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The Faroe Islands – in a nutshell


Of course we could have driven to Kirkjubour, but why pass the opportunity for a gentle hill walk along one of the centuries-old pathways that linked the once mediaeval Faroese settlements? Not that the weather was encouraging. We set off on the hillside track a few miles west of the capital, Torshavn beneath low cloud, but with the expectation that this would rise as we gained height. The night’s heavy rain had soaked the upper slopes and now trickled down the track toward us.

Faroe Islands walk

Situated half way between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Islands take the full blasts of the North Atlantic winds. There are few trees here so the land has a bleak and compelling beauty. Its mountains have been carved by Ice Age glaciers into deep corries, U-shaped valleys and knife-edge ridges. The soil is thin, and every hillside is lined with shallow channels where it has been washed away, leaving a multitude of streams rushing over the hard, basaltic bedrock. For those who appreciate wild scenery, where the sound of the wind is challenged only by bird call, this is perfect hill walking country.

Our optimism was rewarded with a gradual clearing of the air, a brightening in the clouds and an opening out of the view. Gulls flew overhead. A snipe we disturbed flew away with rapid wing beats. A pair of oystercatchers, the national bird of the Faroes, mobbed a raven that had probably flown too close to their nesting site.

After a leisurely hour, we reached the high point of our walk, about 230 metres (755 feet) above sea level. Torshavn had disappeared around the curve of the hill behind us, while in front of us, the small islands of Hestur and Koltur appeared just to hover on the horizon. A gathering of tarns filled the hollows in a plateau to our right. Despite its remoteness, this wild hillside has been the venue for public meetings and celebrations since the late nineteenth century.

The track followed the contour for half-a-mile, then took a gently descending diagonal across the slope, with the black, wooden buildings and whitewashed church of Kirkjubour slowly emerging from behind the shoulder of the hill. Almost exactly two hours after we had begun the walk, we reached the end of what had been a most enjoyable excursion of little more than three miles. Our transport awaited.

Faroe Islands

Kirkjubour and Roykstovan

We drove the short distance along the road, which ended in the tiny, but historically important village of Kirkjubour, regarded as the cultural capital of the Faroes. It is thought that here is where the first settlers, Irish monks came ashore in the 9th century and established a monastery. Dependent upon driftwood to build their shelters, they harvested the abundant seaweed to fertilise the land. The Vikings soon followed, and in the early 12th century came the first of the bishops, who dominated the islands until the Reformation.

The ruins of St Magnus Cathedral, which was built around 1300, lie to the south of the village, while the whitewashed church of St Olav stands above the shore. For much of the mediaeval era, St Olav’s acted as the cathedral. It remains the oldest church still in use in the Faroes. A small hole in the landward wall of the church allowed lepers to hear the services from outside, until the disease disappeared in the 18th century. On the altar is an Icelandic bible that dates from 1584.

Having explored the church and ruins, we crossed to the Roykstovan farmhouse, which is the oldest inhabited wooden house in Europe. In the 11th century, it was the bishops’ residence, but since the Reformation has been occupied by seventeen generations of the Patursson family. The present incumbent, Joannes Patursson invited us inside to explain the somewhat tortuous intricacies of his tenancy.

inside a Faroese home

A highly entertaining speaker with a humorous turn of phrase, he revealed that he can trace his family’s tenancy of Roykstovan to 1557, when the church forfeited its lands to the Scandinavian crown. Something of a feudal arrangement still holds sway, as the farms in the Faroes remain government property, and though Joannes pays no rent, he is fully responsible for the upkeep of the farm and its buildings. He has little, if any say in what the government may decide to do on his farm. His lease runs until he attains the age of seventy, when it can be taken over by one of his four children, or if none of them wants it, then it can be put up for sale. In the meantime, he has to look after the welfare of 333-and one-sixteenth sheep, 5½ cows and two horses.

Heimablidni

We drove four miles along the coast to the next village, Velbastadur, where we were invited into the home of Anna and Oli to enjoy the Faroese tradition of Heimablidni, or home hospitality. Oli brought us into their spacious dining room, which looked out through a picture window onto a wonderful view of the coastline and the islands of Koltur and Hestur. The meal consisted of traditional, 100% organic Faroese food, and though we were a little apprehensive, we found each course truly delicious.

Inside a Faroese home

We began with home-made bread and slices of sausage made to Anna’s Grandmother’s recipe. This was followed by raw, pickled herring and red cabbage, then fried fish, washed down with a choice of locally brewed beer or rhubarb juice. The most intriguing item was dried, fermented lamb. Oli explained that this reflected a tradition that grew from necessity, as the only way to preserve food into times of scarcity. He pointed to his drying shed at the end of the garden. The process, he added, is dependent upon the temperature and humidity during the months the meat is fermented: too warm and the meat is spoiled, too cold and it does not ferment, too windy and it loses its taste. The final result is often a surprise. The samples we tried were chewy, with a unique, slightly sour taste, but not at all unpleasant, and we felt that we could very easily acquire a taste for it.

Though it comprised a series of small dishes, our meal proved to be quite substantial, and concluded with what we agreed was probably the piece-de-resistance, Anna’s home-made rhubarb sponge cake, straight out of the oven. Crops do not grow well in the Faroes, because of the winds, but rhubarb is one plant that flourishes, so it frequently appears on menus.

Following our meal, we relaxed with coffee in armchairs until it was time to leave. The day was still young, yet we felt that the previous few hours had given us much more than a fleeting insight into both physical and cultural aspects of these beautiful islands.

Useful information

Inspired by Visit Faroe Islands http://www.visitfaroeislands.com/
I travelled from Edinburgh to Vagar with Atlantic airways https://www.atlantic.fo/en/
The 4th edition of Faroe Islands by James Proctor, published by Bradt www.bradtguides.com is a comprehensive guide to the islands.

More by this author on his very own website.

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