Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Faroe Islands - Sport and Identity

I recently returned from a holiday to the Faroe Islands, and was not surprised to hear that 1 in 3 young people there are active members of sports clubs. We saw modern sports halls, football pitches, and people using them, in every small town and village we passed through. As well as enjoying visiting these far flung football fields, we heard about the Faroese drive to get greater recognition for their sporting bodies on the international stage. A push linked to the clear Faroese feeling of their own distinctive identity.

Sport and National Identity

As a Scotland fan the first thing that goes through my mind when I see which countries we are drawn against in football competitions is "Could we beat them?" This usually leads immediately on to questions about the size and location of these countries, and about their footballing history. In recent years whether it is Slovenia, or Slovakia, Gibraltar or Malta you have to fear that their supporters are looking at Scotland, and unfortunately seeing us as a possible 3 points in the bag.

Every time an international football tournament comes around, I am often getting a quick geography lesson too. I grew up with maps that showed the USSR, Yugoslavia, and an East and a West Germany. However nothing is constant but change, and it turns out that nation states are not set in stone. I would struggle to accurately name the Moldovan capital, and have never properly got it into my head in which order Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia sit on a map coming north to south. However I do feel that I have come to know a little about these countries through getting to know their football teams. Then in the past week the Latvian, Slovenian, Belarussian and Ukrainian jerseys have been catching my eye, in among the familiar colours of Italy, Norway and the Netherlands at the various sporting events that took place in Glasgow as part of the 2018 European Championships.

Women's European Championship Road Race, Glasgow. August 2018
Men's European Championship Underwater Road Race, Glasgow. August 2018
Seeing national teams taking part at sporting events is definitely one way in which many newly independent countries become established in the public consciousness. The international profile that a country's sporting teams give it, should not be underestimated.

The coverage that a country gets through a sport also has the effect of making me want to visit these newly revealed places. Who could watch Football Italia with James Richardson eating cakes in various cities around Italy in the 1990s, and not want to book a flight to go there? With all the Croatian fans dancing in the street celebrating their football team getting to the world cup final recently, Zagreb looked like a good place to be. Similarly television pictures from football matches two decades ago became lodged in my mind.

Svangaskard Stadium, Toftir
This was the Faroe Islands, which I first became aware of through their national football stadium at the time, Svangaskarð Stadium in the town of Toftir. For a while Scotland seemed to be drawn against them repeatedly in football qualifiers. After we had beaten them home and away in 1994/5 we were drawn against them again in 1999 and 2002. They were seen as the "diddy team" of the group each time. What I remember most is not the fact that Berti Vogts's Scotland team only managed a 2-2 draw in the away game in 2002 or that despite a goalkeeping error by Jakup Mikkelsen in 1999 we only squeaked a 1-1 result. What I remember was the stadium that these games were played at. It looked like it had been hewn from rock, with a craggy wall behind one goal and the sea visible behind the other goal. Finally this year I got to see it in the flesh.

Faroe Islands

Living in Scotland I think we often overlook one of our nearest neighbours. Just 250 miles north of Stornoway sits a collection of islands in the north Atlantic, the Faroe Islands. It is remarkably easy to get to from Scotland. The Faroese airline Atlantic Airways runs a weekly 80 minute flight from Edinburgh. Alternatively the Smyril Line runs a 36 hour car ferry all year round from Denmark to the Faroe Islands, across some fairly choppy seas. When we went there in July, we therefore decided to fly.

Leynar, Faroe Islands

Typical Faroese turfed roof
Like Greenland, the Faroe Islands are part of The Kingdom of Denmark but an autonomous country, which has its own parliament with powers slightly broader than the Scottish Parliament. The Faroese parliament in the islands' capital of Tórshavn, sits today near to where one of the world's earliest parliaments, their Ting, was established in the year 825 during Viking times.

Opinion polls in the islands show a fairly even split across the country on the issue of whether they should declare full independence from Denmark. An independence referendum in 1946 resulted in a 51% majority in favour of independence, but the parliamentary groups could not agree on how to progress and the Faroes have remained part of Denmark ever since. Speaking to anyone from this country of 50,000 people and 70,000 sheep, the question of independence comes up quite quickly. The arguments for and against it will sound spookily familiar to anyone living in Scotland, and were fleshed out recently in a film by Lesley Riddoch.

