Eoghan Corry rediscovers a North Atlantic shangri-la that is now more accessible
First to the slaughter. The whales are killed off shore, a quick flick of a whale knife top the spinal cord and the whale is dead in seconds. Then it is towed by boat into the beach or the harbour. When we arrived in the south side of Thorshavn bay the business of getting these considerable animals out on to the pier had begun.
Cranes and forklifts were commandeered. The local schoolchildren came down to watch. Curious onlookers gathered. The people of Tórshavn, who hadn’t had a whale kill for a year (there are on average 20 a year on the islands) were as excited as we were.
One by one the fishing boats, whales towed alongside, came in to the pier and the crane lifted their catch from the water. On the quays there was more deft knifework. The stomach and innards were torn out, to get as much heat from the dead animal as possible and slow down the decaying process. They steamed on the quayside as the North Atlantic wind swept in with the drizzle that lands 60 inches of water on Tórshavn each year. Underfoot the trails of red blood crept along the grey stone.
The islanders are brusque in the defence of their tradition. They once invited Greenpeace but they tried to sabotage the operation, and some complain that the same video footage from twenty years ago is being reshown to an agenda that they distrust and scarcely understand.
“Whales kept the people of the Faroes from starving,” John Eysturoy says. “The pilot whale is not an endangered species, and whales have always beached on the islands. We don’t hunt them commercially, we don’t sell the meat, it is a resource that the islanders use like nature intended them to.”
One of the whales is a baby. A beautiful animal. The RTE reporter in our group is repeatedly asked if she is from Greenpeace. Then the islanders talk anyway, telling her of their approval for an operation which is more efficient than many slaughterhouses, more humane than much intensive farming. She is a vegetarian. She agrees.
How close they are to nature. The 17 volcanic islands stand out tall from an unforgiving Atlantic, their sides eroded into cliffs which rank in some places as among the highest in Europe. The only island flat enough for an airfield, is Vágar from which the drive to the capital Tórshavn has been shortened considerably by the opening of a tunnel.
One island, stark cliffs on all sides, can only be reached by helicopter. The tiny Faeroese government had to send a school-teacher to educate the two children of the farmer who lived there.
The scenery is Middle earth, waterfalls, and everchanging greens and treeless brown. Petur M Petersen runs a home for artists, in the former home of Faroes’ most famous artist Jánnes Kristiansen, in between telling visitors about the island’s Viking heritage. Maria MacKavanagh from Randalstown and Hugh Watt from Loughgiel stopped by, enchanted by this puffin perch half way between Norway and Iceland.
Puffins get eaten too. Johann Jaan Jacob and his son Hans catch them, climbing half way down a cliff and waiting with his net while he makes seagull calls. The seagulls pop by for a look and are snagged, killed and prepared for the pot before you can say cormorant.
The roads which snake along the coast, popping in and out of lengthy and dragon-dark tunnels with alarming regularity, bring you through landscape of Tolkein proportions. Sometimes there is a Powerscourtesque waterfall every fifty yards. The heather on the mountainside changes colour with the seasons, and the swirling mist and fog, with peeps of blue sky, complete the light show. Proud mountain sheep stand tall in the middle of the road, defying anyone to move them on. Seabirds scream around the endless, incessant cliffs.
Boats run a cliff gauntlet to observe the birds. In places the stacks are topped with rich greenery, the grass growing on accumulated droppings, and farmers winch sheep down to feed during summer. On fine days the boat cruises by lapping waters and into the fantastic cave structures. On the day we were there, the water was roaring and the waves crashed onto the rocks a few yards away while the cliffs, malign in azure summer, turned menacing and stark and even more beautiful. The fjords which divide the islands are deep and torrid as the tides race in each direction.
Every Faeroese has the sea in his blood, Eyrik Justinsen who runs a maritime museum in Leirvik says. Eyrik’s tales are filled with sadness and tragedy. “This is the model of a boat, which went to sea in the 18th century. In 1608 54 of these failed to return.” In 1915 40 men from the village of Soeldarfjord were drowned.
“The Faroese legend was built on wooden sailing ships, old sea smacks from Scotland and England. Six men slept on shelves in their living space. They would spend 14 days going to Greenland, sometimes twice that. They grew close to their ships. The ship is a friend. They grow close to their ship. A man cannot change from one ship to another. They embrace their wives, but they embrace their ship.”
“The sea is the best of our friends and the worst of our enemies,” says Petur M Petersen. “During the second world war we had lots of instances where all the men on a boat could not be saved, and there was never a shortage of volunteers. The young and unmarried ones volunteered.”
“There is a sense of destiny in a community that is so close to nature. They become religious, not in the sense that they worship the good God, but they sense there is a higher force which gives them the strength to carry on when the circumstances are not so good.”
“It has its good side and its bad side. If you rise too high the village will pull you back down again, but if you are sinking they will build you up again. All Faroese people can trace their ancestry back five or six generations.”
“The Faroese understand the wide world in which they live. They are close to Iceland, Greenland, France, Denmark, Spain and France. All these places are as familiar as the next village.”
Ireland was close too. They used to celebrate St Patrick’s day on one of the islands until the beginning of this century. The red haired irish princesses which married into Viking royal families are remembered in legend. St Brendan’s Church is situated behind the island cathedral of St Olaf, and features on the ancient carved pews of drift wood that is the Faroes’ greatest ecclesiastical treasure.
The Irish still go. Birdwatchers and fishermen say this is the great treasure of European tourism, a last frontier where whales and fish, birds and men are alone against the Atlantic. Now they are accessible for the first time.
- Atlantic Airways flies year-round from Aberdeen to the Faroe Islands and, from June to August, from London Stansted. Flight time from Aberdeen is one hour. From Stansted, two hours.
- Return fares start from about E250 from Aberdeen.
- Specialist holiday company Arctic Experience offers packages to the Faroes from about E500. +44 1737 214255. www.arctic-experience.co.uk. Atlantic website, www.atlantic.fo
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