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Denmark’s forgotten gem: Far off the beaten track in the Faroe Islands

Faroe Islands

Why you shouldn’t neglect the Faroe Islands, Denmark’s secret North Atlantic getaway.

With low-cost travel around the world opening up more places to more people than ever before, it’s little wonder that the trio of Scandinavian nations are experiencing a huge upswing in tourism. Just the incredible beauty of Norway, Sweden and Denmark alone would be sufficient to put Scandinavia on the map of potential tourist destinations for a lot of people.

For some, an affinity for Scandinavian culture takes the form of the perennial obsession with all things Viking-related, which is enjoying a recent surge in popularity thanks to the hit History Channel show of the same name. Others are drawn by the fact that the trio of Scandinavian nations always seem to score in the top ten or even the top five when it comes to world rankings on the happiness, satisfaction and well-being of their people. Finally, most visitors and potential visitors agree that the three nations that make up the Scandinavian region offer a rugged beauty of stunning landscapes and seascapes that are unparalleled in the entire world. And while the Faroe Islands are not as famous a destination as Stockholm, Oslo or Copenhagen, it’s that rough, raw allure of wild Scandinavian-style nature that draws savvy visitors to Denmark’s Faroe Islands.

But let’s face facts: even the smartest Jeopardy contestant might have a hard time telling you anything about the Faroe Islands. Granted, what you can learn about a country from reading about it on the internet or watching fictional shows about its distant past on television generally tends to be somewhat limited in scope. But the Faroe Islands have long been a sadly neglected cousin to mainland Denmark for many visitors, and that’s a real shame, because for such a tiny, distant place, the Faroe Islands have much to offer.

The Faroe Islands or Føroyar in Faroese—the name derives from the Faroese word for ‘island’ and the old Norse word for ‘sheep’—are a collection of 18 rocky land masses in the North Atlantic that were formed from ancient volcanic activity and glaciers. But while the land is rugged and the islands retain their rock-strewn, craggy beauty, the Faroe Islands are also swathed in green. Imagine the rockier bits of New Zealand on a smaller scale, or Iceland’s verdant peach fuzz of green grass and plants covering the rocks below to get an idea of the landscape.

Indeed, while the sub-surface of the Faroe Islands may be made up largely of volcanic rock, the green surface is quite inviting — after all, 17 of the 18 islands are inhabited by some 51,000 residents. And while the Faroe Islands may have a wild, windswept feel about them in many places, which draws travelers who revel in outdoor activities like hiking and camping, the islands when taken as a whole are hardly uncivilized. Roads, tunnels, bridges and ferry lines connect all the islands to one another, and there are numerous tourist hot spots, including a highly-regarded National Gallery of Art, a tremendous and unique culture in the form of handicrafts and woolen knitting, poetic and operatic traditional balladry in the spirit of Norse epic poems, and the islanders are especially proud of their famed Faroe Islands music festivals, often featuring concerts played in hidden, tucked-away grottoes accessible only by boat.

That’s not even counting the incredible opportunities for fishermen, epic hikes, kayaking and diving in the pristine waters right off the rocky islands, bird-watching for over 300 species of avians, many of which are rarely seen elsewhere, and just road-tripping around the 18 distinct islands, hopping on and off ferries, taking in the breathtaking and unique beauty that is the Faroe Islands.

Sound pretty great. Where do I sign up?

No, literally, where are the Faroe Islands? That’s the question that is most common when you’re talking about a trip to the Faroe Islands: where the heck are they, anyway?

Faroe Islands

Where are the Faroe Islands located?

The short answer is that the Faroe Islands are a long way off from mainland Denmark in the North Atlantic, about 200 miles north of Scotland and over 600 miles away from Denmark proper. In fact, the islands are closer to Norway than to Denmark!

Huh? How does that work, exactly? That’s a question that deserves a longer explanation, because like much of Scandinavia’s history and culture, the more you learn, the more you find interesting new knots and complications to unravel, especially in the intertwined history of the Faroe Islands and Denmark.