The Faroese have their own distinctive culture, flag, language and currency, and are now pushing on several fronts to have their national teams accepted by international sporting bodies.

Faroese Króna

Sport and International Recognition

In the inaugural European Championships, held this year in Glasgow and Berlin, two Faroese athletes were competing under their national flag. Alvi Hjelm and Signhild Joesen both took part in the swimming, but if they ever want to swim at an Olympic Games, they will have do so as part of the Danish team. This is because the International Olympic Committee, unlike the LEN swimming organisation,  refuses to recognise the Faroe Islands as an independent sovereign state, under rules changes which they made in 1996. There are countries with a similar political situation which applied successfully before the rules changed, such as Guam, Bermuda and Puerta Rico, and now send teams to the Olympics whilst other countries without universal recognition of their independence, such as Chinese Taipei, have been accepted since 1996. The rules are apparently flexible. The race is therefore on from the recently established Faroese Olympic Committee to try and get the country accepted before the Tokyo games in 2010. 

Other governing bodies apply their rules differently. Both FIFA and UEFA accept the Faroe Islands as an independent nation, allowing them to compete in their competitions (though neither accept Greenland's team). In addition to swimming and football, the international bodies organising archery, badminton, judo, table tennis and volleyball also recognise the Faroe Islands, and as a founding member of the organisation behind the Paralympic Games, Faroese athletes can compete under their own flag at these games too. 

New football pitch in the Faroese town of Eiði

Faroese Football 

The Faroe Islands are an archipelago of 18 inhabited islands and numerous smaller rocks and crags. The countryside is familiar to anyone who has traveled in the north of Scotland, with dramatic coastlines and cliffs, and little vegetation taller than the grass that the many sheep work their way through. Unlike the north of Scotland, major investment has been put into infrastructure to connect the many islands. Transport is subsidised by the government, whether the ferries or the short hop helicopter trips, to keep it affordable for locals and keep the various islands connected. Driving between most of the islands is straightforward due to the many tunnels through the mountains, and in many cases, under the sea. With fog an almost daily occurrence whilst we were there, it was often strange driving through the fog or rain one one side of an island, and emerging from a tunnel a couple of minutes later on the other side and finding yourself in sunlight.

On travelling about it soon becomes clear that football is the most popular sport on the island, with artificial pitches seemingly in every town and village. It is estimated that 60% of those that play sport on the islands, play football.

The old football pitch in Eiði, now used as a camp site.
The Faroese football league was established in 1942, and currently runs with a top league of 10 teams competing for one Champions League place and three Europa League places. The national team was recognised by FIFA in 1988 and began taking part in European and World Cup qualifiers in 1990. Before they had a home ground deemed suitable by UEFA, they played their first competitive home match in Sweden, where they famously defeated Austria 1-0 in September 1990.

The remote locations of some of their football pitches has attracted photographers from National Geographic and other magazines. One famous ground in the town of Eiði (above) although beautiful, was also impractical. With the ball often getting blown out to sea, a new pitch has now been built in the town. If you want to drag a caravan to the Faroe Islands, you can now pitch it on the old Eiði pitch for the night. 
Where is everybody? Road through the mountains on the island of Eysturoy
Beautiful Gjógv, with a wee children's pitch to the left of the flagpole.
In the early 1990s the Faroese goalkeeper Jens Martin Knudsen also caught the eye, wearing a bobble hat whenever he played. Although it was portrayed as being due to quaint island ways, he in fact began wearing it after suffering a head injury when younger. Knudsen started his career at NSÍ Runavik in the Faroe Islands and went on to make 65 appearances for his country. He also made four appearances for Ayr United on a brief loan spell in Scotland, where presumably he had to remove his bobble hat and have it drawn on with body paint.

NSÍ Runavik

Runavik is a busy town with over 3000 residents. It has an important port on the islands, which accommodates freight, cruise ships and work connected to the North Sea oil industry. When I was there on a wet Thursday night, two large Russian freight ships were at the port. The neat football stadium sits in the centre of town, with seating rigged out in the bumble bee team colours of yellow and black. Beside the pitch is a large sports hall, busy with children practicing gymnastics when I was there, bounding into those large pits filled with foam that any child (and me) would want to throw themselves into.

