The Faroe Islands

Bundled up in a dry suit, on a hundred-year-old Canadain schooner after having fished for lunch in the North Atlantic, the last thing I thought would happen would be to watch a fourteen-year-old light up a cigarette, pulled out of a plastic baggy to protect it from the damp and launch into a personal epic about his first Grind. To the group of us gathered below the deck to escape the frigid air, he explains to us that the public school system on the Isle ends at middle school, and an entrance exam is required to study in high school. He like many others did not pass his exams and began to work on a fishing trawler with his brothers, father, and uncles. Used to test literacy rates on the islands, this test is a harsh reality many families face. While help on the fishing boats is always welcome, the Faroese have come to see the disparity created in opportunities between those who are educated and leave to Denmark and those who stay, fossilized in Viking tradition. He seemed indifferent on the matter, like school was a waste of time, standing between him and the freedom he had found on the fishing trawler. That or his mother hadn’t found out about his smoking habit and the stench of rotting fish masked the smoke.

His name is Fryr after the twin Gods of war found in Norse mythology. It was his first week on his families fishing trawler, his grandfather’s premonition had kept the boat close to shore all week. He remembers the silence that fell over the ship, the thrum of energy passing over the crew as the sighting was called in. The When they arrived at the Grind, their entire community was already gathered on the beach wading into the shallows, nets draped over their shoulders, picks and whaling hooks ready. All available boats were circling the mouth of the inlet-driving the pilot whales towards the shore. The fog carried the coppery scent of blood out to the ocean, looking down at the water churning with the whales fear the black water had turned a brackish scarlet signalling that the hunt had officially begun.

Grindadráp or Grind is the practice of hunting and killing pilot whales in the Faroe Islands. A grind hunt holds symbolic meaning and subsistence to the Faroese, the meat usually air- dried is a delicacy and quite commonly found in households throughout the isle. It has always been an act of necessity rooted in a need for self- sufficiency and a need for a source of food. The Faroese are directly descended from the Vikings, living in a nearly inhospitable mountain archipelago between Iceland and Norway, North West of Scotland; whaling has provided them a much-needed food supply. It has lead to the survival of the people throughout history, most prominently in times when Danish Supply ship were blockaded by war, pirate attacks, and colonial oppression. In isolation living on a rock devoid of agricultural capabilities, the Grind has survived with the people it provides life to. The population of the Faroes is 50 000 people; they are a small group fighting to protect the last of their traditions and heritage. It is a tradition that has been passed through the generations, the skill required to utilize every part of the whale is a matter of pride amongst the Faroese. That day when Fryr took part in his first Grind, his grandfather began teaching him how to butcher the whale. Each family has a different technique to butchering and different tools used. They guard their secrets as viciously as the guard their heritage, as those who are more in touch with their Vikings roots are considered to have a spot reserved for them in Valhalla.

Looking back over the stern of the ship the sloping hills of the capital, Torshavn disappear into the backdrop, and the high wall of the rock face begin to loom over the side of the ship as we pull out into open water. With sails unfurled we pass waterfalls, sheer drops, and inlets leading to fjords. Each cliff and outcropping are more barren and windswept than the last. When we had circled to the most northern point of the island the sails were dropped and our hosts, in lilting Scandinavian accents bluntly informed us that we would be fishing for our lunch. Baffled, I begrudgingly took the first turn fishing for my schools delegation, as the second youngest of the group and friends with the older kids on the delegation I was an easy target for “voluntelling” and was often the butt of the joke. After I had awkwardly fumbled with the bait with several minutes Fryr was exasperated enough to bait the line for me. While I was pleased with myself, this assistance had earned me a series of sniggers from my friends. Despite all his help, I wasn’t able to bait a single fish. After a while even he joined in the laughing, but not before he had let loose a string of Faroese profanities in my direction.

The landscape from the water is barren, windswept, haunting, but beautiful. It’s post-apocalyptic nature personified in the geographies inhospitable plans and the hardiness of its people. The day after our fishing expedition we set out on a hike through the rugged landscape surrounding Torshavn. The constant cloud cover, 1325 mm of precipitation a year, and an average temperature of 9 degrees Celsius makes the ground set in permafrost with rivulets of run-off crisscrossing back into the Atlantic. We had left from the hostel in Torshavn before the sun rose and bussed a short distance outside of the town to the beginning of the hiking trail. Sleepily sitting down for coffee and a light breakfast we listened to our guide explain what we were to be up against that day. I didn’t pay attention. I was a cold, tired, complaining sixteen-year-old and this was before the hike even started.

The trail was a horror, by the time we had reached our first obstacle I regretted not paying attention to the mornings debrief. Unseasonably cold for mid- October the early morning frost made the trail slick and dangerous. What we thought to have been grass was a thin layer of reindeer moss covering the black rock beneath. The moss was slippery and the ever- present fog settled around us. Within the hour of walking through the cloud cover, we were all soaked, cold, and rushing to finish the trail. With the wind picking up, we were constantly finding one foot or another submerged into icy water, or necessitating a triple long jump over a crevice. Distracted first by the lack of visibility then by the wind raging around us I rarely stopped to take in the landscape surrounding me. Rocky spires jutted out above us; the wind ripped between peaks stealing our breath as icy fingers cut through our windbreakers. I must have fallen half a dozen times, being knocked around by the wind or accidentally dislodging the moss beneath my feet.

Feeling wind burnt and frozen we were all grateful to see our bus on the road in front of us. In a mad dash to get out of the cold, we all sprinted towards our waiting blankets and heaters. Comfortably burrowed under a blanket, I noticed that where we were at the same place we stopped to fish yesterday. In the fog and wind, we hadn’t realized how far across the island we have traveled. Passing lone huts on remote fjords as we drove around the island to get back to the hostel, we saw woolly sheep’s grazing in pastures and a rare tree every few kilometres. Seeing sheep brought humanity back to the landscape, if these animals could survive off of the few patches of grass that managed to cling to the mountain, then these people would as well.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Regina Mumford says:

    Love this journal …. Well done!

    1. HungryandWellDressed says:

      Thanks mama 🙂

  2. Sandra mimford says:

    What a great descriptive narrative of a very fascinating place, people and tradition. THIS is good writing steph! Wow! Loved it

    1. HungryandWellDressed says:

      Thanks Aunt Sandra!

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