Denmark as a whole often proves to be a surprising place for many visitors. For a lot of people, cosmopolitan Copenhagen is the first and only destination they consider when thinking about visiting this smallest of Scandinavian nations. And that’s not to take anything away from Copenhagen — the Danish capital is of course a world-class city with fantastic environmental cred, a bustling nightlife, an embarrassment of riches when it comes to dining, and a lovely, pristine coastline. But as any one of the millions of Danes who live outside the capital will tell you, there’s so much more to Denmark than just Copenhagen. And the Faroe Islands in particular is one destination in Denmark that often that falls right off the radar for even the most astute traveler.

And honestly, that’s not so crazy. Especially when you consider that the Faroe Islands are 620 miles (990 km) away from the core part of Denmark, perched in the North Atlantic about halfway between Norway and Iceland. In fact, the Faroe Islands are much closer to Scotland than to the nation to which they owe allegiance, sitting just 200 miles north of the furthest island reaches of Scotland’s rocky coast.

Weirdly, this far-flung territory is administered in part by Denmark — technically the capital of Torshavn, Faroe Islands is home to a self-run “devolved government” under the aegis of the Kingdom of Denmark, meaning their parliament largely has control over their own affairs, operating something like a U.S. state but with even more independence.

So, as to where the Faroe Islands are located, if you look on a map and follow a line more or less directly north of Scotland’s Lewis Island, then draw another line from Bergen, Norway toward the west but slightly north of west, you should be able to find out where the Faroe Islands are. As to how the Faroe Islands came to be part of  Denmark, that’s another story altogether.

Who owns the Faroe Islands?

The history of the Faroe Islands, much like the history of Denmark and that of the larger Scandinavian region as a whole is a complicated one. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the first question many people ask when they begin to research this topic is ‘who owns the Faroe Islands?’

The short answer is Denmark — well, kind of, as explained above. The Faroe Islands are self-governing and at this point in history, Denmark’s control over the people of the Faroe Islands is largely nominal. While the Faroe Islands are technically a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, they have their own parliament, enjoy home-rule status, and separated themselves further from Denmark by declining to join the European Union. Calls for further independence continue, and an entire political party has arisen in the Faroe Islands geared toward achieving full independence.

But all that only raises the inevitable second question: what on earth does Denmark have to do with this collection of 18 rocky islands way the hell out in the middle of the North Atlantic, over 1,000 kilometers away from their capital city in the first place? Well, in order to explain that, we should probably start at the very beginning.

Faroe Islands

The history of the Faroe Islands: ‘Hermits from our land of Scotland’

To understand the Faroe Islands today it is important to understand how they were formed, and the significance of their remote location to later inhabitants and to the nations that squabbled over the territory for centuries. The islands are made up of about 540 sq miles (1,400 sq km) of land area that was formed from long-ago volcanic activity and glacier movement. The soil and subsurface is rocky, but with a verdant green, grassy covering on much of the land. That, along with tremendous fishing in this remote part of the sea have made the islands an inviting place for settlers for thousands of years.

Even with their isolated location, the Faroe Islands have been inhabited since at least 300 to 600 AD, well before the first Norsemen or Vikings came ashore. Scottish researchers from the University of Aberdeen have isolated remnants of cereal pollen that came from domesticated plants dating to this period, suggesting there were pre-Viking inhabitants of the Faroe Islands that had a sophisticated, developed society, or at least an agricultural one.

And there is other evidence that at least circumstantially backs up that discovery. An Irish monk named Brendan who lived in the late 5th and early 6th century wrote in Latin of insulae or islands while traveling in the area, a note that some say reference the Faroe Islands. A more concrete and irrefutable early reference to the Faroe Islands was made by a later Irish monk named Dicuil in the 9th century, who wrote of “hermits from our land of Scotland/Ireland” who lived on the islands to the north of Scotland for at least 100 years before the Norsemen arrived.

Irish and Scottish and Norsemen — Oh my!

But the Norsemen did come, and when they settled the islands they brought their Old West Norse language, which later evolved into modern-day Faroese. The well-traveled Norsemen or Vikings who settled the Faroe Islands likely didn’t come directly from Scandinavia, but rather from the other islands in the region. One account taken from the Icelandic sagas suggests that it was a descendant of Scandinavian chieftains who hailed from what is now Dublin who was the first to emerge as an early leader of the settlers of the Faroe Islands.