Home ground of NSÍ Runavik, on the island of Eysturoy
NSÍ Runavik
With one of Scotland's Europa League entrants, Hibernian, being drawn to play against NSÍ Runavik in Edinburgh the week before we flew out on holiday, this was my first taste of Faroese football.

In Easter Road Stadium, which could hold one third of the population of the Faroe Islands, a small group of  away supporters in yellow and black sat behind one of the goals, flourishing a couple of Faroese flags. As an eternal supporter of any underdog we were there to cheer them on, quietly, as I could only get a ticket among the home support. Sadly for me and the Faroese who had made it to the match NSÍ Runavik started poorly and then fell away, losing a penalty after only 3 minutes. Helped by errors from their keeper and their hefty defender Einar Hansen receiving a straight red card after 33 minutes, NSÍ Runavik were comfortably beaten 6-1 by Hibs on the night. 

NSI Runavik fans at Easter Road
Hibernian v NSI Runavik, Edinburgh 12.7.2018

Despite the tie seemingly being over and done, I still planned to get to the return match a week later. 

Faroese Football Grounds

Bobble-hatted Knudsen is not the only Faroese goalkeeper of note. In 2003 Jákup Mikkelsen brought the Faroe Islands to my attention again when he joined the team which I support, Partick Thistle in Glasgow's famous Maryhill. He started his career at Faroese team KÍ Klaksvík before playing in Norway and Denmark. He probably did not join us at a great time, with Gerry Collins just taking over as manager in a season that would see Partick Thistle relegated despite the manager being sacked after 5 months in charge. Unable to oust Kenny Arthur for the number one jersey, he made several conspicuous mistakes in the five games he did play for us in Scotland. Returning home to his first team, KÍ Klaksvík, he began to get involved in coaching and spent a few years as a club manager once his playing career ended. He had 72 caps for his national team, including being in goals on one of the rare occasions Scotland defeated the Faroes, 6-0 at Hampden in 2006, in front of a remarkable home crowd of over 50,000.

Jákup Mikkelsen in Partick Thistle colours
Klaksvík is the second largest town in the Faroe Islands, on the island of Bordoy, with a population of almost 5000. Their football team KÍ Klaksvík were founded in 1904. If you are ever in the town I would encourage you to seek out the local museum, which as well as having one room maintained as the pharmacy it was in the early 20th century, upstairs there are a fantastic collection of curios. our favourite was someone's skinned cat, made into a float for fishing lines. Recycling at its best.

Home ground of KÍ Klaksvik, vanishing into the fog
Klaksvík's cat float
Mikkelsen finished his playing career at Ítróttarfelag Fuglafjarðar, more commonly referred to as ÍF. They have the most fantastic club badge, a stylised leather football with "IF" shaped patches. They also have the most beautiful of grounds, built on the hill above the town of Fuglafjørður, with one bank of seating on the hillside looking down onto the pitch, the other side vanishing off like the footballing equivalent of an infinity pool. When I was there a bunch of middle-aged men were getting put through their paces, and rarely did we come across a pitch that was lying idle.

Fuglafjørður, home to ÍF
Travelling around the islands for a week we also came across some of the teams from the lower tiers of Faroese football, such as the picturesque ground which is home to SÍ Sørvágur. We came to Sørvágur to catch a ferry and had a wander about town whilst we were waiting. The town was shrouded in fog when we arrived, and down by the water's edge, with a fishing boat just beyond the corner flag, we came across their pitch. Every town was like this, and during our trip it was easier to find somewhere to play football than it was to find a cafe or a bar, each one well maintained and designed for an artist to paint as an archetypal footballing idyll.

SÍ Sørvágur's home ground
Seven km south oFuglafjørður lies the small town of Nordragota, now home to Víkingur Gøta. This is where the modern world of professional football, where winning is everything, impinges upon my romantic ideas about football history. Víkingur were formed in 2008 by the merger of Gøtu Ítróttarfelag and Leirvík ÍF. By pulling their resources the new club has managed to become league champions for the past two years, granting them Champions League qualification. Although progress for such a small club in European competition is unlikely, even in the early rounds, the money that comes from getting there gives any Faroese club a further boost over their neighbours. 

