by Michael Paul Reveal
Copyright © 2001 Michael Paul Reveal All Rights Reserved.

A trip to the National Historical museum is obviously a must for any visitor to the Faroe Islands.  Aside from the various displays portraying the evolution of the Faroes from a remote Viking stronghold to a modern, world-class fishing nation, I found the collection of Faroese boats at the museum most fascinating.  Patterned after the early Viking sailing vessels that plied the seas between Norway, the British Isles, Iceland, and beyond, the Faroese boat is uniquely adapted to the often quixotic seas surrounding the Faroes.  With a shallow draw and wide beam, the boats are designed for stability in rough seas and literally glide along over the tops of the swells.

The boats were used not only for fishing, but also for transport from island to island, bearing peat, cargo, people, and the occasional priest in rather fine style.  If you are lucky enough to time your visit at the end of July during Ólavsøka, the national Faroese holiday, you’ll be able to witness first-hand another most important use of the Faroese boat – racing.  Beginning in early April teams from throughout the Islands begin to practice, developing the stamina and teamwork needed to row ferociously across the open ocean from Argir to the Tórshavn pier in but a few minutes.  Literally thousands come to watch and cheer on their team. 

These racing boats are similar to traditional boats, but designed with only one goal in mind – to dash to the finish line first and thus there are subtle design differences.  For the purest, however, there are numerous boat associations that foster the ancient art of boat building.  Recently, I attended the launch of a specially built boat true in every detail to the historic boats of old.  In the old days, custom dictated that women could not be present at the launch of a boat, yet with this particular launch it was a grand and exciting day and the whole village had turned out in force to take part in the event.  Other boat clubs from throughout the archipelago had sailed their boats to the village as well to join the newly christened boat on its maiden voyage. 

In days of old, a goodly supply of food and drink was taken on board a newly launched boat to help bless its maiden sail to the fishing grounds, but was not consumed until the boat safely returned with a catch.  This time only a token amount of provisioning was done in honour of tradition, for the real party was to come later and go into the wee hours of the morning. 

Now one of the unique provisions that was often included on boats of old was specially imported from Denmark.  It was castoreum, a substance produced by beavers, would you believe, and noted for its curative powers from as far back as Hippocrates.  It was supposed to cure hysteria and other complaints and is reputed to have a foul smell and taste.  Now why would the Faroese fishermen stash a good supply of castoreum on their boats, why to ward off large whales, of course, which could easily terrorise a small wooden boat bobbing all alone far out to sea.  With only two square sails and slender oars for power it was always considered prudent to be prepared.

Now when one studies the old Faroese boats on display at the museum, one is immediately struck by the shape of the oars.  They are indeed slender creations.  The oar blade is not wide nor curved.  The oar is long and the blade end is no bigger than the rest of the oar.  At first glance, it seems inconceivable that these matchstick oars could power any boat.  Until one remembers the characteristic weather in the Faroes – strong winds. 

The wide, curving planes of other oar designs might well cut through the water with greater force, yet in a strong wind when they are brought out of the water in rhythmic stroke they would turn into rather effective sails, catching the wind with every stroke.  Experience is a great teacher and thus the Faroese designed an oar to match the special wind and sea conditions of the Faroes.  The curved side of a Faroese oar cuts through the air on the recovery stroke and the flat plane of the long oar cuts through the swells with ease on the power stroke.  Rowing with a slender oar may take time, but one is assured of eventually arriving back home.  So before you wend your way home, take a few hours to enjoy the museum and all that it offers.  You won’t be disappointed.


by Michael Paul Reveal
© 1999-2001 Michael Paul Reveal

In the midst of the small, secluded village of Fámjin at the end of a long, twisting road through a lake-filled valley, stands a small white church.  Within its cloistered walls hangs the foremost symbol of Faroese culture, pride, and independence.  It hangs unobtrusively in a glass case on the back wall of the church.  If one did not know it was there, it would be easy to pass it by in the dim light.  Locked away in its glass and wooden case, its colours have faded with the passage of time, yet the distinctive red cross with its outline of blue upon a white field still vibrates with the passion and hope that inspired its creation.  Protected within this silent sanctuary, surrounded by soaring cliffs, is the first Faroese flag. 

The year is 1919.  In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson is calling for the creation of the League of Nations and proclaiming the necessity of protecting the rights of minorities.  The Faroese are under the dominion of the Danish King.  Inspired by President Wilson’s proclamation of his legendary principles and the establishment of Iceland’s self-rule government within the Danish Kingdom, a small group of Faroese students studying in Copenhagen write to the Faroese Parliament encouraging them to assert more independence from Denmark, but their plea went unheeded.  Fresh from a celebration with fellow Icelandic students on the founding of self-rule in Iceland on 1 December 1918, this intrepid band of Faroese students decide to design a Faroese flag that could stand as a symbol their country.

