are interesting times for the Faroe Islands. The rugged North Atlantic
archipelago is currently rewriting its history books, in light of new
archaeological research that proves Vikings were not the first people to settle
on the islands. For centuries it was widely accepted that Norse conquerors were
the earliest inhabitants and this has been the premise for first Norway and
then Denmark’s claim of sovereignty over the Faroes since 1035. But research
released by the National Museum of the Faroe Islands discovered people –
possibly hermit monks from Ireland or Scotland – had been living on the island since
the 4th Century – some 400 years before the Vikings arrived.
Of course, facts
sit somewhat awkwardly with the 18 island archipelago; the Faroe Islands are a
land of legend and the truth can get in the way of a good yarn.
Hang around long
enough and you might hear the tale about Faroese women, who are said to descend
from the most beautiful girls in Ireland and Britain. Folklore has it these
young ladies were plucked from their homeland by marauding Vikings, who set
about populating their newfound territory with attractive, foreign females.
Faroese fiction is
fun, but this diminutive nation is curious enough without the embellishments.
Floating just south of the Arctic Circle, this archipelago should be a land of
polar bears and permafrost, but its position in the Gulf Stream means the
mercury rarely drops below zero and seldom rises above 11C. It rains for 260
days of the year and the capital, Torshavn, seems permanently cloaked in fog. Yet
locals remain sanguine despite the weather and speak cheerily in Faroese, an Old
Norse language dating back to the Middle Ages.
are involved in fishing or sheep husbandry; in fact, the name “Faroe”
translates locally as “sheep.” The woolly creatures outnumber the 50,000 human residents
three to one.
not to fall out with anyone here,” explained Jónas Bloch Danielsen, a local
sound engineer who lives with his family in a small hamlet near Torshavn.
“You’ll be bumping into them for the rest of your life.”
timber house is a stone’s throw from the sea, and on clear days he can spot sperm
whales swimming in the bay. But whales are a touchy subject in the Faroe
Islands. Despite a moratorium by the International Whaling Commission, locals still hunt them in a tradition
dating back centuries. During the hunts – known as grindadráps – helmsmen use their boats to drive pods of pilot
whales into shallow waters, where men with blades wade in and kill them. The
carcasses are then butchered on the beach and the meat is divided between
deem the practice cruel and say whale meat is unfit for human consumption, but
islanders claim it is a sustainable food source and part of their culture. “I
find it more messed up breeding an animal to take to a slaughter house,”
explained Teitur Lassen, a Faroese singer songwriter, who has toured the world
and scooped numerous awards for his music in Denmark. “At least the whales are
free in the wild before they are killed.”
Grindadráps happen sporadically throughout the summer and attract
crowds of locals and some tourists. But most visitors come to see wildlife that
doesn’t end up on dinner plates (islanders are no
longer allowed to eat puffins) – chiefly the birds. The Faroe Islands
are home to roughly 110 bird species, and during summer months many colonise
the westernmost island of Mykines, which is reachable only by helicopter or
boat (most islands are linked by undersea road tunnels).
Atlantic Airways helicopters depart from the diminutive Vágar Airport, located
on the island of Vágar. The trip usually takes about 10 minutes, but before take-off
the pilot warned me that thick fog, a regular feature on
Mykines, could force us to turn back. That seemed hard to believe as we
flew over sunny Vágar and watched the rolling hills give way to wave-battered
Mykines was indeed
cloaked in fog, but the pilot manoeuvred though gaps in the mist and touched
down near a small hamlet of brightly coloured timber houses – the last census here
recorded 14 permanent residents. The bird population is significantly larger though
– during the breeding season, between April and August,
there are 50,000 pairs of Northern fulmar alone, which is why Mykines has
been recognised by Bird Life International as a “globally important habitat” for the species, and
others such as puffins, gannets and razorbills.
breed on Mykineshólmur, a tiny islet
linked to western Mykines by a
footbridge. Mykineshólmur is about 2km from the helipad and to get
there we hiked along hilly trails that flirted with the cliffs, a journey made even
more perilous by dense fog camouflaging steep drops into the icy ocean. The
sheep weren’t helping either, emerging suddenly from the mist to startle me.
lighthouse and a cacophony of squawking marked our arrival at Mykineshólmur, so I perched on a rock and waited for the mist to lift. I was mindful
not to disturb the Huldufólk, which according to local folklore, are dark-haired elves that reside
in rocks and use psychological powers to gain influence.
The Huldufólk were nowhere to be seen, but the improving visibility
unveiled a sky swarming with
birds. Puffins and gannets darted past carrying beaks full of fish for their
young, which called out vociferously from nests in the cliffs.
Eventually, the fog disappeared completely to reveal remarkable views
of rocky headlands and roaring surf. Due east, the silhouette of Vágar lurked on the horizon, while out west,
seabirds were plundering the choppy North Atlantic for fish. This ocean is the
lifeblood of the Faroe Islands; it brought man to the archipelago and has sustained
him with seafood ever since. But who was that first man, when did he arrive and
could he have been a Huldufólk? That remains
for Faroese folklore to decide.