Nordragota, home to Víkingur Gøta
Now in the Faroes other clubs are looking at mergers. In 2017 all three clubs on the southern island of Suduroy came together to create a new team, who started their first season strongly under their Scottish manager, Maurice Ross, before fading away. By the time you read this the team may have a new name, but they spent their first season playing under the messy amalgamation of the three clubs, being called TB/FC Suðuroy/Royn

Maurice Ross (who whilst a Rangers player was in the Berti Vogts squad that only managed a draw against the Faroes in 2002) so impressed last year's league champions, that Víkingur Gøta seduced him away from Suduroy at the start of this season. After a poor start to the campaign, Víkingur gave him his jotters a couple of months later in May of this year .


First photograph of a football match in the Faroe Islands. Tórshavn, 1909
The photograph above (from Wikimedia Commons) shows a football match in Tórshavn. Taken in July 1909 it is believed to be the earliest photograph of a football match in the Faroe Islands. It shows the second ever game between Havnar Bóltfelag and Tvøroyrar Bóltfelag. Their first game had been played two months earlier in the town of Tvøroyri, on the island of SuduroyTvøroyrar Bóltfelag continued to play until 2017 when they became the "TB" of Suduroy's snappily named merged team, TB/FC Suðuroy/Royn.

Havnar Bóltfelag are, however, still a going concern. Although their club badge looks like it belongs to a Soviet factory team from the 1920s, their name means "Harbour football club". Tórshavn, or "Thor's harbour", is the harbour in question, and the hammer is Thor's.

Gundadalur in Tórshavn
A quarter of the islands' population live in Tórshavn, the largest town on the islands, and the capital city. More people means more teams, and three of the ten teams currently in the top division are based around here. These are B36 Tórshavn, Havnar Bóltfelag and Argja Bóltfelag (who play in the suburb of Argir). 

From the second tier of Faroese football a team playing under the cumbersome name of FF Giza/ FK Hoyvik play at the same complex, Gundadalur. As you can probably guess, this is a team, formed in 2012, by the merger of two other teams. Also in the capital is the current national stadium, Tórsvøllur. Built in 1999 it initially had a grass pitch, but like most pitches in the country has been converted to artificial turf. International matches are now rarely played at Svangaskarð Stadium, in Toftir, where Scotland twice played against the Faroese.

Torsvollur stadium
Tórsvøllur stadium above, with its distinctive floodlights, is currently being rebuilt, to provided covered stands down all four sides of the pitch. Right next door to it is the home ground that B36 Tórshavn and Havnar Bóltfelag share. Each of the small stands at the pitchside has the respective club initials marked out in the coloured seating.

Home of HB and B36, Tórshavn


In the week that I was in the Faroes, unfortunately for me the football league was on a three week summer break. As the teams are part-time, this lets the players spend some time with their families or go on holiday. It also allows the top teams time to focus on their European ties. 

Programme for Runavik vs Hibernian, July 2018
The return match between NSÍ Runavik and Edinburgh's own Hiberian FC took place whilst I was there. As Runavik's ground does not meet UEFA's exacting standards the match had to be moved (I am pleased to say) three km away to Toftir, and to the 6000 seater Svangaskarð Stadium

When the Faroe Islands were accepted into competition by UEFA in 1990, they did not yet have a stadium approved for international matches, so the first Faroese home matches were played abroad. Built in 1991 Svangaskarð become the home for the national team, until Tórsvøllur opened in 1999. It is still used for some international matches such as U-21 qualifiers and is home to B68 Toftir for their league matches. Its location between a rocky hillside and the sea means that it is regularly cited in lists of the top 10 most beautiful or unusual stadiums of the world.

Despite only having a capacity of 6000, it holds the record for the highest attendance for a football match in the Faroe Islands, when 6642 people squeezed in to witness the Faroe Islands defeat Malta 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier in 1998. This was 15% of the islands' population at the time, the equivalent of  780,000 people going to Hampden to watch Scotland play.

