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Right off the beaten track: the Faroe Islands

Kellingin and RisinWay back in the mists of time the giants of Iceland glanced jealously over to the Faroe Islands and decided to steal them. They sent one of their number, Risin, and a witch, Kellingin, with a long rope. All through the night Kellingin struggled to attach the rope to a mountain so the islands could be pulled together onto the giant Risin’s back and they could carry them home. It must have been winter, that season of long nights and short days, because they forgot the passing of time and were caught out when the sun’s first rays struck across the horizon. Sunlight turns witches and giants to stone, as we all know, so the two stand to this day as stacks off the coast of the island of Eysturoy, gazing longingly towards their homeland.

So the Faroe Islands remain firmly rooted to their isolated spot between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. An archipelago of eighteen major islands and countless smaller ones, they are built up from layers of basalt, the solidified lava flow from an ancient volcano, interleaved with softer rocks fashioned from the volcanic ash that accumulated after each eruption. The glaciers of the last ice age carved into the plateau, creating classic glacial valleys with steep flanks, many now filled with seawater to make fjords, and sharp ridges climbing to rocky peaks. Awash with the warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift, the climate is mild and wet, so endless streams have cut deep gashes into the hillsides, breaking up the layer cake of rock and bringing fertile soil into the valley bottoms.

FaroesMountainsThe first settlers to take advantage of this promising landscape were Scottish, probably hailing from present day Ireland. Archaeological excavations have revealed settlements dating as far back as 400AD. Early chronicles suggest that some may have been Christian monks, mirroring the general exodus from Ireland throughout the Atlantic seaways during this period. Norsemen, popularly known as ‘Vikings’, made landfall around 800AD. Like the earlier settlers they may well have voyaged via Scotland, the Orkneys and the Shetland Islands. Their arrival, like that on the east coast of the British mainland, appears to have been less than entirely peaceful. DNA analysis of today’s Faroese population shows that their male ancestry is overwhelmingly Scandinavian while their female ancestry is overwhelmingly Celtic. The Scottish males must have been wiped out, and it’s difficult to imagine how that can have been done any other way than violently.

Føroyar, the Faroese name for the islands, is very likely derived from the old Norse words for ‘sheep’ and ‘island’. Sheep dominate the landscape today, roaming over the hills and finding their way into the most inaccessible spots. In some places they are lowered onto ledges of grass with ropes and only retrieved when necessary. It is commonly quoted that sheep outnumber people on the islands two to one, although even this is an underestimate as the figure only includes the ewes and not their lambs.

J PaturssonWe visited the ancient farm at Kirkjubø on the largest island of Streymoy where the Patursson family has been farming for 17 generations, the tenancy passing from father to eldest son from the 16th century. The maintenance of their flock is a model of good husbandry. The sheep, a breed related to the Soay found in the western isles of Scotland, look after themselves for most of the year, being herded down on just three or four occasions a year for ‘tupping’ with the rams, shearing, sorting for slaughter and, nowadays, for vaccination. The animals are manifestly healthy – farmer Johannes Patursson (shown right in his traditional dress) claims to have lost only one in past year – and the ewes give birth without the help of human hand. The quality of lamb and mutton is excellent, but it’s strictly for eating on the farm. The Faroe Islands are a Danish protectorate but they retain a stubborn independence, so while Denmark is part of the EU the islands have elected to stay out. It means their meat products cannot be exported; in fact farmers like the Paturssons cannot even sell their products to local restaurants, although those rules may be relaxed soon.

Until the mid-nineteenth century a strict trading monopoly held back any flickering of a market economy. In many respects the Faroes was a community preserved in aspic, where exchanges were through barter rather than money and most needs were met through small scale fishing, hunting and cultivation. A subsistence lifestyle calls for the careful exploitation of absolutely everything that comes to the door, and much of that culture remains, if not the necessity. It has also meant that some traditions, such as that of unaccompanied song and chain dancing, have survived more or less intact from the Middle Ages.

Drying storeFor centuries seabirds, whales and fish have been hunted communally and shared out amongst those involved, to be eaten immediately or preserved for the winter months. There is a long tradition of drying meat and fish out in the family’s drying stores, with their rough stone gables and black slatted wood through which the wind can pass freely. Whale hunting still takes place, although only when a passing pod of pilot whales can be driven into a suitable bay and beached for slaughter. It is controversial now, of course, but defended by the Faroese as an integral part of their culture. The meat is divided up between the hunt participants and the old and infirm and is only for local consumption; you won’t find whale meat on the menus of tourist restaurants as you do in Iceland, although you may be offered it in family homes. The enclosed fields near the farms and villages continue to be carefully nurtured. Sections of turf are cut and turned over to grow potatoes, and turned back after the crop is taken, so that no nutrients are lost. For centuries whale and fishbones have been ground up and spread on the ground as fertiliser; nothing is wasted.

RoykstovanWood has always been especially precious as few trees grow on the islands, partly through lack of deep enough soil and partly because of the endless nibbling of the sheep. There is a tentative plan to remove all the sheep from one of the smaller islands to allow it to return to a more natural state. In the past driftwood was avidly collected and used for building and furniture rather than burned; heat was provided by peat cut from ground outside the settlement and dried through the summer in peat drying huts that are dotted around the landscape. The Paturssons' home is possibly the oldest inhabited wooden house in Europe; the story goes that it was floated from Norway, either deliberately or because it was lost overboard while being transported somewhere else. The giant table at which we ate our lunch was the cargo hatch of a ship that foundered on the rocks in 1895. When it was spotted members of the family rushed to retrieve it, only to find it carried a human cargo, a young German called Anders clinging to the timber and only just clinging to life. It turned out he had been drifting in the bay for over twelve hours, the only survivor from a crew of eighteen. Some thirty years later he was able to return and eat from the table that had been his liferaft.