The design of the Faroese flag is attributed to Jens Olivur Lisberg of Fámjin, a law student, and two of his close friends, Janus Øssursson from Tórshavn and Pauli Dahl from Vágur.  Ninna Jacobsen, who resided at the time in Copenhagen, sewed their design into a table flag.  Later, a Danish flag maker crafted other table flags, which were distributed among the students.  Louis Zachariasen took his table flag to a meeting of the Faroese Students’ Association in Copenhagen on 2 March 1919, which approved the design on 11 March 1919.  After approval of the design by the students, Jens Olivur Lisberg took the design to a flag maker, who produced a large flag.  Returning with their newly-crafted flag to Regensen, the student hostel were they lived in Copenhagen, they decided immediately to hang the flag out the window.  Kjartan Mohr later carried it aloft during an outing by the Students’ Association on 2 June 1919.  Shortly thereafter, Jens Olivur returned home for the summer to his native Fámjin with the flag.  After church services in the small church in Fámjin on 22 June 1919, the Faroese flag was hoisted for the very first time in the Faroes.

This precious symbol of national unity remained thereafter in Fámjin.  Jens Olivur, however, returned to Copenhagen to continue his legal studies.  Then in a tragic twist of fate, this visionary young man was struck down by the deadly Spanish influenza in August 1920 just as he began his last year of law school.  His was brought back to his homeland and laid to rest in the small cemetery surrounding the church in Fámjin.  A large black carved stone, erected by his fellow students and friends, marks his grave.

Years passed, and in 1931 a resolution was put forward in the Faroese Parliament to adopt the flag designed by Jens Olivur as the national symbol.  The resolution failed to pass, however, and the Faroese continued without an officially recognised national emblem until the early days of World War II.  On 9 April 1940, the army of the Third Reich overran Denmark and within a few days British troops had peacefully occupied the Faroe Islands in an effort to control and protect the shipping lanes between North America, Iceland and the United Kingdom. 

As soon as news spread in the Faroes that Denmark had been occupied, many Faroese ships soon sprouted the flag designed by Jens Olivur.  There was still much confusion, however, as to which flag Faroese ships should sail under.  This indecision quickly ended, as dramatically recorded by Captain Hans Mikkelsen in his ship’s log.  On 12 April 1940, one day after Winston Churchill announced the decision to have British forces occupy the Faroes, his ship, the Sørvágur fishing sloop, Eysturoy, got underway from Klaksvík with a load of fish on ice bound for Aberdeen.  He flew the Danish flag from the sloop’s mast.  On the following day, a British warship drew alongside and hailed the skipper, ordering him to follow it into Mullhead.  An officer of the British warship boarded the Eysturoy and told the skipper to immediately take down the Danish flag.  Skipper Mikkelsen inquired if he could have permission to fly the Faroese flag, to which the British officer agreed.  The Eysturoy eventually docked in Aberdeen on 16 April, the first ship to arrive in Aberdeen under Faroese colours.  Soon, all the Faroese fishing boats lying at anchor in Aberdeen were outfitted with newly sewn Faroese flags, patterned after the one flown by the Eysturoy, and provided by the British.

The resident Danish Governor in the Faroes protested this departure from international protocols and suggested a green flag with a white cross as a suitable Faroese flag, but the British authorities, after much debate, were not persuaded.  On 25 April 1940, BBC radio read a communiqué from the British Government announcing to all the world that henceforward all Faroese ships should fly the Faroese flag.  Overcome with gratitude, many Faroese visited British headquarters in Tórshavn to express their thankfulness and people paraded in the streets with their Faroese flags flying.  Now all the Faroese ships needed flags and Maria Nielsen of Tórshavn, wife of the local sail maker, began to sew Faroese flags in earnest, a job she continued until 1962.  April 25th is still remembered as Flag Day in the Faroes and national celebrations are held on this day each year to commemorate this most eventful moment in Faroese history.

After the war, the Faroese entered into negotiations with the Danish authorities to establish self-rule in the Faroes.  After long debate, a Home Rule agreement was reached in 1948.  As part of that agreement, the Faroese flag designed by Jens Olivur was adopted as the national symbol.  Jens Olivur’s visionary design, born in 1919, was finally to fly officially over the land.  In June of 1959, the original blue colour outlining the red cross, which was similar in hue to the Norwegian flag, was modified for the lighter shade of blue seen in today’s flags, but the original design of Jens Olivur Lisberg and his student friends was left untouched.


By Michael Paul Reveal
© 1999-2001 Michael Paul Reveal

Over one thousand years ago most of the people living in the lands washed by the waves of the North Atlantic spoke some variety of Old Norn, the language of the ancient Vikings.  Similarities in language and heritage nurtured trade and political union among these far-flung countries.  Linguistic variations began to develop, of course, as one generation merged into the next.  Politics and religion, however, ultimately coloured and shaped the linguistic destinies of these North Atlantic neighbours.