A Hibbee waits for kick-off at Svangaskard Stadium
With NSÍ Runavík 6-1 down after the first leg, the hardy group of Hibs supporters who had made the trip were in jovial spirits. Unfortunately a few had not clocked that if you don't catch the state alcohol shops during their brief opening hours, you are unable to buy any beverages with a higher alcohol content than 2.8% in the supermarkets. Loaded up with a few cans of Faroese Top Deck they were expecting goals, and did not have long to wait. 

The always entertaining Hibs defender Efe Ambrose sliced a clearance into his own net after barely 60 seconds were on the clock, much to the delight of the Runavík supporters. Buoyed by this the home team continued to attack and more goals soon followed. Despite it being played in July, as the match was taking place halfway up a cliff in the north Atlantic a chill wind with occasional rain swept back and forwards across the pitch and the visitors seemed to be struggling to adjust. 

Hibs fans dressed for the conditions
By half-time the score was 3-3 (9-4 on aggregate) in a match where clearly anything could still happen. A fish and chips van pulled up behind the stand to feed the visiting supporters, a popular meal on the islands. Like Cadbury's chocolate, it was made popular here during the time that British soldiers occupied the islands during World War 2. Alternative sustenance could be had from the group of locals selling a very welcome cup of warm coffee from flasks, with some home baking. 

Faroese fisk and kips
The weather gave us the full gamut of Faroese variations; clouds, fog, tantalising rays of sunshine through the clouds, wind and rain, and then back to fog. 

The main stand at Svangaskard, the Atlanic Ocean beyond
As the second half progressed the fog came and went, but at the end the consensus was that Hibs had won 6-4 on the night, 12-5 over the two legs. A memorable match, in a unique setting, which left me smiling at having managed to catch a game at the stadium which had been lodged in mind from almost 20 years ago. 

Faroese fog. 

Fugloyarrenning (Run in Fugloy)

Sport in the Faroe Islands is not limited to football. It was their swimmers who made it to the European Championships in Glasgow recently and as well as the swimming pool that my kids played at in Klaksivk, there are others, including a 50m pool on the island of Vagur, near the airport. For the braver, open water swimming is popular too. The "national sport" is rowing, using traditional open Faroese boats. With six to ten oars these boats take to the open seas for campetitions in the short summer months and we saw several clubs training whilst we were there. Taking to the north Atlantic in one of these was not something which appealed to me, as we were tossed about quite enough on some of the short ferry trips we took between islands.  

The tourist board are also trying to entice people to the islands to try their hand at climbing, cycling, fishing, and their are many hiking routes across the islands.

Passing Tindhólmur on the ferry to Mykines
Bird-watchers are also drawn to the islands to catch sight of the many sea birds although sadly, the same as elsewhere in the Atlantic, the numbers of puffins, guillemots, gannets has been falling in recent years.

Mykines. where we saw many, many puffins
There are many running clubs in the Faroe Islands and you can join them at many of their annual races. As well as the Tórshavn marathon in June, there is now the yearly 10K race in the most easterly island of Fugloy. I took the opportunity to visit this most Faroese of islands by entering the 2018 race. Navigating the online application form was a bit of a challenge as Google translate does not offer a Faroese option. The language is nearest to Old Norse and Icelandic, but I muddled through. I will briefly describe how it panned out, in case anyone reading this has a notion to apply next year.

All aboard the Ritan from Hvannasund to Fugloy
The organisers had laid on an impressive itinerary, and as the daily ferry, MB Ritan, was too small for the number of people making the 75 minute trip to the island, an extra ferry was also provided. The aim was to offer tours of the villages in Fugloy, and a hike to the top of one of their mountains after the race, whilst awaiting the ferry's return.

The drive to Hvannasund, on the island of Vidoy, gave us our first exposure to some of the long single-track tunnels, which have no lighting and have passing places dug into the side walls. From Hvannasund the ferry gave beautiful views of the local sea cliffs on an unusually sunny day, before it reached the island of Fugloy.

Approaching the island of Fugloy
With an area of about 4 square miles and a population of 45, this was definitely the most remote place I had ever come for a run. There are two small villages on the island, Kirkja on the south coast and Hattarvik on the east coast. Fugloy means "bird island" and we could see puffins flying past the boat on the way back to their nests with mouthfuls of fish as we got nearer to it.

