The whole group rises from the ocean, high and precipitous, surrounded by wall of lofty rocks, imposing on account of their wild aspect and the deep bays and gulfs which separate them from each other. The cliffs, in many cases, are so perpendicular, that the boats are let down by ropes, whilst the sailors clamber up the sides by holes cut in the rocks. From the top of these walls, which are as smooth as if artificially built, a stone may be dropped into the sea 800 or 1000 feet below.
The Faeroes are a mountainous archipelago that rises from the Atlantic about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. They’re small, as a comparison with a map of Scotland shows, and home to only about 50,000 people.
They’re a Danish dependency, and the inhabitants tend to be trilingual in Faeroese, Danish and English. Faeroese (like Icelandic) is a descendant of Old Norse. It didn’t come to be written down until the 19th century, and it had the misfortune to have its alphabet created by an etymologist—its spelling honours the original sounds of Old Norse, rather than the spoken sounds of the language. The capital Tórshavn is pronounced something like TOE-ish-hown; the village of Gjógv is somewhere between dshegv and tshekf; and Viðareiði comes out as VEE-a-rai-yuh. (All those links take you to the Forvo site, where you can listen to Faeroese people pronouncing the names. From here on, I’ll just link each placename to its pronunciation at Forvo, for your education, amusement and/or bafflement.)
And, while we’re on spelling, I have to confess that I’m in something of a minority when I write Faeroes. A search of the Google Ngram corpus suggests that the spelling I was taught as a kid in the 1960s has never been particularly popular, and that nowadays Faroes dominates by a factor of about two:
But I just can’t bring myself to write Faroes, because it always looks like the first syllable should be pronounced far, which in my Scottish accent is a very long way from the first syllable of the archipelago’s name.
Anyway, we spent a week there with a hired car recently. The flight from Edinburgh takes about an hour, and the car-hire process at Vágar is almost alarming rapid. (The Faeroese have a pretty relaxed attitude to rules and regulations. The fence around the port area in Tórshavn carries a sign bearing the non-committal warning “Trespassers Can Be Prosecuted”.)
Our winding route around the northern islands is marked in red on the map above, with tunnels dotted and a ferry route dashed. The islands are essentially long narrow mountain ridges, separated by flooded valleys. Most of the landscape seems to slope at forty-five degrees, or more:
The roads either follow the coast, zig-zag furiously up and down the mountainsides, or dive into tunnels. Some tunnels pass under the sea to connect neighbouring islands; some penetrate through the mountains to take you from once coast to the other. Some of the older tunnels are exactly the width of one vehicle, and unlit—you avoid oncoming traffic by slipping into passing places scooped out of the rock wall at infrequent intervals, each of them marked by a small sign that’s extremely difficult to discern against the glare of oncoming headlights. You’ll appreciate that we were a little too distracted by the horror of our predicament to take photographs at the time, but I’ve embedded an example from Google Street View to give you the idea. Below is the entrance to a tunnel above Arnafjørður that’s two kilometres long, along which traffic flows continuously in both directions. And it doesn’t get any wider beyond the entrance.
There’s so little flat ground available that there’s very little farming beyond the raising of sheep, and the grass to feed the sheep.
Beyond the closely space islands connected by bridges or undersea tunnels, the Faeroes are linked by a network of ferries. Plying between small islands in a big ocean, the ferries brave North Atlantic swell, and then push through the breakers to enter tiny harbours. The Faeroese lounge around looking bored during all this, while the tourists clutch the furniture with white knuckles.
Here’s a little video of what it’s like aboard the Mykines ferry, on what was reported to be a pretty average day:
All that steep ground makes for dramatic waterfalls. For our first few days in the Faeroes, we’d keep pulling over to the side of the road and gawping. Pretty soon we wouldn’t even get out of the car for a drop less than a hundred metres.
And everywhere, tiny communities seem to be wedged between the mountains and the sea:
The traditional Faeroese architecture involved turf roofs and tarred wooden walls, and they still appear in many places:
They even turn up in the cosmopolitan capital Tórshavn. You can see a couple below at extreme left of frame, on the brightly painted waterfront:
Many of these old buildings nowadays host government offices:
And, like every Scandinavian country we’ve ever visited, the Faeroes have a dramatic line in public statuary:
What else can I tell you? The Faeroese like their meat well-aged, which produces a number of aromatic and strong-tasting dishes. They eat whale—from past experience in Greenland, the meat has an unimpressive generic mammalian taste, and the blubber is unchewable, let alone swallowable. But in contrast to many small and steadfastly carnivorous nations, their restaurants produce tasty vegetarian dishes that go well beyond the customary limp lettuce and two tomatoes. if you’re Scottish, you will appreciate the presence, in the smallest of grocer’s shops, on the remotest of islands, of Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, Caramel Wafers, and Barr’s Irn Bru. (If you’re not Scottish, you may prefer whale blubber, or to go hungry, or to die. It’s up to you.)
The weather? Well, we’re in the North Atlantic, just south of the Arctic Circle. Sometimes it’s cold. Sometimes it rains. Dress warmly. Take waterproofs.
Random linguistic anecdote: We ordered a couple of packed lunches one day, asking for one to be vegetarian. They were handed over marked vegetar and kylling. I assumed kylling was an admirably frank Faeroese word for the opposite of vegetarianism, something like the forthright manner in which Germans call veal Kalbfleisch (“calf meat”). But it turns out they’d been labelled in Danish: “vegetarian” and “chicken”.
I do this a lot—it’s a sort of hyper-alertness for tit-bits of linguistic interest. I once deduced that the Swahili word for “bank” was tuo, after I saw this printed in large capital letters on the glass door of a bank in Nairobi. It wasn’t until I passed the other glass door, labelled IN, that I realized I’d been looking at OUT printed on the opposite side of the glass.
And then there was my transient conviction that kioo was a word meaning “toilet” in one of Zambia’s several languages—I’d seen it on a notice pinned to the door of a public toilet in Kitwe. I hypothesized some link to Swahili choo, which really is a word for “toilet”. But the Zambians I spoke to were unable to identify the language for me. So I walked past the sign again, to check that I’d read it properly … and realized that it actually read “K100”. Which meant the charge for admission was 100 Kwacha (at that time the equivalent of a few pence in British money).