It appears to researchers that most of this later wave of settlers in the Faroe Islands also came from much closer than far-flung Scandinavia. Even though they were of Scandinavian descent, the Faroe Islanders who settled in the 9th century and after that were probably immigrants who came from communities of Norsemen on islands in the Irish Sea, the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, including Shetland and the Orkney Islands, which are also part of modern-day Scotland and had previously been settled by Viking travelers. They were joined by other immigrants who came from Norway as they fled the rule of King Harald Fairhair around the end of the 9th century.

By the time the 11th century rolled around, there was inter-island warfare going on between the various settler communities. Invaders from the northern islands attacked and eventually chased away Sigmundur Bretisson, the chieftain whose clan had ruled the southern islands for many years. Bretisson and many of his followers managed to flee to Norway, but the Norwegian king sent him right back with a mandate to reclaim the Faroe Islands in the name of the crown of Norway.

Sigmundur’s return was a success in some ways — he introduced Christianity to the islands, and Norwegian taxation was implemented at the behest of his king and under threat of beheading for those who failed to covert and/or pay up. But Sigmundur’s mission was a failure in other, perhaps more significant ways — at least to Sigmundur himself: he was murdered for his troubles. However, his efforts did lead to Norway retaining control of the Faroe Islands for the subsequent seven centuries or so, until 1814. That year, a losing war effort by Norway resulted in a treaty among the formerly warring trio of Scandinavian nations ceding control of the Faroe Islands to Denmark.

Faroe Islands

Governing the Faroe Islands in the modern era

Under Denmark’s control, trade for the Faroe Islanders was tightly controlled, with the crown maintaining a monopoly over everything the islanders bought and sold, preventing them from trading on their own even with nearby Britain and Scotland. By 1856 this arrangement was deemed untenable and the trade monopoly was abolished, which allowed the Faroe Islands to develop its own fleet of fishing vessels and more fully engage in commerce with its closer neighbours.

By 1888, fears of the Faroe Islands’ unique language being subsumed by the modern Danish language initiated the awakening of a spirit of nationalism among the Faroese, a movement that took on a broader cultural orientation over subsequent years. The sense of a proud, unique Faroe Islands culture that was distinct from the larger Danish culture from which it came eventually led to the formation of distinct political parties there in 1906.

Early on in World War II, the British occupied the Faroe Islands, seeing that it was a strategic location entirely too close to home to allow it to be a potential outpost for Germany. It was the British Royal Engineers who constructed the Faroe Islands’ airport, Vagar Airport, in 1942 and 1943. After the war ended, control of the Faroe Islands was ceded back to the government of Denmark, but by this time the grip of Danish rule over the Faroe Islanders was severely undermined. A vote for independence in 1946 won a bare majority, which the Danish government annulled, also dissolving the Faroe Islanders’ parliament. However, the pendulum toward decolonization and independence had swung too far to pull it back, and by 1948 the Faroe Islands were granted home-rule status by Denmark.

Life in the Faroe Islands today

These days, about half of the Faroe Islands’ people live in the capital city of Torshavn. The population of the capital of the Faroe Islands is just under 21,000 people who enjoy living in a metro area that has just three stop lights and completely free public transportation. Just as it was for their Viking forebears, the fishing industry is vital to the survival of the modern-day people of the Faroe Islands. Fishing and fisheries make up around 95 percent of the export income of the Faroe Islands, as well as 20 percent of the islands’ gross domestic product. Indeed, the Faroe Islands’ seafood is renowned for its quality, with locally produced lobster, salmon and Faroe Bank cod finding their way into top restaurants around the world.

The capital of Torvshavn, Faroe Islands is also home to a highly-regarded university, the University of the Faroe Islands, which enjoys a heavy investment in marine research and other study areas that reflect the islands’ close connection with the sea.

Tourism is also on the rise in the Faroe Islands, with the islands offering crisp, clean air unlike any in the world, and a remote location with tranquil areas that are largely untouched by modern pollution and other modern-day concerns. Hiking, camping, boating, kayaking, diving, and especially fishing are huge draws for visitors from around the world, and the tourism industry on the Faroe Islands has risen to meet the demand.