Runners disembark from the boat at Hattarvik
Disembarking at Hattarvik the start and finish line soon became apparent up ahead of us in the middle of the attractive village, a small cluster of stone buildings with turf and corrugated iron roofs huddled around the harbour. As I was on the ferry's second run of the day, once we were given our race numbers we were soon off. There were over 100 runners, mostly Faroese, with a few Scottish and American accents audible too. Some had come in their racing club vests, others dressed for a pleasant walk.

Start/finish line, above a chicken coop
The route was to take us 2.5km along the road uphill, then 2.5km downhill, to the village of Kirkja on the other side of the island. There we could grab a bottle of water, turn around and head back up the 250 meter high hill which we had just descended. Some of the local kids were out to cheer us on, but the majority of the spectators were sheep. Getting to the top of the climb for the second time, I was glad that it was now downhill all the way, with beautiful views of Hattarvik below, and across to the islands of Svinoy and Vidoy. By now the fog was beginning to settle on the mountain above the village where we were meant to go next.

Running down towards the kirk at Kirkja
Nearly finished, heading down to Hattarvik down below

Rewarded with a banana and a glass of chocolate milk, I was pleased to discover that my weekly training runs up and down Gardner Street in Partick meant that I was well equipped for the course and ended up finishing in the top 10. The Scottish couple who came in first and second were delighted to be rewarded with a fermented leg of lamb each for their efforts. I was flying the flag for Partick Thistle on the race, wearing my team's home top for the run, which has the advantage of helping you get found if the fog closes in. I think it was only recognised by one Scotsman in the field who ruefully complained about a Partick Thistle fan beating him up the hill on the first ascent.

At the finish one of the halls in the village was laid out with coffee, biscuits, fruit, cans of beer, and bowls of a spicy tomato soup with prawns in it was served up. Once most of the runners and walkers had made it back, those with some energy left were led up to the top of the Eystfelli cliffs at the eastern end of the island, 450m above the sea. Sadly once we got near the top the dense fog meant that the views had all vanished, and unable to see how high up we were I was able to briefly stand on top of a wee rocky outcrop at the peak. After a quick stop to eat the packed lunches we had been provided with, some traditional open sandwiches and a can of the local beer, it was back down again. 

Hiking through the fog at the top of the Eystfelli cliffs, in July. Fugloy
Realising that we were pushing it to catch the ferry I ran ahead down the hill and hopped onto the boat just as it headed off, which unfortunately meant those still ambling down would have a couple more hours to wander about the island before the boat returned. For me it was a real highlight of our trip and a lovely way to explore a more outlying part of the Faroe Islands.

Visit Faroe Islands

The Faroese Confederation of Sports and Olympic Committee continues to campaign for the islands to be accepted by the IOC, with their hope of sending a team to Tokyo 2020. Their twitter feed in recent days has been giving updates of their handball teams competing in Georgia, the Faroese U17 football team managing to beat the Chinese U17s, and news of their swimmers who competed in the European Championships in Glasgow. For swimmers such as 17 year old Signhild Joensen who took part in the backstroke in Glasgow, this may be her best chance of getting to compete regularly on the international stage. She has already acheived the Olympic qualifying time for the 200m backstroke, but is unlikely to oust the top two Danes from the available spots Denmark has at the games, if she in fact wanted to compete under their flag. Athletes like her who want to push themselves and improve, will always wish to be competing against their peers from around the world.

The inaugural UEFA Nations League due to commence in September 2018 is looked on positively in the Faroe Islands. In this competition, which is designed to replace international friendly matches, 55 European national football teams will compete against teams with similar rankings in a league format. The winners of each group have the chance to go into a knock-out round, with four places at the next UEFA European Championship 2020 competition (which has Glasgow as one of the many host cities) up for grabs. Scotland are grouped with Israel and Albania, whilst the Faroe Islands team will play Azerbaijan, Malta and Kosovo. In the Faroe Islands I read about the optimism there that this will give them their best chance yet of making it to a major championship.

Faroese football teams brought their country to my attention in Scotland, and other sportsmen and women from the country are hoping to get the chance to stand on the world stage with a Faroese badge on their outfit. Their status as an independent nation is the subject of much debate within this small country, but certainly one way in which they are demonstrating their unique identity to the world is through sport. 

