“It’s not Scotland, it’s not Iceland. The Faroe Islands have embraced me. It’s kind of in the middle. Like Sc-iceland. The scenery is incredibly striking, but less Scots and less ice.” This is how comedian Danny Robins describes Iceland’s neighbours in his Faroe Islands Rap.
The eighteen islands that make up the Faroes have around 50,000 inhabitants and, as everyone likes to point out, almost twice as many sheep. Indeed, the local name ‘Föröyar’ probably comes from ‘fjár,’ or sheep, although it may also mean Far Away Islands, if you like.
The puffin, skua and the shag
Most visitors don’t come for the sheep, though. They come for the birds. With about 80 species nesting on the islands and 200 more dropping in for a visit, it’s estimated that the bird population is nowhere denser.
My travelling companion is a short girl with a big camera who has come all the way from Hong Kong to admire the avian life. On board the ship from the capital Tórshavn to the island of Sandöy, the captain invites us up to the bridge and we are treated almost like royalty. Icelanders are almost as common as the birds here, but no one has ever met anyone from Hong Kong. My companion is frustrated as she tries to photograph a puffin, the tourist bird of the Faroe Islands. The oystercatcher, the national bird that once graced the Faroe Islands flag, is easier to find, as it prefers to lay its eggs by the side of the road.
In addition to cute puffins and the oystercatcher, you can also find the shag and the great skua in the Faroe Islands. The great skuas, a large seabird with a wingspan of 140 centimetres, are a pain to man and fowl alike. The bird will peck at your head if you come too close, so your best bet is to put your hands in the air; though they won’t accept your surrender, they might attack those instead. They are also known to intimidate smaller birds until the little ones have vomited up their lunch, which the skua then gobbles up. Perhaps it’s a better idea to go looking for a shag.
The tourists here are mostly Scandinavian, and come for different reasons. The Danes usually want to go to distant Mykines, not because of the vibrant bird life but because the movie and book ‘Barbara’ take place there. In the story, a pastor is unable to return to Tórshavn due to bad weather and while he is stranded there, his wife leaves him. Give or take straying spouses, this story is still known to repeat itself, as the same winds that cost the pastor his wife frequently inhibit both ship and helicopter transport to the island. If you’re not a Dane interested in ‘Barbara,’ it’s still a great place to see puffins, but don’t plan your trip on the day before your departure.
For Norwegians, the hamlet of Gjógv is the destination of choice on the archipelago. It is the setting of the novel and TV series ‘Buzz Aldrin’ (not about the second man on the moon, but rather about the feeling of being second best). Gjógv is located on the island of Eysturöy and is an easy daytrip from Tórshavn. For those who haven’t seen the series, Gjógv has other delights to offer. It is set on a slope running down to the impressive cleft from which the town draws its name (in Faroese), and it also has that local rarity, a hostel. Furthermore, there’s a garden decorated with what seems like a world-class collection of kitsch statues of dwarfs, giant spiders and various other creatures. Visitors are free to roam about.
Danish houses, British chips
Just above the town there is a graveyard with a statue of a mother and children looking out towards the ocean. Like all French towns seem to have memorials to World War I, all Faroese villages seem to have monuments for those lost at sea. It often happened in years gone by that the entire male population of a village would drown on a fishing trip if the winds changed quickly. Most dramatically, this happened on the village of Skarð on Christmas Eve in 1913, when all the men save a 70-year-old and two small boys drowned. The village was abandoned six years later.
Back in the capital there is a lot that reminds you of Iceland, but perhaps more Iceland as you imagined it or Iceland as it used to be, rather than Iceland as is. In any case, the Faroese have done a better job of preserving old buildings. Turf lined roofs are everywhere and the narrow lanes of Tinganes are like a walk back to the 18th century. The Icelandic Embassy aside, Danish influence is prominent in town, with a slight hint of Norwegian thrown in. Another one of the Faroe Island’s neighbours, Britain, left behind an airfield that remains in use and an enduring love of fish and chips after the (largely benign) occupation in World War II.
The Faroese people likely are among the friendliest you will find. Indeed, the islands live up to their name of Far Away Islands, not because they are really so distant geographically, but because they seem somehow undiscovered. You should go see them now, before everyone does.
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