Somewhere around 1468, King Christian I of Denmark betrothed his daughter, Princess Margaret, to King James III of Scotland.  As in most trans-national marriages of convenience, real estate was a part of the dowry, and in this case King Christian I pledged the Orkneys and Shetland against payment of the dowry.  When the marriage contract collapsed in 1471 because the dowry had not been paid, the islands exchanged hands.  Thus, it was that the Orkneys and Shetland, long bastions of Old Norn dialects, suddenly became a part of Scotland and their language heritage took an immediate turn to the south to be flavoured by an Anglo-Saxon twist. 

The Faroe Islands also came close to a similar fate.  Not so many years after the Orkneys and Shetland joined Scotland, the aristocracy of the Danish realm deposed King Christian II.  He fled to Holland in 1523 and was quickly replaced by King Frederik I.  Ex-King Christian II continued, however, to consider the Faroes as his own personal property, despite the fact that the Faroese Parliament at their annual meeting in July 1524 had accepted King Frederik I as their king. 

Living in Holland as an exile, ex-King Christian II needed a source of income and he soon dispatched his Chancellor-in-exile, Klaus Pederson, to King Henry VIII of England to seek a sizeable loan.  As collateral for this loan between kings, he offered not only the Faroes, but also Iceland.  King Henry VIII respectfully declined this impressive offer, obviously very aware of the somewhat suspect ownership rights of ex-King Christian II to these island lands in the far mists of the North Atlantic. 

Some twelve years later around 1536, the new King of Denmark, Christian III, had troubles of his own with the noblemen of the realm as civil war raged in the land.  In need of ready cash to pursue his cause against the nobles, he, like his predecessor, turned to England and King Henry VIII.  Good King Henry again magnanimously received an ambassador from Denmark intent upon forging a land-for-money deal.  King Christian III needed 100,000 pounds.  In exchange for this formidable sum, he was willing to turn over Iceland and the Faroes in their entirety to England.  History does not record how long Henry VIII pondered upon the long-term implications of this land deal, but in the end he again declined and the ambassador returned empty-handed to Denmark.  Thus, on such twists of fate and kingly-disinterest, the political and linguistic destinies of Iceland and the Faroe Islands were sealed.

Two years or so after King Christian III attempted his land barter with the King of England, the Reformation arrived in the Faroe Islands and as a consequence nearly plunged the Faroese language into extinction.  King Christian III, still short of cash, moved quickly to confiscate nearly two-thirds of the property of the Catholic Church in the Faroes, which had held religious dominion over the Faroes for over 500 years.  Eventually, the last Catholic Bishop, Jens Riber, departed the Faroes for Stavanger, Norway in 1557 and the Faroes came under the control of the Lutheran Bishop of Bergen and then later the Lutheran Bishop of Zealand in Denmark. 

As a consequence of this rapid turn of events, the official language of church and government was declared to be Danish.  Faroese, a flourishing, developing language, suddenly disappeared from all official written and oral discourse.  Faroese was relegated to hearth and home.  In spite of these restrictions, the language survived down through the centuries by people sharing orally ancient ballads, folktales, and local history and place names around the hearth, old teaching young, generation upon generation. 

Some 250 years later, a young Faroese scholar, Jens Christian Svabo (1746-1824) obtained a royal commission to prepare a report on the Faroes for the Danish King, a task that he completed between 1781 and 1782.  At the same time, Svabo set about collecting and transcribing traditional Faroese ballads.   Because Faroese had not been written down for almost 250 years, Svabo lacked an official orthography by which to transcribe the verses of the ballads into a written form.  He thus set about creating his own orthography based on the dialect of his home village, Mi?vágur on Vágar.  In 1814, one of his transcribed ballads was published in a Swedish folk-poetry anthology.  This is the first ever publication of Faroese text.  Svabo at the same time worked diligently on the compilation of a Faroese-Danish-Latin dictionary.  Word usage was given in Faroese and Latin sentences.  This monumental manuscript remained unpublished, however, until 1966 when the Faroese scholar, Prof. Christian Matras, arranged for its publication by the University of the Faroe Islands, shortly after the university was founded.

In 1823, the Gospel of St. Matthew was translated into written Faroese, but was met with great scepticism by the Faroese themselves, long conditioned to Danish as the official church language.  The Faroese Sagas were also translated into Faroese using the orthography of Svabo.  The impetus to radically alter the language status quo in the Faroes, however, did not take wing until the Danish Roskilde Assembly proposed a resolution making Danish the language of instruction in the elementary schools in the Faroes.  In response to this mandate, a young Faroese divinity student living in Copenhagen wrote an article that was published in a Copenhagen newspaper on 19 December 1844.  He declared that, contrary to official Danish beliefs, Faroese was an independent language and not a mere dialect of Danish.  This young divinity student cum linguist was Venceslaus Ulricus Hammershaimb, who immediately set about to create a unifying orthography of written Faroese that would reflect its Old Norn roots.