We need to talk about whales...

Whenever I see any online article about the Faroe Islands, comments soon appear below it about whaling in the islands, so a brief mention here from me is required I think. Before throwing out a few thoughts on the subject, I shall leave you with a few photos of the Faroe Islands as a way to encourage you to think about travelling to see one of the most beautiful countries in the world. 

Views from Múli
Village of Gasadalur, with its famous waterfall below it
Vestmanna cliffs
Vestmanna cliffs
Church at Saksun
Hay being dried in the village of Tjørnuvik (pronounced Chud-noo-vik)

Whaling in the Faroe Islands

Whilst whale hunting is now widely banned across the globe, the Faroe Islands is one of the countries which continues to hunt these animals. In the past, just as in the Scottish city of Dundee, whaling was undertaken on an industrial scale, with seven whaling stations across the Faroe Islands that processed the catch, largely for oil. The last of these, at við Áir closed down as recently as 1984 and the buildings which are still standing are in the process of being made into a maritime museum. 

Nowadays the only whale hunt that happens is by the traditional method, still permitted in the Faroes under international law. As has occurred on the islands for centuries, if a pod of pilot whales is spotted, boats will surround the animals and drive them onto certain beaches, where others will have gathered to slaughter the animals as they are beached. It is a brutal and bloody sight, and the issues around it are explored in the fabulous documentary "The Islands and the Whales" released last year by Scottish film maker Mike Day. 

vid Aír whaling station
The hunts are not commercial, and all those involved are given their share of the meat and blubber collected. The land and weather in the Faroes does not lend itself to farming, and sheep, seabirds and whale meat have sustained inhabitants for centuries. Nowadays whale meat is no longer essential to life in the islands, but for many it is still an important cultural tradition, and part of their identity. 

Whaling features in many novels written in the Faroe Islands, such as "The Old Man and His Sons" by Hedin Brú, written in 1970 which starts off with the blood and drama of a grindadráp or whale hunt. In more modern novels, such as Scandi crime novel "Walpurgis Tide" by Jógvan Isaksen, the whale hunt is used as a crime scene with two environmentalists found dead on the beach after a whale hunt. Likewise for one of English author Chris Ould's series of Faroe Island set novels, "The Killing Bay".

There are worldwide campaigns against whaling, and the Faroese method has been specifically criticised for its brutality. However, according to interviews in the recent Faroe Islands podcast, campaigns such as those organised by Sea Shepherd may not be having the desired effect on the locals. The podcast was about another film on the topic "Whale Like Me", which flags up new research about whale intelligence, which should make us look again about hunting these animals. Opinion polls quoted state that whilst opposition to whaling in the Faroe Islands had risen to 14% of the population, it has fallen back again since the recent disruptive campaigns by protesters. This may also explain why the environmentalists are seen as plausible murder victims for crime writers setting their novels in a place which has incredibly low crime rates, and has only had one actual murder in the past 26 years. 

If change comes about it may be more likely to come from environmental causes. The chief medical officer for the Faroe Islands has argued that whale meat should be declared unfit for human consumption. The fact that whales are at the top of their food chain means that their bodies concentrate mercury and other chemicals consumed by their food. It is feared that these chemicals will have serious effects on those islanders who continue to eat whale meat regularly. 

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the whale hunt, it is a ferocious spectacle which leaves the sea, and the hunters, red with the blood of these animals. Although whale meat and blubber was available on the buffet at one of the hotels we ate at (as it was when we holidayed in Greenland a couple of years ago), I am glad that this was the only whale we saw during our trip and that no hunts took place whilst we were driving about the islands.

Whale blubber, steaks and tvøst at a hotel buffet
Further Faroese reading/ books

1 comment:

  1. Hey there,
    Good article and pretty accurate on local matters. Only one thing: the Faroes do not have their own currency, we use Danish Krone (DKK), but we use Faroese notes though (and Danish as well) :-) About the whaling, well, do you let foreigners tell you what you should eat or not? Or what is necessary to eat or not? So far nobody - NOBODY- has died or gone mad in the islands by eating (pilot) whale, and there are NO indications that we ever will.


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