03 August, 2023

Faroes or Fair Isles...

At the junction between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea, the 18 volcanic Faroe Islands at 62o North are in the middle of nowhere between Scotland and Iceland, which sort of explains why they were so late enjoying the pleasures of human inhabitation. No stone age men here, no neolithic occupation. It wasn't until 560AD or so that Irish abbot St Brendan made it here looking for solitude maybe, and even that is disputed. What is not in doubt is that the Viking Norsemen did set up camp here in the 9th Century, and quickly established a relatively democratic society. Most Faroese natives are decendants of these Vikings who were quite peaceful farmers, but that comfortable situation was undone by an enforced conversion to Chritianity around 1000AD. By 1035AD, the Faroes were under the control of Norway, but in 1380AD, Denmark took ownership as part as a Danish-heavy partnership between the two Scandinavian countries. The Faroese language is related to all the other Scandinavian tongues, but is sufficiently different that it's pretty well incomprehensible to all visitors, even those from Denmark, Sweden etc.

Kittywakes in their hundreds accompanied the NatGeo Explorer as we sailed the inter-island passages of the Faroes. [0568]

Salmon farms in front of Sandavags township as the NatGeo Explorer makes its way to Midvagur. [0167]

The Faroes (like Greenland) are within the Kingdom of Denmark, pay it no taxes, but Denmark heavily subsidises the Faroes whose economy relies on fishing. The Faroes are too far off the beaten track to become a tourism hotspot. The Faroes demonstrated their independence from Denmark in 1973 when they declined to join the European Union. The etymology of the name Faroe is uncertain, but it may stem from ancient names meaning 'islands of sheep' or 'land islands'. Thus it is a tautology to refer to the 'Faroe Islands'. If there were any immigration formalities on our first arrival into the Faroes, they were pretty perfunctionary and done out of our sight between the purser and local officials. The British occupied the Faroes in WW2, the so called Operation Valentine, because of its strategic location in the North Sea to fend off a German invasion, but to listen to mentions of it by our local guides it, it was not a welcome occupation. Wikipedia does not share this opinion, but it does point out that the Faroese developed an enduring love for fish and chips and British chocolates (neither of which are popular in Denmark). Money here is the Faroese króna which are just rebranded Danish krone banknotes and impossible to use or exchange outside the Faroes. We didn't see any, everything done here by credit card.

On the way into Torshavn, the capital city of the Faroes. [0314]

The NatGeo Explorer beside banners welcoming us to Torshavn. [0374]


The population of the Faroes is 54,000 (and 'twice as many sheep') of which 21,000 live in and around the capital and largest city, Tórshavn (Thor's harbour). The city is on the island of Streymoy. Maybe the Irish came here in 580AD, maybe not, but the Vikings certainly did for the purpose of an annual summer meeting (from 825AD) on neutral territory (which imples that it was uninhabited) in Tinganes on Torshavn's port and the present seat of government. Tinganes has a long row of colorful converted warhouses facing the harbour, and many 16th and 17th Century buildings among them are current government offices. We read that the port of Torshavn was a 'poor, exposed harbour' but it was calm and still for our visit. The port itself was busy and full of shipping, including one Danish Navy patrol boat.

The HDMS Hvidbjornen (old Danish for polar bear) is a Danish patrol boat seen at Torshavn. [0316]

Tinganes, in Torshavn, the seat of power in the Faroes. [0320]

Government offices and private houses along Tinganes in Torshavn. [0337]

The NatGeo Explorer docked overnight in Torshavn, giving the opportunity for an early morning walk when there are few people about, really good for stretching the legs. We came across a friendly Danish lady bravely swimming in the chilly harbour. She consented to have her photo taken and even assisted by getting back into the water. The old buildings in Tinganes, with their turf rooves, were especially photogenic.

Monument to Nolsoyar Pall in Torshavn Harbour. Pall (1766-1809) is a Faroese national hero who opened up the islands to trade, and introduced vaccination. [0344]

Old ships amongst the new, in Torshavn Harbour. [0356]

This lady, Freja, told us she swam in Torshavn Harbour every morning, and explained that she could stand the cold water because she is a Dane! [0331]

Steet art spotted in Torshavn. [0361]

We think this is Dansandi Born (1992) by Fridtjof Joensen, but what it is is a statue of children dancing or playing in the pedestrian mall of Torshavn. [0368]

Out of town later, we got to hike across private land, amongst grazing sheep, up to Streymoy Sill in fog heavy enough to make our local guide instruct us on looking from one rock cairn to the next, rather like snow poles guide you along cross-country trails, to ensure we didn't get lost. But soon, the fog lifted and we could mostly see clearly. (A sill is the intrusion of molten lava between older layers of sedimentary rock, but insufficient to cause a proper eruption.)