Two years later, in 1846, Hammershaimb published three folktales in Faroese along with a guide to pronunciation.  The same year Danish authorities finally mandated all elementary education to be conducted in Danish.  Opposition was so strong, however, that the regulation was rescinded in 1854, the same year Hammershaimb published his first Faroese grammar.  Yet full recognition of Faroese as an official language of church and government was still not fully accepted even by the Faroese themselves.  When Hammershaimb delivered his famous 1855 New Year’s sermon in Faroese, he shocked his small Kvívík congregation so much that he hesitated to ever again give another sermon in Faroese.  It wasn’t until the high church minister, A. C. Evensen, in 1902, delivered a sermon in Faroese in the church in Skopun that people began to accept the notion that Faroese could be the official language of the country.

In 1912, contrary to this emerging ideal, the Danish government again passed a law directing that Danish would be the language of instruction in all schools in the Faroes.  Although softened in 1920 to let younger students study in Faroese, this law remained in effect for older students until it was finally repealed in 1938.  The respected priest, Jákup Dahl, published his Faroese translation of the New Testament in chapters between 1921 and 1937, but he died before completing the Old Testament.  It was not until 1961 that a complete Lutheran Bible and hymnal were published in Faroese.  Interestingly, the Plymouth Brethern, an evangelical sect arriving from Shetland in 1865 and who now constitute some ten percent of the Faroese population, had long had the Bible in Faroese.  Beginning in 1914, sermons were always conducted in Faroese and their Faroese hymnal was published in 1920 followed by the complete Bible in 1949.

After years of political debate, the Faroe Islands Home Rule Act of 1948 was adopted.  This agreement recognised Faroese as the official language of the Faroes.  The Danish authorities, however, demanded that Danish should have equal status in official discourse.  As a consequence even today, the language of the courts is predominantly Danish and the laws promulgated by the Faroese Parliament are printed in parallel Danish-Faroese texts. 

Despite the continuing duality of languages in the Faroes, impressive steps have recently taken place that will undoubtedly protect and preserve the integrity of the Faroese language for generations to come.  In the building housing the Faroese Language Department of the University of the Faroe Island is the very essence of Faroese language and culture, locked away in a vault behind a thick steel door.  Filed away in this vault in small, narrow black boxes are nearly 700,000 index cards each bearing a Faroese word, and on some its definition and literary source.  Along side this impressive depository of culture are reel after reel of recordings of elderly Faroese sharing old ballads or folk tales or place names, all in an attempt to preserve the core of a language that at one time bordered on extinction. 

After years of painstaking and detailed preparation work, the vast majority of the words transcribed on the index cards locked away in the vault were gathered together in the first-ever Faroese mono-lingual dictionary, which was published in the middle of 1998.  Eight years in actual production, everyone in the Faroe Islands greeted this overwhelmingly detailed and well-annotated dictionary with great joy and enthusiasm.  With the publication of this historic, monumental work, the Faroe Islands, a small country with only 46,000 people has taken another major step, against all odds, in preserving and protecting its unique language and cultural heritage.  

The publication of this tremendous undertaking is even more poignant and significant in light of the fact that the Danish government recently refused to acknowledge that Faroese is a distinct and independent national language.  In a European Council charter document regarding the protection of minority languages within the national boundaries of member states, the Danish Government declared that Faroese was a minority language within Denmark, even though the Faroe Islands is not a member of the EU and is not eligible for any funding meant to foster minority languages in the EU.  Denmark included the Faroese language in the charter over the strong objections of the Faroese people and their Parliament.  Given the on-going debate over Faroese independence, this contemporary action of Denmark to diminish the national character of Faroese and the Faroe Islands highlights the historical and multifaceted complexity of the evolution of the Faroese language.


By Michael Paul Reveal
© 1999 Michael Paul Reveal

The Faroese textile artist welcomed me into her studio.  I thanked her for her hospitality and the opportunity to consult with her about Faroese wool and the increasing interest in pure, Faroese woollen clothing.  Her many works of art adorned the walls.  One beautiful piece had been crafted by blending abandoned scraps of unprocessed wool with brilliantly coloured, woven bands of wool.  My eyes drifted about her workroom, trying to absorb the artistry of this accomplished craftswoman.  Lying here and there about the room were pieces of unfinished artwork.  A woven, woollen jacket hung on a hanger from a window, small piles of washed and unwashed Faroese wool were scattered about, and an old, much-loved brown sweater had been carelessly tossed upon a chair, waiting to be wrapped about the shoulders to comfort against the damp. 

My eyes fell upon one of two weaving looms dominating the far corner of her studio.  She followed my glance and we walked over together to take a closer look.  I was amazed at the complexity of the largest loom.  It was a most complicated assortment of levers and pedals, of taut strands of coloured yarn, and the mere beginnings of a woven fabric of delicate design and colour.  She sat down on the bench of the loom and I stood spellbound as the loom came to life under her deft touch, the design of the weaving slowly becoming manifest, as the strands of warp and woof intermingled. 

