26 August 2015

Research: The Faroe Islands - Mountains, Fjords & Vikings

Northwest of Scotland, halfway to Iceland, lie the Faroe Islands, the most northerly destination of our 'Northern Isles' trip. Whereas the landscape of the Orkney Isles undulates along the horizon, the Faroes sweep up from the Atlantic Ocean as if a verdant green beast. Natural harbours are at a premium.

Parliament Point - Tinganes - where the Norse held their first 'Thing'.
Eighteen islands make up the archipelago, with under half the country's population of 48,000 living in and around the bay of its capital, Tórshavn. The extensive modern harbour was busy with shipping when we berthed, not only cargo ships and fast inter-island ferries, but with six- and eight-oar rowing boats practising for the country's gala day. Rowing is the national sport, and the clinker-built boats are direct descendants of the Viking ships that brought the islands' influx of Norse colonists from the 9th century onwards.

Extensive, and still occupied, 'Old Tórshavn'
Protruding into the harbour is the Tinganes peninsular, the site of the Norse 'Thing' (various spellings) and it is still known as Parliament Point. It continued to be the centre for government and trade, and the current red-painted buildings with sod-roofs for insulation date from the 16th and 17th centuries. A suprising number of modern buildings use the same roofing material. I found the area very reminiscent of the Bryggen in Bergen, Norway.

It was the Norse connection I was particularly interested in. As can Icelanders, the Faroese can read medieval documents written in Old Norse, and each other's written language, though pronunciation has changed so much over the centuries that verbal communication can be more problematic. 

Turf covering the stone foundation walls of a Viking age house & byre

We took in an excursion to Kvivik where, in 1942, an excavation had revealed the foundations of a Norse dwelling 21 metres (69ft) in length with a 7 metre hearth, and its 12 stall byre.

I could understand why the place had been chosen by its Norse settlers. Faroe is made of basalt lava with no fresh water springs, and down from the heights a wide stream still runs beside the site. The shallow sandy beach just over the modern wall is ideal for pulling up ships, and thick pasture rises up the mountain behind the village in a gentle crescent, ideal for grazing stock animals and small-scale farming. Artefacts unearthed included loom weights and spindle whorls, fishing weights, and children's toys of horses and boats.

Our local guide, Regina, explained that the modern Faroese are renown for having 2.5 children, 3 sheep, 1 border collie dog, and a boat. Perhaps only the technology has changed.

Other posts in this series:
Orkney 1: Vast Skies & Standing Stones
Orkney 2: Skara Brae
Faroe Islands: Mountains, Fjords & Vikings

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