a radio broadcast of weather reports from around the coast of Britain, transmitted for the first time in 1867 (story). The Faroes features, between Fair Isle and South East Iceland.

Aimed at those at sea, its sonorous tones take on a hypnotic quality, particularly for insomniacs catching the broadcast at 00:48, just after Sailing By, another quintessentially Radio 4 moment, and just before R4 switches over to the World Service. Its strict format is part of the charm, leading to a number of popular tributes (The People’s Shipping Forecast | Simon Holliday’s Shipping ForecastUKIP Shipping Forecast | as an emotionally powerful imaginary space | Attention all shipping & revisited). 2022 update: shipping forecast will outlast Radio 4 long wave.

Iconic confectionery

I knew to look out for Dairy Milk on the Faroes, a legacy from the British occupation during WW2, and sure enough there it was taking pride of place next to the wine gums and liquorice allsorts in the duty free shop coming off the plane.

Next up, creme eggs! Three for DK 25 in a supermarket in Klaksvík, not bad, all things considered.

But taking the biscuit were the Tunnock’s teacakes, DK 5.95 each (60p!) in Viðareiði, the Faroes’ most northerly settlement. We had to have one – quite possibly my first.

Just how iconic the teacake is became clear during the opening ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games:

Since then I’ve had to try to keep my mind of other delights such as caramel wafers, snowballs and McCowan’s Highland Toffee.  No wonder Scots have terrible teeth.

Great job by Tunnock’s!

Scottish neighbours

As with Danish a number of Faroese words look familiar to Scots speakers, and the language is also inflected by its Celtic connections. Not having the gift of the Gaelic I can’t take this much further, but compare Norwegian Fugløy, “fowl island”, and Gaelic Fughlaigh. The Shetland island of Foula (pop: 38) is the closest inhabited land to the Faroes. a mere 284km to the southeast.

The closest land to the Faroes is North Rona, 71km northeast of the Butt of Lewis and 75km northwest of Cape Wrath, 257km south(ish) of Akraberg, the most southerly point on the Faroes. That route could make a nice cruise.

Further afield, mainland Scotland is around 300km to the southeast of the Faroes, with Iceland around 430km to the northwest. Norway comes in at 600km to the east, while Copenhagen is a distant 1300km away.

In The Old Ways Robert Macfarlane paints a picture of pre-modern sea ways, when the boat was the fastest means of long distance travel and the western roads of the Atlantic led from Norway to Scotland and Ireland. With the right tides and winds Viking longboats would have sailed from the Outer Hebrides to the Faroes in two to three days.

The name Rona may come from hraun-øy (Old Norse for rough or rocky island) or a combination of ròn and øy (Gaelic and Old Norse for ‘seal’ and ‘island’ respectively). Or it may be named for Saint Ronan of Iona, who first settled the island in the 8th century.

In Faroese style farmers from Lewis still graze sheep on North Rona and sail out to nearby Sula Sgeir to catch young birds at the end of August. In a striking parallel, the Sula Sgeir gannet hunt must apply for an annual licence to be allowed to continue, and while officially sustainable has been criticised by animal welfare groups. (More: First catch your gannet | Cliffhanger for a bloody tradition | The guga hunters of Ness.)

Once able to support 30 people, North Rona was finally abandoned in 1844 and is today was until April 2021 owned by Scottish Natural Heritage, with important seal and seabird colonies. St Ronan’s Church remains, plus an unmanned light beacon to warn oil tankers. Read Kathleen Jamie’s Island at the edge of the world, plus her essay in Sightlines.

Macfarlane’s descriptions sound quintessentially Faroese:

[Sula Sgeir’s] form is geological brutalist. It is a jaggy black peak of gneiss, the topmost summit of a submarine mountain…the sea has bored clean through the southern part of the island to form a series of caves and tunnels.

[North Rona] a tilted slab of green pasture which has been inhabited on and off for thousands of years by saints, farmers, shepherds and naturalists…green fertile Rona, black hostile Sula Sgeir, the Pasture and the Rock.

Time, space, scale

If ever you need a reminder that all things are relative, consider the Faroese. For them, moving to Copenhagen means moving to the big city.

The British called the Faroes The land of maybe, as whenever they asked the Faroese about something the answer was often “maybe” (kanska). They have developed a relaxed attitude towards time, due in part to the unpredictable and ever-changing nature of the weather. For visitors this translates into a luxurious feeling of slowness, away from the restlessness and hectic tempo of daily life. The soul ages at a lesser pace…

This peace of mind may be valued as a quality and welcome part of life, but by same token services in villages are contracting, with shops closing and post offices all but vanished – that’s what brings the slowness. Facilities such as cafes and hotels are few to non-existent on the smaller islands. At the same time the distance to the Faroes is contracting, as transport alternatives are reduced to air.

We may have only spent five days on the Faroes, but looking back it felt longer. Having hired a car we were able to cover a lot of ground, racking up the miles particularly on Eysturoy. The heavily-subsidised roads were in excellent shape, with a network of tunnels and bridges making it pretty easy to get around, although we had a couple of misty moments on the road.

Two years ago we spent a similar period of time on Orkney. What we saw was limited by the fact that we used public transport; we seemed to spend an excess of time at Kirkwall bus station, although we did make it to Hoy.

Just how dependent are the Faroese are on their cars? We did spot a couple of buses, but without your own transport you’d be pretty stuck, which you may well also be in the winter, when the hours of daylight are few. Driving on the Faroes, despite parking woes in Torshavn, has an extra frisson, turning every journey into a potential road movie. While you aren’t going to turn the corner and see the Grand Canyon, it’s often breathtaking.

Petrol was noticeably cheaper than in Denmark, where car driving is increasingly frowned upon, and ownership is no longer aspirational, at least in the Copenhagen bubble. What is not often questioned is how this affects mobility, including people’s knowledge of other areas and all that goes with it. Without a car my viewpoint on Denmark would be much narrower.

I often reflect on an scene from Polanski’s Tess, where an outing in a horse-powered haycart to a festival in the next village is a major life event. This was also the situation on the Faroes until relatively recently, where one woman had never left her own village, and people may never have been to the farthest reaches of their small archipelago.

This is all very well for the likes of Guy Debord, who mapped the triangle of Paris he spent most of his life in, but for those of us who enjoy the journey as much as the getting there it feels a bit restrictive.

On the other hand I have a regular beat I make with my two beagles during the week. which chimes in with Thoreau (source):

There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the three-score-years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.

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