“The poets were right,” I mused.  “The weaving loom is a perfect symbol of life and in the Faroes it certainly has helped to weave a culture of priceless beauty.” 

“Aye, that is true,” she responded.  “Without it we could not have created much of our clothing in the old days, or today for that matter.  Behind you, I’m working on the cloth for the national dress of a friend of mine.”

I turned about and indeed the smaller loom had been strung with the distinctive dark red and deep, deep blue thread of a Faroese woman’s skirt.  She had yet to start on the task of weaving the fabric and I asked her how long it would take her to complete enough material for her friend’s dress.  She smiled up at me and said that it would take many, many hours, but it did not matter.  It was a labour of love. 

As she spoke, my mind flooded with memories of other Faroese men and women with whom I had spoken about their national dress and the loving looks that shone upon their faces as they fingered the material of their vest or skirt.   To create the fabric and fashion the wool into such beauty takes many such dedicated, loving hours.  Many are the grandmothers and mothers who have laboured throughout the long winters to grace their families in summer with the various elements of the Faroese national dress.

Traditionally, woollen yarn was woven into va?mál, or homespun, and the cloth soaked in large tubs to full.  Afterwards the cloth was wound up on a round beam to dry and then later pressed.  The process has become more mechanised over the centuries, but the actual process of preparing today’s woollen fabric remains much the same as in days of old.

The tightly woven, woollen cloth for the trousers of the men’s Faroese national dress is dyed jet black.  In the old days, crane’s bill grass and black mud taken from the marshes was used to achieve the deep black required.  The trousers are cut three-quarter length with a side vent at the knee, closed with rounded silver buttons.  The knitted woollen socks, often light blue or dark brown in colour, are held in place by woven garters of red, white and blue.  Shoes are black with large, square silver buckles.  Traditionally, red and blue striped caps, called húgvur, were worn by the young men, while older men and widowers wore caps of dark and light blue stripes.

Today, most men wear a white shirt and black tie, covered by a woven, wool vest.  The vest can be of many colours following the taste of the individual person, but predominant is red, embroidered with dark blue thread in the most intricate of designs.  Older men may wear vests of deep black embroidered with tread of many different colours.  Over the vest is worn a cardigan of unusual design and construction.  Typically, it is a solid dark blue in colour or knitted with small light and dark blue patterns.  What is distinctive are the twelve, rounded silver buttons and twelve buttonholes on each side of the cardigan. 

Traditionally, a jakkasjóstúku, a long, knee-length frock coat of woven, black wool was worn over the vest and cardigan.  Another type of coat, called a koti?, was also worn.  The koti? came to just below the waist and was woven of brown wool.  Because these coats are very expensive to make and require many hours to produce, few men today are seen wearing them.  One woollen mill in the Faroes, however, is attempting to provide the material needed for a similarly designed frock coat at a reasonable price.  The finishing work is left to the individual purchaser, thus reducing the cost considerably.  It is hoped that by this method more and more Faroese men will be able to add a distinctive coat to their national dress as in days of old.  Others who have inherited their coats from older relatives have decided to wear them more often than just for official, national holidays in order to keep alive the tradition and to enjoy the pleasure of wearing such exceptional, ancestral clothing. 

Well-to-do, high-class, Faroese women, usually the wives and daughters of rich farmers, merchants or priests, for generations wore long, fancy dresses of imported silk or cloth, known as stakkur, red or blue in colour and bedecked with silver belts and a large brooch called a stakkanál.  Over the years, however, this imported, festive dress was abandoned in favour of skirts made of homespun, woven into red and dark blue stripes, which had been worn traditionally by the majority of Faroese women.  The skirts were made of five widths of material, in all about three metres wide, pleated around with the opening on the left side.  A short-sleeve, knitted jersey is worn over a plastron and held together by elaborate silver chains and clasps.  The jerseys are knitted normally in a wide variety of red and blue patterns, but often, white accents are added. 

Individual creativity, however, shines resplendent not only in the creation of the jerseys, but also in the woven apron designs and the often matching, fringed shawls that are tucked into the jersey.  Aprons are a beautiful compliment to the women’s national dress and truly express a richness of pattern and detail that inspires the heart.  A gathering of women during national festivals becomes a veritable flower garden of vivid diversity.  In the old days, however, what colour of apron was worn was very important.  A light coloured apron of red or white was worn to festivals and weddings.  A red, or blue, or white apron was preferable for Sundays.  Everyday use required a darker coloured apron.

Stockings and shoes are black with silver buckles gracing the shoes.  Older women wear bonnets of silk to match the rest of their dress, but many of today’s younger women prefer to go bareheaded with their hair styled up, although they may wear their bonnet attached to their silver-buckled belt by its long ties.  Complimenting the entire national costume is the black cape, or møttul, normally with a red or blue silk or cotton lining, held together at the throat with a chain of silver.

