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.
This blog comes from a fascination I have with people and places of the North: isolated islands, extreme landscapes, remote villages, and people that have found a way to live and even thrive in those environments. I find inspiration in travel, but also in the stories that other people document and share about these places. I recently discovered a book that could not be more perfectly aligned with these interests: Faces of the North by Ragnar Axelsson. Through stunning black and white photographs, and richly concise essays, this book documents the lives of people in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland.
Off the west coast of Scotland lay the Outer Hebrides, a chain of islands that look almost like a shield being held up by the mainland to protect itself from the rugged North Atlantic. Beyond that, a full 40 miles further west, are the lonely islands of St. Kilda, a tiny archipelago forged by volcanos and sculpted by violent winds and waves. It’s not exactly a convenient place to live, and yet these islands were occupied for nearly four thousand years, an incredible testament to subsistence living and human perseverance. The story of life there, and the eventual decision to evacuate, is the unlikely subject of an illustrated children’s book called Child of St. Kilda by the British author, illustrator, and printmaker Beth Waters.
Mummers? If you live in America, and have heard that term before, it’s likely in connection with the annual Philadelphia Mummers Parade. While they may share some distant relatives, that New Years parade in the City of Brotherly Love is a far cry from the Christmastime tradition of Mummering in Newfoundland. Dating back over 200 years, imported from Irish and English settlers, Newfoundland Mummers don’t masquerade like their American cousins, who dress up as someone else. The tradition is instead rooted in disguise, using everyday clothing in unconventional ways to conceal one’s identity. Common techniques include pillow-case face masks, lace veils, layers of bulky stuffed coats, mismatched gloves, and gender smokescreens like skirts on men and bras worn over outerwear. Once disguised, a group of mummers will travel unannounced to a house in their community, and if allowed to enter, start dancing and playing music. The host provides snacks and drinks, while trying to guess the identities of each visitor. Easier said than done, as the mummers not only disguise their bodies but distort their voices or refuse to speak. Once everyone has been named, or if the heat inside makes the layered costume untenable, the mummers are revealed and group moves on to another house.
The sale of alcohol was banned in the Faroe Islands until 1992, but today it’s home to one of the coziest tap rooms I’ve ever visited: Mikkeller in Tórshavn. The Copenhagen-based micro-brewery has locations around the world, but almost all in large cities like Berlin, Oslo, or Stockholm. By contrast, Tórshavn is Europe’s smallest capital with barely 13,000 residents. The bar is housed in a beautiful 500-year-old home with low beams and a turf roof. Just steps from the harbor, in an old part of the city, the light brown exterior stands out from the cluster of black buildings nearby. Together they make up the Heima í Havn area, a restaurant group featuring some of the best dining in the country.