But visitors to the Faroe Islands are not restricted to life in the great outdoors. The capital city of Torshavn is a delight for tourists, with tons of shops featuring local crafts and especially Faroese knitting, a stunning variety of restaurants offering the freshest of seafood, renowned museums, and a charming city center with brightly painted old warehouse buildings and winding alleyways.

The Faroe Islands music scene is very big as well, with the islanders celebrating every summer with a number of world-renowned music festivals, including the progressive-oriented G! Festival in the tiny village of Syðrugøta. The gorgeous seaside setting features five stages including the main stage right on the beach, with access to saunas and hot pools for concertgoers to enjoy while they listen to the music in an unmatched surrounding landscape. The Summer Festival takes place in August and features three stages set up in the second-largest city in the Faroe Islands, Klaksvik. The festival offers tons of family-friendly activities as well as music by international and Faroese artists, overnight family camping areas, and a generally welcoming vibe for any and all. There are many more Faroe Islands music festivals as well, including a classical music festival, a country-blues festival, and even a winter jazz festival for the especially hardy visitor.

Faroe Islands

Go Faroe!

All in all, the Faroe Islands region is a snapshot of a unique world located far away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, but one that still offers visitors first-class accommodations, tourist attractions, dining, concerts and other festivals — of course with a bountiful and unmatchable outdoor playground to explore right on your doorstep. Make sure you put the Faroe Islands on your short list of places to visit next time you’re planning a vacation, and you won’t be disappointed when you book this off-the-beaten-track Danish holiday!

Faroe Islands FAQs

Where are the Faroe Islands?

The Faroe Islands are located about 200 miles north of Scotland, halfway between Iceland and Norway.

What’s the Faroe Islands population?

The population of the Faroe Islands as estimated for 2019 is 51,783. 

Where did the name ‘Faroe Islands’ come from?

It’s widely believed that the Faroese name for the Faroe Islands, Føroyar is derived from the Faroese word for islands and the old Norse word for sheep, so Sheep Islands is the meaning.

How to get to the Faroe Islands?

The Faroe Islands are served by a small airport, Vagar Floghavn, which has numerous flights in and out every day. A random search of flights from London or Copenhagen with a month’s advance notice turned up several round-trip tickets for under $300.

Is English spoken on the Faroe Islands?

The official Faroe Islands language is Faroese, and the Faroe Islanders also readily speak the mostly  interchangeable Nordic languages of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. But much like the rest of Denmark and Scandinavia as a whole, the people of the Faroe Islands are highly educated and thus most of them speak English as well, especially the younger generations.

What’s the Faroe Islands weather like?

With average summer highs in the low to mid 50s (11-13º C), this is probably the best time to visit the Faroe Islands. Residents are quick to point out that the temps can reach as high as the upper 60s and even low 70s (19-22ºC) in July and August. Surprisingly, winter temperatures aren’t necessarily all that bad, given the strong warming currents brought by the surrounding Atlantic Ocean. Average winter low temperatures are generally in the mid to upper 30s (1.3-3.4º C) although it can dip well below freezing. And if you do travel to the Faroe Islands in winter, keep in mind that they are located far enough north that the days are very short, and in summer there is perpetual civil twilight.

Why do the Faroe Islands people have grass on their roofs?

They may look like magical homes for hobbits, but the grass-roofed houses in the Faroe Islands are actually quite practical. Many houses in the Faroe Islands have grass roofs as they have had for generations—some say the tradition dates back to prehistory—as a way of insulating the house, keeping it both warm in winter and cooler in summer.

See the Faroe Islands from a sheep’s-eye view

Did you know that the population of sheep of on the Faroe Islands is nearly double that of the humans? The Faroe Islands tourism board took advantage of this fact in 2016 and strapped 360-degree view cameras onto a number of sheep, calling the project Sheepview360. Would-be visitors can still catch a glimpse of some of the rugged beauty of the islands’ more remote areas while the animals are off on their woolly wanderings!

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