The national dress is worn throughout the year for important, festive occasions, like weddings and other similar celebrations.  The lingering light of summer, however, is a magical time of year and many wear their national dress to the many festivals that take place during summer.  The national holiday, Ólavsøka, held during the last week in July is especially festive with many wearing their national dress.  The streets of the capital, Tórshavn, are filled with strolling, elegantly dressed folk of all ages.  During Ólavsøka the Faroese Parliament is convened and the members of Parliament, along with the Lutheran priests of the country, march in procession to church for services and then to the parliament building for an address by the Prime Minister.  Many of the 32 members of Parliament wear their national dress and the picturesque procession with its wealth of colour is a delight to behold.

In the various outlets of the Heimavirki Føroyskt, the Faroese Home Industries, located throughout the country, one can find one-of-a-kind examples of the national dress available for sale.  The shawls are especially distinctive and make a wonderful memory of your stay in the Faroes.  The handsome, red and blue caps worn by the men are available as well and are guaranteed to keep one’s head warm no matter what the winter winds may bring.


By Michael Paul Reveal
© 1999 Michael Paul Reveal

We huddled around a small kitchen table, drying out after escaping a sudden winter storm.   As the rain pelted down on the tin roof with a pulsating, staccato beat, conversation soon turned to the ancient, Faroese chain dance.  The eyes of the young woman sitting across from me flashed and her gaze drifted to the window and to the hills and fjord beyond.  At the age of twenty, she is one of the youngest skipari, or ballad singers, of Faroese dance and her reputation is known even in distant villages.  When I talked to her about this important aspect of Faroese culture and what Faroese dance meant to her personally, words did not come easily to her.  She curled up in the soothing warmth of her Faroese wool sweater, embracing it, running her slender fingers over its softness in search of the strange, foreign English words she needed to capture the essence of her culture.

“My father would sing ballads to me and my sister as we would drive along,” she slowly began, “…to make the time go quickly.  I loved to sing with him.  I would get caught up in the song…in the story of the song…and the time would slip by.”  Her head began to sway to a remembered melody and she grew distant for a moment, lost in her own reverie.  She suddenly began to sing, her lilting voice powerfully enchanting and I caught a glimmer of the magic she possessed.  She chanted only a few brief measures, but it was enough to transport me to roykstovas of old and I could feel the rhythmic step of a hundred generations reliving their history and forging new, as they embraced this most ancient of dances.

The Faroese chain dance derives from Western European ring dances and is the only extant version of this most popular dance style from the Middle Ages.  Probably arriving in the Faroes from Norway, the dance is simple of step – two steps left, one step right – yet in that elemental pattern beats the very heart of Faroese culture.  The dancers, linked hand-over-hand and heart-to-heart, steadily and passionately dance in an endless, twisting circle of history.  They do not dance to the beat of any instrument, however.  They dance to the chant of powerful verses of ancient ballads.  A skipari, joined by one or two others, leads the song and sets the tone of the dance.  As the skipari begins each verse, all the other dancers soon join him or her, with everyone chanting the seemingly endless verses of the ballad together. 

“When I was ten or eleven, I learned by heart the Skrímsla ballad, which has about sixty verses, I think.  I love to chant it.  But my favourite is Brynhildartáttur with 248 verses.”  She paused again in reflection and then began again.  “One time in school all the students had to learn Sigmundur’s Kvæ?i, not all of it, but many verses.  The teacher asked me to be the skipari when all the classes came together to dance it.  I was maybe thirteen at the time.  I guess I’m naturally theatrical, because that is actually more important than having a wonderful or strong voice.  You have to feel the magic and the power of the poetry of the ballad in your heart and then sing it so that others can feel it as well.  I guess you could say that the dancers actually act out the ballad.  Anyway, it is wonderful when it happens right…”  She trailed off, suddenly shy.

Most of the ballads are extremely old and form part of the West Nordic heritage, yet no other country has preserved the ballads so faithfully.  Some historians conclude that the oldest Faroese ballads are from the 13th and 14th centuries.  The earliest recorded mention of Faroese dancing is in 1616.  The Icelander, Jón Ólafsson Indíafari, relates an evening he spent with Mikkjal í Lamba on Eysturoy in which he describes the evening entertainment as “round dances in the Faroese fashion with song and ballads.” 

Faroese dance is divided into three main groups: kvæ?i or heroic ballads, vísur or folk ballads, and tættir or satirical songs.  For the most part, the kvæ?i are based on Germanic and Medieval European themes, such as the Great Migration or King Charlamagne, and are by far the most important ballads used in Faroese dance.  Other ballads are based on Nordic history, mythology, or the Edda tales.  Most of the kvæ?i ballads are composed in the typical Scandinavian poetic style in which the 2nd and 4th lines of each stanza rhyme and the 1st and 3rd lines do not.  The Sjúr?ar-kvæ?ini, however, is in a poetic style that indicates a connection with Scottish/English folk ballad composition.  Some of the ballads are 400 to 670 stanzas long, but most are in the range of 100 to 200 stanzas. 

