Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #29: Faroe Islands: Green Mountainous Heaven in the North Atlantic – Faroe Islands, Denmark

#28: Faroe Islands: Green Mountainous Heaven in the North Atlantic

13 June 2002

Note: Apologies, for I have no time completing my Miami story right now. Maybe next week. I was in the Faroes Islands a few days ago, and here’s the story of this fascinating little nation. I am off to Zurich and Liechtenstein in a few hours time. And then it’s the Balkans next week.

Green layer-cake mountains rising steeply from the oceans; little streams of blue magic plunging off the cliffs forming rainbow falls; matchbox houses of black and red crowned with lush green turf rooftops; round-horn sheep frolicking with a zillion seabirds on minute corners of greenery scattered over walls of battered rock cliffs. Legend says that the gods’ foremen clipped his fingernails at Creation, and the 18 fragments of nails fell into the sea and so formed the Faroes. Very charming finger nails indeed.

Faroes, the Islands of Sheep, as they were once known to the ancient Viking mariners. Located between Scotland and Iceland on the far reaches of the North Atlantic, it was often joked that the Faroes were settled by Vikings who became seasick while sailing to Iceland. This mountain land provides little arable land, but the warm Gulf Stream means plenty of fishes and lush green pastures for sheep despite the latitude. The islands were a free Viking republic at first (with their Constitution, Seyoabraevio, the “Sheep Letter”) but later fell under Norwegian and then Danish rule. Since 1948, the islands have been self-governing, with their own Prime Minister, flag, banknotes (Faroese Kroner, which is on 1:1 parity with the Danish Kroner) and stamps.

I arrived in the Faroes one evening on a flight from Aberdeen, Scotland. Apart from a few tourists, the Atlantic Airways (Faroes’ national airlines) flight also carried quite a few British oilmen. The Faroes struck oil two years ago, and the oilmen are still trying to verify the commercial viability of oil extraction.

Guess what’s the hottest political issue here? Independence. A proud nation strongly aware of its distinctive language (close to Icelandic and Old Norse) and culture, the Faroes always have an independence movement. In fact, when I passed the sole Danish military camp on a tour bus, the Faroese driver jokingly called it “Camp of the Occupation Army”, much to the discomfort of the only Danish tourist on board, who didn’t find it funny. However, the Faroes Home Rule Government has a track record of having to ask the Danish state to bail it out twice in the past 30 years (not to mention the additional DKK 1 billion or US$120m annual subsidy), which doesn’t inspire support for independence in this tiny nation of 48,000 people.

That is, until the discovery of oil. Suddenly, dreams of a North Atlantic Kuwait have emerged, and in the last elections held in April this year, support for pro-independence parties has risen to 50% of the electorate. Any confirmation that the oil is commercially exploitable would surely push the support beyond current levels.

Flying to the Faroes is a little adventure of sorts. Flights often arrive to find that it was impossible to land due to excessive fog on the short runways of Vagar Airport on the Faroes. I have met people whose two-hour flight from Copenhagen had to be turned back due to fog. Thank goodness that I was lucky. Clear blue skies and wondrous cliff views greeted me as I landed at Vagar Airport. It’s summertime in the North Atlantic, and this meant almost 24 hours of sunlight.

Within hours of arriving, I was sipping coffee in a caf�, admiring sunset at 11:30pm. It never really got dark, and street lights were off throughout. By 2 am, the Faroes was as bright as a mid-afternoon Barcelona summertime, although the temperature would betray the latitude of this land.

Torshavn, the capital of the Faroes, is a quaint little town of 16,000 inhabitants. It markets itself as “the smallest capital city in the world”. They seem to have forgotten that short of full independence, they have to compete for that title with other entities like Turks & Caicos, the Cayman Islands and other sundry isles, mostly remnants of the old British Empire. In any case, it is a small town with a nice country feel and really friendly and laidback people. It still lives in the age where doors are unlocked, and your hotel landlord is too shy to ask you for payment in advance. That’s probably what the world used to be like, 100 years ago. I wonder if the discovery of oil would change that eventually.

The Faroes are a beautiful little nation. I spent the next few days exploring the dramatic seaside mountain views and the many picturesque fishing villages that line the shores. With generous Danish subsidies, the Faroes have built a good system of highways, complete with bridges (including one known as the “Bridge Across the Atlantic” because it linked two islands), tunnels and mountain-hugging roads. A new undersea tunnel has just been built linking Vagar (where the airport is located) and Stremoy, where Torshavn is located. All these for 48,000 inhabitants. It all sounds similar to the notorious Japanese programme of building roads, tunnels and bridges to remote islands, in reality a desperate attempt to use government spending to stimulate the economy.

The Faroes are also famous for the grindadrap, the ancient Faroese method of driving whole schools of pilot whales into shallow bays, inserting steel gaffes into their blowpipes and then massacring them using long knives and machetes. This ancient custom has been condemned by many environmentalists as cruel, and by those who believe that whales are endangered. Many are also shocked by pictures of the grindadrap, which is always accompanied by a lot of blood, staining entire bays of water bright red.

However, the Faroese argue that pilot whales are not endangered (800,000 of them in the North Atlantic), and their method is the most humane way of killing such huge creatures. Besides, the Faroese have been eating pilot whales for a whole millennium, and these account for 15% of the meat the islanders consume. The grindadrap is also a communal activity rather than a commercial venture, one that involves entire communities, and the meat harvested is shared by the local people. It is a part of old Faroese culture, an activity that is celebrated by numerous paintings and public art I saw on the islands.

I won’t say that the Faroes are a gastronomical heaven, although they do have some interesting dishes. They love seabirds, especially puffins and sea gull-related birds like fulmar and guillemots. Unfortunately, the restaurants don’t necessary have them all the time. The islanders tend to have them at homes. In fact, a tour guide told me that to sample these dishes, one need to put in a bit of effort: Get dressed, go to a disco and get to know a local girl. Then you get more than just Faroese food. You get bed and breakfast.

Five days on the unusually sunny Faroes and I’m back in cold wet Britain. Liechtenstein is next.

Traveler Article


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