Voices

A guide to the Faroe Islands

By Eir Nolsøe

27 March 2017 - 16:30

Eir Nolsøe, a radio journalist from the Faroe Islands, tells us about her home country, on the occasion of the Nordic Matters festival at the Southbank Centre in London, which runs until the end of 2017. 

Twice as many sheep as people

When asked where the Faroe Islands are, many Brits might, in a moment of panic, blurt out ‘Egypt!’ or ‘Portugal!’, due to the name’s similarity to 'Faro' and 'Pharaoh'. Maps often simply leave them out. So it’s perhaps not surprising that few people have heard of the Faroe Islands, besides the 50,000 people who live there and are themselves outnumbered by twice as many sheep.

It can rain up to 300 days a year in the Faroe Islands, an isolated archipelago 200 miles north of Scotland. In winter, sunlight is limited to three or four hours a day. Despite the harsh weather, the islands have branded themselves as a tourist destination, with a stunning landscape, well-preserved traditions, and modern Scandinavian way of life. In 2015, British people were the most frequent visitors after Danes and Norwegians.

A distinctive and complex language

The Faroe Islands are a self-governing part of the Danish Kingdom, which in effect makes the Faroese Danish citizens. But most Faroese would rather not be referred to as Danish. The islanders are in charge of most of their own domestic policies, and speak their own language, which is spoken by roughly 70,000 people in the world. Faroese comes from Old West Norse and is similar to Icelandic and Norwegian. It is said to be notoriously difficult to learn due to its grammar, which has three grammatical genders and four cases. Many words aren’t too different from English, however: 'to sing' translates to at syngja in Faroese, while a common greeting is góðan dagin, meaning 'good day'.

Despite its grammatical complexity, some Faroese words are simply constructed. The word for uncle is either mamubeiggi or pápabeiggi, which, directly translated, means 'mother-brother' or 'father-brother'. The literal translation of the word systkinabarn, Faroese for cousin, is 'sibling-child'. 'Apple' translates to súrepli, or 'sour potato'.

Despite the small population, there are many Faroese dialects. People from the southernmost island, Suðuroy, blend in a range of Danish words, all pronounced with a Faroese accent, when speaking, and are known to be very creative with their swearing. In Vestmanna, a town of roughly 1,200, the inhabitants are said to speak very slowly. People from the western islands end every verb with 'ee', while those living in the north have a more drawn-out intonation and use their own slang.

Sheep grazing on roofs

Foreigners mainly come to the Faroe Islands to experience nature. The low, green-clad mountains, scattered around 18 islands in the cold North Atlantic, can appear peaceful or dramatic, depending on the season. Last winter saw terrible storms, with cars flying off the roads, power cuts, and roofs torn from houses. On other nights, the green Northern lights can be seen dancing effortlessly across the sky.

In summer, the islands turn bright green in contrast to the deep blue sea, and the sun only goes down for an hour. People live in colourful wooden houses, some with grass roofs, where the occasional cheeky sheep can be spotted grazing. Puffins nest on Mykines, the western-most island, where only 14 people live, and the 1,500-feet-high sea cliffs of Vestmannabjørgini are inhabited by thousands of seabirds.

National dress meets 'Viking garden gnome chic'

The Faroese also place great emphasis on preserving their century-old traditions. Their most important cultural event is Òlavsøka, or Faroese National Day, which is celebrated on 28 and 29 July. It commemorates Norwegian King Olav the Second, who is believed to have brought Christianity to the islands. His death on 29 July 1030 has marked the annual opening of the Faroese Parliament for the past 900 years.

Ólavsøka can best be described as several days of feasting, singing and dancing. At midnight on 29 July, thousands of people wearing national dress gather in the centre of the capital, Tórshavn, to sing and join a traditional chain-dance, accompanied by old ballads that can be several hundred verses long. The national costume consists of intricately woven wool, silver buttons and belts, and colourful silk. It is undoubtedly the most expensive garment in most wardrobes, and is only being worn for special occasions. The look can perhaps best be described as as 'Viking garden gnome chic'.

Fermented fish and tube-nosed seabirds

Traditional Faroese meals include fermented sheep, fermented or wind-dried fish, and fulmar, a tube-nosed seabird which is caught by boat in late August. The fulmar is roasted in the oven and typically served with gravy and boiled potatoes. The meat is dark, fatty and has a slight taste of the salty sea, where the fulmar get snapped up before they’re old enough to fly.

Fermented fish is served with melted sheep tallow and boiled potatoes. As one would imagine, anything fermented has a strong and distinctive flavour. Many people will have fermented lamb, which is often served with potatoes, gravy, and other vegetables on 26 December before going out in the evening. As a result, any pub is likely to be crowded by dressed-up, cheerful people who carry around a strong odour of fermented sheep. It’s not exactly pleasant, but it smells like home.

Eating out has only become more common amongst the Faroese in the past few years. As more tourists arrive, the number of restaurants and cafes has increased. In February 2017, the Faroe Islands won their first Michelin star, thanks to haute cuisine restaurant KOKS, which experiments with local Faroese produce.

Free healthcare and education

Fermented sheep, storms, and tiny population aside, living in the Faroe Islands is not that different from living anywhere else. The islands are well connected by bridges, two undersea tunnels and ferries. Three airlines fly to neighbouring countries such as Denmark, Iceland and Scotland.

Taxes are high, at around 40 percent, but healthcare and education are free. The University of the Faroe Islands offers degrees in subjects like history, economics and marine biology, but most young people move to Denmark to study, while some study in other Scandinavian countries, the UK or further afield. Generous government grants mean that Faroese students can study at UK universities without having to pay for tuition fees, and also get part of their living costs covered.

Europe’s best-kept secret might not remain hidden for much longer.

Find out more about Scandinavia at the Nordic Matters festival, which runs until the end of 2017 at the Southbank Centre, supported by the British Council.

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