A deep green valley leading down to Kollafjordur fjord. [0381]

The Streymoy Sill geological formation was a bit underwhelming for non-geologists. But the walk was a good chance for exercise and at least we could see the sill when the fog lifted! [0395]

Vagar, Faroes

Our arrival on the third largest Faroe island of Vagar, into the small port (but still big enough we could dock at a timber shipping yard) at Midvagur was quite late due to rough seas, and our harried Expedition Leader Andy had to hastily rearrange our program. Luckily, it never gets dark here, so our outings, hikings and sightseeings can continue until quite late, and did so, although how he managed to wrangle the local guides, we don't know. We undertook several activities including a hike past s-shaped Sørvágsvatn lake (the largest in the Faroes) up to spectacular cliffs at Traelanipa. It's said that Vikings pushed slaves off these cliffs when they were too old to work, a rather harsh retirement plan! This hike was much more difficult than promoted, meaning many old folk did not reach the top, and the local guide was not very tolerant or our varying skills and fitness levels.

The largest lake in the Faroes is Sørvágsvatn, 40m above sea level and immediately adjacent to the ocean, separated only by the Bøsdalafossur waterfall. [0175]

Seen from a fishing boat, the 30m Bosdalafossur waterfall which is the outlet to Sorvagsvatn Lake. The cliffs of Gasadalor are behind the waterfall. [0265]

The 142m sheer cliffs at Traelanipa on southern Vagar. (For scale, look at the few hikers atop the cliff.) Vikings pushed old slaves off this cliff. [0184]

Later, a fishing boat took some of us on a much more relaxed cruise to view the pretty Mulafossur waterfall. The cruise, at 'night' and in clearer weather, was very pleasant and went past not only several waterfalls but also bird cliffs and even a scary entry into sea caves.

Famous and pretty, the 30m high Mulafossur waterfall near the tiny village of Gasadalur. [0331]

One of the most spectacular sights in the Faroes, the island of Drangarnir in the evening light. [0218]

The oystercatcher is the national bird of the Faroes, seen at Drangarnir. [0251]

In amongst the guano, nesting fulmars look back at us in concern. [0293]

Truly spectacular cliff formations near Sorvagur, with deep inlets one of which the fishing boat was able to enter. [0263]

Colorful sheds line the waterfront near the fishing village of Sorvagur, as our fishing boat returns to its base. [0310]

Eysturoy, Faroes

The second-largest island in the Faroes is Eysturoy and is home to 11,000 people. The name means 'eastern island' which suggest that the firts settlers came here from the west, probably just Streymoy. Our visit here was a special treat, because we were able to anchor off the township of Funningur (maybe the oldest settlement in the Faroes, founded by Viking leader Grimur Kamban) in Funningsfjour fjord, which cuts deep into the island, so we could Zodiac to Elduvik, said to be one of the Faroes most idylically located villages. It's in a tiny bay so is pretty well invisible from the fjord, but it can be seen from the ocean, so we wouln't call it hidden. Elduvik has a permanent population of 12 (yes, twelve) and it happily receives only three small expedition ships a year. Our arrival was the NatGeo Explorer's first time here, and it was also to first to Elduvik after COVID. Our Zodiacs could pull up to a concrete pier, so no wet feet. Our local guides were from among those 12 residents but also others who clearly treat their houses here as weekenders. Our maritime passage here made Elduvik feel very remote, but in fact it's only 45 minutes drive from Torshavn now that tunnels connect the islands. No doubt the ship's donation is very welcome in such a tiny community, but we were certainly made to feel like honoured guests. A delicious home-made fish soup was served to each of us through a kitchen window in one house.

The NatGeo Explorer anchored in Funningsfjour as we explore Elduvik. [0464]

The idyllic location of Elduvik fishing village. [0539]

The safest approach to Eduvik was this concrete pier, from which we climbed a ridge to go down into the village. [0459]

Elduvik is quite exposed to the ocean which is why we landed at a more protected place. [0508]

Ready to go, in Elduvik? [0523]

One of the twelve residents of Elduvik, helped show us around his little village. [0491]

Who can say that this stone house in Elduvik doesn't blend in with its environment? [0468]

How green was my valley? A little stream runs down into Elduvik. [0481]

Elduvik is tucked away in its fjord but is still exposed directly to the north. [0483]

Evidence that steel sheeting is not the best product for severe marine environments. [0500]

A statue representing a myth involving a fishing boat crew and a merman. [0343]

The interior of Elduvik church. The suspended longboat is typical in churches in fishing villages. [0515]

Elduvik resident in traditional Faroese dress telling us about her fish soup, which was delicious! [0505]

It's worth pointing out that most Faroese placenames were unpronouceable by us, and when you listen carefully to the local guides, what they say for a place name doesn't seem to resemble to the spelling. And placenames ending in 'ar' seem to be interchangeable with 'ur'. One is the plural, the other singular. To further confuse us, when a local says 'Faroes', it sounds, to our ears, like 'fair isles'. Is this what the name is meant to mean? Well, not according to Wikipedia!

Grazing land at the end of Funningsfjour. Someone built those fences to protect the livestock. [0555]

Near Gjogv, our last glimpse of the Faroes as the NatGeo Explorer heads off to Iceland. [0577]

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