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.
When I told a colleague I was planning a trip to the Faroe Islands he had two questions for me: 1. Had I seen their insanely picturesque football fields? and 2. Did I know about The Faroe Islands Podcast? Both were news to me. By the time I learned about the podcast it was already nine years old, having begun in January 2009 after the journalist Matthew Workman noticed a visitor to his blog from a country he’d never heard of. It was all down the rabbit hole from there. The internet didn’t have that much content about the Faroe Islands back then, at least not in English, so Matthew started blogging and podcasting about it.
Fifty years ago, on November 12, 1969, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired The Latecomers, a sound documentary by Glenn Gould, the accomplished pianist who at that point in his career had stopped performing live in favor of studio recording. The latecomers in question are from Newfoundland, the last Canadian province, which joined the federation just twenty years earlier. It’s produced in a unique style, which Gould called “contrapuntal radio,” a reference to his favored musical approach where numerous independent melodies are played simultaneously. In this case, he interweaves the voices of thirteen Newfoundlanders into overlapping and layered stories about solitude, politics, hard work, and identity. Interspersed, and at times overpowering these stories, is the sound of the ocean beating against the rocky shoreline. The waves are an organic through-line, ushering voices in and out of this non-linear collage. In our current era of highly produced podcasts and audio stories, this experimental radio piece from five decades ago holds up extremely well.
There’s something wonderful about putting a name on a letter and knowing it will find its way to a remote destination, passing hand-to-hand until that person can open it. Of course today we send messages around the world in micro-seconds, but for me that only heightens my wonder of the physical post. It’s not just a technical feat, but a complex set of systems and people overcoming geography, weather, and Murphy’s law; there are many steps and many people holding that letter along the way. I want to share more about my love for the post, including how I started collecting Faroese stamps. But today I want to point you elsewhere, to a beautiful story the BBC published in 2018 called “Tales from the far-flung Faroes (The people who live on remote rocks in the North Atlantic) by Christian Petersen”
We only had a week in the Faroe Islands, when we visited in summer of 2018, but I gained a good sense of the country by traveling to its farthest corners. We went to places at the extents of the cardinal directions, like the westernmost island of Mykines, home to a single village where fewer than a dozen people live year-round. We visited Suðuroy, the southernmost island, plunging downward through mountains to find the comparative metropolis of Sumba, housing 240 people at the bottom tip of the country. The northernmost settlement is Viðareiði, nestled in a mountain basin on the island of Viðoy, with stunning views of its neighboring isles to the west, their finger-like tips extended in procession. All of these are remote places, but nothing compared to the one point on the compass we didn’t manage to reach: the easternmost village of Hattarvík, on the island of Fugloy.
The Fair Folk podcast, hosted by Danica Boyce, is “devoted to bringing folk tradition to life” and features numerous episodes on the traditional music of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and other places of interest to this blog. It’s not her first, nor her latest, but as an introduction to her work I would suggest The Wailing Of The Old Timers – Tvísöngur and Iceland’s Hidden Folk Music Past as an example of the deep research Danica shares with her listeners.
The concept behind Lawrence Millman’s book Last Places: A Journey to the North is such a perfect fit to my interests, and this blog, that I knew I had to read it. Millman endeavors to follow the trail of the Vikings, traveling from Norway to Newfoundland via Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, mostly via sea and foot, camping along the way. It’s a personal travelog, from an opinionated and seasoned traveler with lots of stories to tell. It’s not his first time in any of these locations, which is perhaps what frees him up to seek the most remote, difficult, or forgotten corners of these already far flung islands.
There are places you go where the purpose of the trip is to say you’ve been, to others, or to yourself. Perhaps you have a bucket list, of places you’d regret if you never saw them with your own eyes, and checking things off is the goal. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of travel, but it tends to have a beginning and an end, a wonderful experience that is now a cherished memory. But there’s another kind of travel, where the places you go awaken something inside of you. The trip is just the start, a catalyst for continued discovery of a country, a geography, a history, or a culture. These places are sparks: of fascination, of discovery, of pathways for learning that may have no end. That’s the kind of travel I love, and this blog was born out of a desire to share those journey’s with you. I’ve found my travel muse by looking north, to the islands of the North Atlantic.