2010 - Faroes

Visited 2nd August 2010
(as part of the cruise aboard MV Discovery)

The Faroes are a group of 18 islands (one uninhabited) at 62 degrees north with a population of 49,000.  The whole group is only 70 miles long and 47 miles wide.  Despite nowhere being more than 3 miles from the sea, the average height is just under 1000 feet and the highest point 2883 feet.

97% of the income of the Faroes is from fishing – next is tourism.

No settlement on the Faroes is more than 3 miles from the sea.

Throughout time, the Faroe Islands have been relatively inaccessible and unaffected by mainland influence resulting in an almost timeless environment.  “Faroes” is derived from an Old Norse word meaning “sheep” as when the Norwegians arrived there were many sheep brought here from Ireland – and today these number about 78,000!  Despite this, the Faroese still import lamb as their appetite for the meat exceeds supply.

The island’s capital, Torshavn has a population of 20,000 and all buildings are made of wood many with grass sod roofs. There is one of the smallest cathedrals in the world within the city.

We were greeted with foggy and wet conditions but by the end of our short coach tour, the cloud had lifted to reveal the most spectacular scenery!  The weather closed in again, however, as we returned over the hills back to Torshavn and the ship.

The Faroes are a self-governing region of Denmark, dependent on that country seemingly only for defence and foreign policy.  Despite this, they are outside of the EU.  This is due to their economy being mainly dependent on fishing and if they opened to the EU then other countries would fish their waters.

Until the 7th century, the islands seem to have been uninhabited but were then settled by Irish monks, followed by the Vikings.  In the mid 11th century, they became part of Norway.  It was not until 1938 that they began to use their own language in all situations including schooling.  English is however taught as a second language.

The Faroese eat puffin and puffin pie is a delicacy.  Numbers that may be culled are strictly regulated however – as are the numbers of pilot whales which may also be killed for food.  Our guide was a Faroese student who has been studying History at Aberdeen University for the last three years (and who has a Scottish twang to his excellent English). He was of the opinion that the eating of whale meat would probably stop before long as medics are concerned about the amount of mercury it contains.

Our first impression, once we had left Torshavn, was of very steep sided hills – grass covered and with many waterfalls.  Within the last 20 years they have created a good network of modest roads together with 20 tunnels (some under the sea).  Our route took in four of these tunnels, including the under-sea tunnel to the island of Vagar.

Our tour involved leaving Torshavn and the island of Streymoy and our bus took us along the side of the Kaldbakfjord.  We passed through the beautiful Kollafjord Valley and left Streymoy by way of the new 5-kilometre tunnel that passes under Vestmanna Sound.  It emerges on Vagar which is the second most westerly of the Faroese islands and home to approximately 2,500 people.

Once on Vagar, we went first to Sandavagur (voted the island’s best-kept village) to visit the church which was the fourth on that site and dated back around 150 years. We arrived shortly before we were expected to find a group of local girls and women cleaning the church to get it ready for us – as a result we had to wait outside in the cold for a while!

The islands were occupied by the British from 1940 and we were shown a letter from the Commander on behalf of the 2000 men under him showing what a warm relationship existing between the troops, the village and the church.

Within the church there is a large stone whose 13th century runes indicate that the Viking Torkil Onundarson was the first to settle in the Sandvagur area where the church is built – perhaps he was the builder?

We continued on from the village along the coastal road and passed through a mile long tunnel to the tiny settlement of Gasadalur.  Until the tunnel was opened in 2006, the only access was by sea or over a horseshoe of surrounding mountains rising to 2000 feet.  It must have been a very different existence to live in such a community.  It is certainly possible to see the attraction of a quiet rural life – not bothered by the rest of the world.  When the tunnel was constructed, there were about 14 inhabitants and even today there are no more than about 25!

The road ends here!

The houses included one or two of the traditional grass-roofed buildings.  Apparently until the mid 19th century, the typical house was stone built with a turf roof.  Now it tends to be timber or iron-clad although many still elect to build still with grass roofs.

We had plenty of photo opportunities before a scheduled stop at the airport for the cloakrooms and souvenirs! The airport was built by the British in the war years because Denmark was occupied by the Germans.  Churchill had ordered it to be built and when told there was no terrain suitable, had replied “Do it any way!”  After the war, the airport was given to the Faroese people – one elderly green building still remains nearby and this was significant to the allied command.  Apparently maps cover the internal walls showing the whole wartime maritime scenario.

After the airport, we continued back towards Torshavn with the weather closing in rapidly.  We took the old and higher road which should have afforded further phenomenal views over spectacular coastal scenery – however we could see nothing!  We had been very fortunate that we had seen so much when the mist and cloud lifted earlier and really had no complaints at all.

We returned late back to the ship (at about 6.40 for our 6.15 p.m. supper) and had no time to change into “semi-formal” attire.  It is a pity that there is no “joined-up thinking” and that casual clothes are not made the order of the day when there are excursions.