With their beauty, remote location and stunning landscape, the Faroe Islands have long been a haven for nature-lovers and bird-watchers. However, in recent years, these unspoilt islands have become more popular with those simply looking for a peaceful, scenic break in the fresh air. Well, it’s certainly fresh up there and I was delighted to have a few days of settled clear weather to explore these remote islands.
Described as being ‘on the edge of the world’, the Faroe Islands, with their population of 50,000, comprise 18 spots of land in the North Atlantic, about halfway between Norway and Iceland. Few places on earth are as wild and untouched as the Faroes, with their combination of towering cliffs, dramatic mountains and crashing surf.
From walking, bird-watching (there are around 300 species of birds) and horse-riding to fly-fishing and cycling, the islands offer a myriad of activities to keep even the most energetic happy. For those who prefer a quieter life, hours can be whiled away relaxing and enjoying the magnificent scenery or exploring the ancient townships, including Tinganes, the mediaeval part of Tórshavn, the islands’ capital.
Discovered by Irish monks in 600AD, invaded by the Vikings two hundred years later and finally gaining home rule from Denmark in 1948, the Faroes also have a fascinating history. Vestiges of this turbulent past are evident wherever you go – from the national language, with its roots in the old Norse dialect of the Vikings, to the ancient churches and traditional turf-roofed houses that scatter the countryside; festivals celebrating Faroese tradition abound.
Ferries are the daily lifeline for the Faroese and visitors alike, linking the islands and offering the only way to get around the islands with wheeled transport. Like the Greek Islands, you soon get used to catching one but they’re busy and, at times, the notion of orderly queues seems to have escaped the local’s notice.
Bearing in mind the paucity of local building materials, the distinctive turf roofs to houses and other buildings can be found all over. Often combined with brightly painted walls, they add a fascinating dimension to the country. A walk around Tinganes offers the chance to see these roofs close up.
A boat trip from Vestmanna to the Vestmannabjorgini bird cliffs and grottoes was an early highlight of the visit and birds continued as a strong theme in succeeding days. 600m high cliff faces teemed with birds whilst caves shelter seals in a dramatic setting that makes you feel that you’re perched on the edge of the world.
Between the scenery, ferries and boat trips, it soon became clear that life up here had been very hard and is no picnic today. One of the results is the sturdy independence of the Faroese combined with a dry sense of humour that caught me, I’m happy to say, unawares a number of times.
Culture and history play a big part in the life of the islands. The Faroese language has its roots in Old Norse. It was preserved via ancient ballads – 70,000 verses, all handed down orally through the generations – which were part of the Faroese ring dance tradition, dating from mediaeval times.
Thus, a visit to Kirkjubøargarður farmhouse, probably the oldest still-inhabited wooden house in the world, was a must. The oldest preserved church in the Faroe Islands can be found here, clinging to seashore. St Olav’s church was built as part of the Catholic episcopate, possibly as early as the 12thC.
From here, you can follow one of the Faroese cairn paths that were once main thoroughfares from village to village, used when the sea was too treacherous to venture upon. Flanked by the 14thC ruins of the Magnus Cathedral and a cultural centre, it takes little imagination to imagine the continuity of life here over the generations.
For many people, the ‘grind’ killing of the abundant pilot whales is a stumbling block in visiting these shores. Sat in the gloomy main hall of the old farmhouse, holding a knife used in the grind for generations, it’s not so easy to condemn a deep tradition of Faroese life. Part of visiting foreign shores is encountering customs and traditions that may seem strange, even alien, to us.
I took to the sea again in the far north at Vioareidi in the northern isles to explore the Enniberg cliffs, rising 750m straight from the sea. Along the way, locals hang perilously from cliff ledges, catching puffins – once a staple of local diet. Before long, the towering cliffs came into view, teeming with puffins, guillemots, fulmars, gulls, kittiwakes and auks.
After the ride in a small boat on a big sea, it seemed prudent to stretch the legs on a walk above the village. Ever upwards, the path skirted the by now familiar abrupt cliff edges with vertiginous drops and a spot of birdwatching whiled away the hours.
Returning, I came under attack from the sky for the first time in my life. Not a squawking from nearby but determined low level runs aimed at hitting my head. Two skuas took it turns to attack from different angles and, when the feet of one brushed my head, I took them seriously. They were big birds and the ‘whoosh’ of air as they passed gave me a start each time. Obviously, I’d come too close to a nest on the open hillside but even beating a hasty retreat didn’t deflect their persistence.
Remembering the advice of a colleague, I held my hat up high above my head and hurried away. When it was hit by a skua, I was glad to have heard and remembered the advice. Shaken but exhilarated by the experience (apparently, many birdwatchers would regard this episode as a highlight of their lives), I sought sanctuary in my cosy ‘summer house’.
© John Traynor – from the Journeys of a Thousand Words series