TorshavnOf course life has changed and is changing. Today the islands are linked together with a modern infrastructure of tunnels and bridges, regular ferries and helicopter services. The smaller islands are no longer isolated and the economy centres around the towns, of which Tórshavn, the capital, is the largest with some 20,000 inhabitants. The novel ‘The Old Man and his Sons’ by Heðin Brú, first published in 1940 and translated into English in 1970, poignantly captures a society on the cusp of transformation from timeless subsistence economy to one based on salaried work, mortgaged houses, imported food and clothing. It tells the tale of Ketil, who lives with his wife and one remaining son in their traditional stone built, turf-roofed cottage, eking out a hard, simple but largely contented existence. Things start to go wrong for Ketil when he joins a whale hunt – probably his last - and in a moment of euphoria, fuelled by adrenaline and a swig too many of brandy, he bids for a great pile of the surplus whale at the subsequent reckoning. He wakes the next day to find himself in debt for the first time in his life. The book chronicles his valiant but futile efforts to utilise his old skills at fishing, beachcombing and bird hunting to earn the cash to repay the debt when it falls due. All the time he and his wife marvel at the alien lifestyle of their married sons and their wives, with their cavalier attitude to borrowing money, living in ‘posh’ houses and buying fancy new stuff. It’s a touching and funny tale, and quite possibly a better insight into the Faroese character than anything you will read in a tourist guide.

GjogvIf this gives the impression that the islands are backward nothing could be further from the truth. The towns and villages have an air of quiet prosperity. In Tórshavn there are gourmet restaurants, quality hotels, harbourside cafes and boutiques selling fashionable versions of traditional Faroese sweaters – one brand in particular, Guðrun and Guðrun, having received a massive boost from a starring appearance in Danish crime drama ‘The Killing’. With easy transport access, the remotest spots have been opened up to tourism, although other forms of economic development there have remained largely elusive. Today most visitors to these places are the Faroese themselves, escaping to the more isolated islands and quiet valleys for breaks and to second homes often, one suspects, in their family’s birthplace. There is a palpable keenness to welcome more visitors from abroad, to share an extraordinary environment and an undeniably special culture with others. You sense that the Faorese nurture their visitors as they do everything that washes up on their shores; they gently welcome and take care of you, so that when the time comes to leave you are already yearning to return.

Walking in the Faroes

We followed several walks in Inntravel’s itinerary for their trip to the Faroe Islands. On the open hillsides there are few well trodden paths; much of the way you will find yourself crossing open grassland or following sheep tracks. With moist air continually blowing in from the sea, mist has a habit of descending so your navigation skills need to be reasonably good, especially if you are near the high sea cliffs that are very much a feature of the landscape on all the islands. If visibility is bad and you feel confident it is worth venturing out, as the ever present sea breeze brings constantly changing weather; a cloak of dense fog can be pulled back in seconds revealing magnificent views. There is a Faroese saying along the lines of “If you don’t like the weather now, just wait five minutes”.

SlaettaratindurWe climbed to the summit of Slættaratindur, at 880m the highest mountain on the islands. This is a short haul of about an hour from the nearest road, mostly up steep grass with a small element of easy scrambling to reach a summit plateau about the size of a tennis court. The views in every direction are outstanding, so if the weather is right this ascent is well worth the effort. On another day we tried to find a classic viewpoint by a lighthouse on the island of Kalsoy, but were defeated by a heavy mist that on this occasion refused to lift. It was still an enjoyable walk, with the enveloping clouds and the distant rumble of the sea adding to the atmosphere.

You can catch a helicopter to Svínoy on a scheduled service at a cost of around £10, which must be one of the best value flights in the world, with superb views of the sea cliffs as you approach the one small village on the island. Here we were guided around the nearby seabird colonies by farmer’s son Marjius, to see an abundance of birds including skua, whimbrel, artic tern, eider duck, oyster catcher and various varieties of gull. Reaching spots to watch seabirds is not difficult and carrying a pair of binoculars is highly recommended. At the picturesque village of Gjógv on the northern coast of Eysturoy, we watched puffins nesting on the cliffs at the entrance to its narrow harbour, just a few metres from our standpoint.

KirkjuboMany of the old tracks that connected remote settlements with each other can still be followed, although in the past travelling by sea must often have been quicker and easier. We walked the old path from Tórshavn to Kirkjubø (right), where we had lunch at the Paturssons' farm, Roykstovan. The route is easily followed just below the ridge of the hill, having been marked at regular intervals by stone cairns. At Kirkjubø the ruins of St Magnus’s Cathedral are to be found, a great roofless hulk of a building that was partially destroyed in an avalanche in the late 18th Century.

David Stewart

Travel and accommodation

There is plenty of useful information on the Visit Faroe Islands website.

You can fly direct to the Faroe Islands from Stansted from June through to August on the Faroese national airline, Atlantic Airways. Other flights are available via Copenhagen.

Bradt Travel Guides have a good guide to the Faroe Islands written by James Proctor.

‘The Old Man and his Sons’ by Heðin Brú was republished in English by Telegram Books in 2011. It is available from the usual booksellers. It is also released as as a Kindle book.

Inntravel offer a seven-night island-hopping itinerary of self-guided walking and sightseeing, staying at two hotels and one guesthouse, including a comfortable turf-roofed guesthouse in Gjógv (where the owner Eirík may be persuaded to teach you a chain dance) and a family hotel in Klaksvík, shown right, that was once the seaman’s mission.

Inntravel provide extensive notes and maps for most of the walks described above and more; you can reach them from each base in the provided hire car. Prices from £1345pp (sharing a room), inc 7 nights’ B&B, 3 dinners and 7 days’ car hire, flights are extra. More details for this holiday