A land of legend far Faroe away

The North Atlantic archipelago is a mystical place where Viking history mingles with Faroe folklore, sheep outnumber humans, and magical elves hide where birds come to roost.

These 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.

Most inhabitants 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.

“It’s important 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.”

Faroese fauna
Danielsen’s red 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 locals.

Environmentalists 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 cliffs.

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.

These seabirds 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.

A small 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.