hidden europe 31

Hope in every snowdrift: life in the Faroe Islands

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The widespread use of turf roofs makes many Faroese settlements blend imperceptibly into the landscape. Coping with a harsh environment has been an enduring ingredient of Faroese life (photo © Rastislav Vimpel / dreamstime.com).


Many visitors to the Faroe Islands arrive on cruise ships and see little beyond the capital Tórshavn and its immediate vicinity. But to really understand the Faroes, the visitor must head for smaller communities on islands that rely on occasional ferries and helicopter services for links to the wider world. The very idea of 'remoteness' is a key factor shaping Faroese identity. We climb aboard a boat and hear a tale of men and women who had faith in the Faroes.

We had never heard of Fríðrikur Petersen until we went on a boat bound for the southern islands. The man who sat in the corner of the passenger lounge hummed quietly as the small vessel tussled with the high waves. He hummed and he hummed, then he smiled the gracious smile that comes only with great age and said “I never knew Fríðrikur myself. And more’s the pity too. He died the year before I was born.”

To the west the fierce buttresses of Stóra Dímun prodded the Faroese skies. And still the boat pushed hard against the wild sea, and still the old man hummed. And then he told of how Fríðrikur Petersen wrote the first Faroese national anthem, and hummed the tune again. Petersen’s anthem was called “Eg oyggjar veit” (‘I know the isles’) and served as the islands’ patriotic song until the nineteen thirties.

“Now let me tell you about Jóannes Patursson,” said the man, pausing to take a sip of coffee, and glancing out across the rough waters to the cliffs of Stóra Dímun, now only barely visible in the distance. “So many good men died on those cliffs,” he said in a quiet tone of reverence. Jóannes Patursson, it turned out, was not one of them. But Patursson secured a place in the annals of Faroese history by taking a tough stand against Danish rule. Or, rather, by refusing to stand when his compatriots rose to toast the Danish motherland. For Patursson, the question of móðurland was not negotiable. He was born in the Faroes, lived in the Faroes, and it was quite clear to Patursson that the Faroes were his motherland. “Eina móður vil eg eiga,” said the old man, quoting a snippet of Patursson’s poetry affirming that none of us need two mothers.

“Now look over there,” said the sage, encouraging us to follow him out onto the open deck of the boat. “You thought the cliffs on Stóra Dímun were wild beyond belief. But they are tame compared to the buttresses on Lítla Dímun. See over there.”