The ballads are thus a treasure-trove of history, real and mythic, and were passed down orally generation to generation.  In the beginning of the 19th century, a few individuals began to write down the ballads.  Later, toward the end of the 19th century, these scattered records were compiled in an extensive work called the Corpus Carminum Færoensium.  This work records some 70,000 stanzas in sixteen volumes, which bears testimony to the tremendous role the chain dance played in Faroese culture.

The dancing season of old extended from Boxing Day until the first Monday of Lent when the season closed with a special ceremony.  Today there is still no dancing during Lent, but people gather during any festive occasion to dance together. On the 29th of July, during Ólavsøka, people from all over the country gather to celebrate the Faroese national holiday with singing and chain dancing that continues throughout the night.

A good skipari knows many of the ballads by heart.  A skipari who is an especially gifted dramatist-singer is called a kvæ?akempa.  Each skipari brings his or her magic to the ballads.  In some cases, the text of a particular ballad may vary and a skipari’s village background can be recognised by the distinctive variations in the text he or she chants.  Variations in dancing style also exist within the Faroes.  Most notable is the unique style of the remote village of Sumba on the southern tip of the island of Su?uroy.  Renowned for their strength, their style of dancing is very energetic.  They hold themselves at arm’s length and lift their feet high in vibrant re-enactment of the ballad’s story. 

In the comfort of a pleasant Vágur home on Su?uroy, over coffee and open-faced sandwiches, I chatted with several well-known skipari from Sumba.  They were obviously proud of their dancing tradition, and well they should be for the village dancers had captured the prestigious Freiherr von Stein Award for European Folk Art in 1977.  As I phrased each question and it filtered through the translator, they would take sidelong glances at each other.  At times, a smile would cross their faces in a shared memory. 

“I remember,” began one of the men, “in the old days those under fourteen could not participate in the dance.  Now it’s not like that.  Drinking became a big problem over the years.  Some of the religious groups frowned on so much drinking.  My family stopped dancing for many years.” 

“Actually it’s impossible to drink and dance well,” he reflected.  Chuckling and smiling to all around the table, he said, “If you have been drinking too much you can’t keep up.  Jo, that’s true.  The best dances are those that move from one ballad to the next without stopping.  As soon as one skipari is finished another one starts.  That’s when its best.  If you get tired you just step out of the circle and rest a bit.”

The other Sumba man slowly put down his coffee cup and looked over at the translator and then gave a glance toward me.  “They tell me my father was a good skipari, but he stopped when his church told him it was wrong.  Nevertheless, I began to learn the ballads and sing when I was about eighteen.   I guess was rebelling, I don’t know.  But I kept at it.  Dancing is very special in Faroese culture.  It’s almost holy in a way.  A way of life is transmitted.  Respect is taught to the young…how to work together.  A good skipari is a good manager of people.  You have to sense the mood of the people, when, for example, it would be good to switch to a shorter ballad or one that is happier and lighter in tone.”  He took another sip of his coffee.  “When the dance is going well the atmosphere in the room is very… it’s very….” 

I could tell both he and the translator were struggling to find the words to describe the wonder and magic I personally have experienced in a small room on a dark, wintry night linked hand-in-hand with my friends.  As we all raise our voices in song, reliving a cherished history, a tremendous feeling of connection develops, of culture at once preserved and renewed.  It is a powerful feeling beyond words.


By Lynn Reveal
Copyright © 2000-2001 Lynn Reveal  All Rights Reserved.

From a distance, the angular profiles of the eighteen isles that comprise the Faroe Islands are a striking emerald-green in summer.  On closer approach, rocky layers become apparent, cutting the green expanse with horizontal stripes of black and grey.  Glistening, silver ribbons of water cascade down to the sea through deeply worn clefts in the dark rock, and the sea itself breaks upon a jagged shoreline.  However, from the perspective of a boat under a vertical sea cliff rising hundreds of meters into the sky the predominant feature is rock – soaring, dark, angular, and massive.  Science has revealed the origins of these rocky layers.  The rock of the Faroes is older than the North Atlantic itself.

The Faroes are remnants of ancient layers of lava, spewed out from volcanoes more than 50 million years ago.  One hundred million years ago, scientists believe, Greenland and the Faroes were part of a vast European continent.  A landmass broke away from the western part of the continent, drifted, expanded, and thickened with volcanic activity.  Geologists tell us that lava covered this region in three successive phases or series of volcanic activity.  The whole Faroese archipelago tilts from west to east, so as a general rule of thumb, older basalt layers can be seen in the vertical western cliffs and the more recent basalt layers are found sloping into the sea in the east.

