No animal is more synonymous with the Faroe Islands than sheep. The name Føroyar comes from an old Norse translation that literally means “sheep islands,” so they’ve probably always outnumbered humans. It certainly seems like they own the place, roaming the archipelago with abandon, their fleece often allowed to grow long and wild. Sheep have always been a vital part of the Faroese culture: their wool a source of warmth, their fermented meat a staple of Faroese cuisine.
Last night I watched a 1992 episode of Land & Sea, the long-running CBC documentary series about Newfound and Labrador. The CBC YouTube account has a playlist with over 120 episodes, digitized in all of their low-resolution glory. These videos provide us a glimpse into rural Newfoundland, acting as a fascinating time capsule of coastal outport life.
As a collector of Faroese stamps, I look forward to receiving the Posta Stamps magazine. It always teaches me something new about the Faroe Islands, and the latest issue has introduced me to the American-Faroese artist Joel Cole. One of the first stamp releases in 2021 showcases his work, a six-stamp minisheet featuring sculptures that explore the immigrant experience. On his Instagram account Cole notes that these selected pieces are just a subset of some 80 pieces he created for this series addressing “ideas surrounding human immigration and integration.”
Stuck at home during the global pandemic, one of the things I miss the most is live music. It’s always been an important part of my life, and while I love my favorite venues, I always jump at the opportunity to hear live music in unconventional places. Living room concerts, street festivals, in-store performances, warehouses, boats, coal mines. Today I added a new experience to my live music wishlist: the Concerto Grotto, a series of sea cave concerts in the Faroe Islands.
You could say that Tim Severin is a historical re-enactor, but that would conjure all the wrong images, of renaissance fairs and Colonial Williamsburg. At nearly 80 years old, his accomplishments are better described as experiential archaeology, recreating legendary journeys to prove they could have happened. His historical adventures are based on years of upfront study, working with scholars to decipher ancient texts and find period-appropriate technology and materials. I only recently learned about Severin’s work, through his 1978 book that documents a fascinating early project called The Brendan Voyage.
Islands aren’t always synonymous with isolation, and a tightly grouped archipelago can create a shared sense of identity. Sometimes that relationship results in a hierarchy, where islands like Streymoy or Eysturoy in the Faroe Islands are referred to as the “mainland” when compared with the smaller outliers. In other places, like the Aleutian Islands, the chain of siblings is so long that they’re often lumped together as a whole.
In contrast, the tiny island of Sula Sgeir sits truly alone. Technically part of the British Isles, it’s separated from its nearest inhabited neighbor by 40 miles of rough North Atlantic sea. But despite that distance there is a strong tie between the island and the distant village of Ness. Sula Sgeir is a plentiful breeding ground for northern gannets — and every year, for centuries, a small group of men spends two weeks on the island hunting them.
I didn’t go outside much during the last two weeks, and I’m guessing that neither did you. COVID-19 is ravaging the world, and we’re only just beginning the strange solidarity of fighting it together, by staying apart. In the best of times modern life can be racked with anxiety, so in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and accompanying economic collapse, how do we stay sane?. We need a Happy Place: somewhere that makes us feel calmer just by thinking about it. That place for me is the Faroe Islands, and while the country is asking people to avoid visiting right now, I found the next best thing by staying inside and devouring The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year by Tim Ecott.
Competition between streaming video services has become intense, with each company struggling to define its unique value as movie studios pull their content and create their own platforms. I primarily watch Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and while I prefer the original content on Netflix I love how Amazon has embraced the long tail. You may not find your favorite blockbuster steaming on Prime, but you will find deep cuts including foreign language shorts and incredibly niche British television. As someone with a taste for the unusual and oddly specific, I love mining this obscure archive.
My latest obsession is the prolific genre of motorcycle adventure videos, and there are countless to choose from. Their abundance no doubt stems from their ease of funding: sending a few guys off with bikes and cameras won’t guarantee a huge success, but it won’t set you back much either. I’ve watched a group trek from London to Beijing, a pair of riders circumnavigate India, and most recently enjoyed GlobeRiders: Iceland Expedition a month-long motorcycle trip across Iceland.
I could fly to the Faroe Islands right now. It would take a few connections from Pittsburgh, but soon I’d be looking out the window of an Atlantic Airways flight and trying to name the islands, if I could make them out through the fog. But that accessibility is a modern phenomena, and for most of its history the tiny archipelago was a distant place, a significant sea journey from anywhere. Isolation required self sufficiency, which led to a unique food culture, distinct even from its Scandinavian neighbors. Fermented lamb, boiled pilot whale, braised guillemot, puffin stuffed with cake. These dishes bear the imprint of the landscape itself. Faroese food is the creative output of natural constraints, defined by both what was missing (fertile soil, salt) and what was plentiful (steep bird cliffs, grassy mountains, deep ocean inlets).
The shoreline of the Faroe Islands is almost entirely composed of steep and dangerous cliffs. For most of us, these dramatic rock faces are something to take in at a distance, but traditionally they’ve been active sites of hunting and foraging. Fowlers climb up and down, using massive ropes to reach fulmar and puffin nests. Although no longer a necessary food source, collecting eggs and netting birds on these cliffs is an important part of Faroese heritage. A couple of years ago, the clothing brand North Face sponsored a trio of professional climbers on a trip to Cape Enniberg, one of the tallest sea cliffs in the world. The resulting movie contains beautiful scenes of the Faroe Islands and touches on some of the traditional climbing practices.