The earliest series oozed from long fissures in the earth.  These initial lava flows created layers much thicker than later periods of volcanic activity and because the chemical content of the lava varies, it is believed that it came from two distinct sources.  This lower basalt series is up to 890 m thick and rests on the surface of the ancient continent.

A long period of quiet followed these first lava flows.  The elapsed time was great enough for vegetation to accumulate that would later be transformed into coal.  Coal bearing layers occur on several of the islands.  An active coal mine still exists today near the village of Hvalba on the southernmost island of Su?uroy.

This period of quiet was followed by an explosive resurgence of volcanic activity.  Great quantities of ash engulfed the region.  This ash formed layers of tuft, ranging in colour from red to grey.  The large amount of ash led scientists to conclude that the volcanoes were the origin for the lava of the middle basalt series, which is up to 1300 m thick.  Remnants of ten volcanic vents are found throughout the islands.  Two of these vents can be found on the east side of the island of Koltur.

The upper basalt series is approximately 400 m thick and the individual layers comprising this level are thinner than the earlier series.  The boundary between the middle and upper basalt series is visible in the hills around Klaksvík on the island of Bor?oy in the northern reaches of the archipelago.

When the volcanic period finally ended, the lava that had been laid down was nearly three kilometres thick in places.  The heavy layers settled and cracked.  The whole region subsided and the Faroes and Greenland drifted apart.  The sea eventually covered the lower lying regions and eroded the plateau.  The only volcanic activity remaining today is at the ridge where the sea floor is still separating.  Iceland now sits atop this ridge.

The portion of the plateau that originally drifted to the east may have been as large as two to three million square kilometres.  Today, remnants of this plateau, now nearly totally submerged beneath the sea, cover an area of about 250,000 square kilometres.  The eighteen islands of the Faroes, covering some 1400 square kilometres, is the only part of the plateau still above sea level.  The Wyville-Thompson Ridge, the Faroe Bank, and the Rockall and Porcupine Banks west of Scotland are the highest regions of the submerged plateau.  The shallow seas above these ridges are some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

Even the most amateur of geologists can identify some of the most interesting geologic features in the Faroes, which can be reached on easy day hikes or observed from the deck of a boat.  About 800 gjógv (deep, narrow gorges that cut through the hills or sea cliffs) are scattered throughout the islands.  A gjógv is formed by erosion of areas where pressure has caused weakness in parallel layers or where intrusive lava was less resistant than surrounding rock.  They are also formed by the collapse of sea caves that had been subjected to strong wave action.  Whatever the cause of their formation, they are quite spectacular.  Perhaps the most well know gjógv can be found in the village of the same name where the boat landing is protected by the steep narrow walls of the gorge.

Columnar basalt can also be found throughout the islands.  Columns form in basalt layers when lava solidifies at very high temperatures – as much as 1200ºC.  As the lava cools, cracks form, which are perpendicular to the direction of cooling.  Under ideal conditions, the basal fractures in perfect hexagons.  Columnar basalt can be seen from the ferry as it passes south of the village of Fro?ba on the way to the dock in Drelnes on the island of Su?uroy.  On the sea cliffs just north of Fro?ba, an example of curved vertical layers can be seen.  It is believed that the curving resulted from interaction with water during the cooling process.

The stone forest on the island of Mykines, reachable on an easy day hike, is another fine example of columnar basalt.  Another day hike on the island of Streymoy from the valley of Kollafjør?ur to the village of Skælingur takes you over the top of a region of columnar basalt where the hexagonal patterns can be seen on the ground beneath your feet.  Truly an amazing sight!

For more serious geologists, another feature common in the Faroes may be of interest.  Due to erosion, sills are exposed in several areas.  A sill forms when new lava forces its way between existing horizontal layers.  Sills may form in the shape of bowls when the lava forces its way to higher layers at the distant edges of the flow.  This bowl of lava can raise and displace the older layers of lava found within it.  Exposed areas of the Eysturoy sill can be seen above the village of Selatræ? north to the village of Oyri on the west side of the island of Eysturoy.

Geologists speculate that vast oil deposits lie beneath the Faroes.  Oil bearing sediments that perhaps exist on the surface of the original continent and are now buried under the thick basalt may soon be tapped by the current generation of Faroese as sophisticated technology allows us to penetrate nearly three kilometres of ancient rock.

Take time to explore the rock of the Faroes.  Enjoy lichen-covered stone walls.  Follow the stone cairns that mark the old footpaths between villages.  Gaze up at sea cliffs that are home to millions of migratory sea birds.  Hike across exposed layers of basalt in the hills and marvel at the vertical sea stacks standing sentinel throughout the islands.  Walk upon these islands and reflect on the fact that the solid rock beneath your feet exists against all odds.  These 1400 square kilometres of tenacious rock are all that is left of an ancient plateau covering two or three million square kilometres.  Sense the ancient soul of the rock that surrounds you….rock that was here long before the sea itself.