Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 28 May 2011 12:00 UK

A wild ride to the Faroe Islands

By Tim Ecott
Faroe Islands

Steep cliffs and wild waters of Faroe Islands
Locals dangerously hunt seabirds by climbing steep cliffs

The hard-to-reach Faroe Islands, a semi-autonomous part of Denmark situated halfway between north-west Scotland and Iceland, are known for their highly changeable weather.

Somewhere over the North Atlantic the pilot announced that it was too foggy to land in the Faroes.

The cabin crew smiled sympathetically and served more tea and coffee.

Ninety minutes later, we landed, not in the Faroes, but in eastern Iceland, where we spent the night.

Over dinner, our pilot, Captain Kurt Fossaberg talked to me about the challenges of flying with Atlantic Airways - the Faroese national airline.

"Landing at our airport can be tricky, fog is common, high winds are common, and there's turbulence to deal with because we have some big hills close to the runway, too."

The next day we did reach the Faroes, more than 24 hours after leaving London.

Faroes facts
Its name means Sheep Islands in English
Faroese is a variant of Old Norse
A large percentage of the islanders belong to the Lutheran Church
Irish monks settled the Faroe Islands around the 7th and 8th Centuries before they were chased off by Norwegian Vikings
Source: AFP archive

By now the passengers had forged friendships, exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers and talked about their reasons for making the journey.

None of the Faroese passengers had complained about the delays, even though, as I now knew, several were on their way home for important family gatherings and business meetings.

Extreme living

The weather did not stop me visiting the place I had most wanted to see - the rugged island of Mykines.

This sliver of bright green turf is the western-most of the 18 islands that make up the archipelago.

Several of the larger islands have now been joined together by undersea tunnels, built at great expense to allow the islanders to travel more easily.

But Mykines is accessible only by boat in the summer, and in the winter, the only option is by helicopter.

A monument to drowned sailors from Mykines stands on a promontory above the sea.

Traditional house on Faroe Islands
Turf roofs help insulate from the harsh cold and winds

On the landward side of the carved stone is another list of names, local men who have fallen to their deaths from the cliffs while hunting birds or herding sheep.

In winter 11 people live on the island, including two children whose teacher commutes weekly from the mainland by helicopter.

The hamlet is tucked into a valley sheltered by the steep slopes of the surrounding cliffs.

Insulated with roofs covered in living grass, the small wooden houses seem to hide behind one another against the prevailing westerly gales.

Ancient hunting

Walking along the narrow spine of the island with the churning North Atlantic 400ft (122m) below me, I watched three shepherds herding shaggy sheep into a pen.

Apart from their dogs and sticks they carried coils of rope around their shoulders.

Essbern, the youngest of the three explained that the rope was for climbing down the cliffs to fetch any sheep that had strayed too far from pasture.

On some islands sheep are taken by boat to improbably steep grassy patches on the sides of the cliffs.

Sheep on steep cliffs of Mykines
Shepherds carry rope to abseil down cliffs to fetch sheep

With no escape short of jumping into the sea, they are left there to graze for the summer.

Faroes sheep are hardy like their owners.

The shepherd also pointed out some wooden stakes buried in the ground along the edge of the cliffs.

Men tie ropes to the stakes and abseil down the cliffs to collect gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes and, in the summertime, the puffins that the islanders also traditionally eat.

It seemed an impossibly hazardous way to obtain food, but it's a tradition that still continues.

State of mind

One day sailing out to the island of Nolsoy, a few miles offshore from the capital Torshavn, I watched plump breasted fulmars flying alongside.

"They follow the fishing boats," Joel, one of the crewmen explained, "so close you can just reach out and grab them. They're delicious, but I won't be catching any this summer," he lamented.

"Because when you grab them they have a tendency to vomit - and they carry bacteria which are dangerous for pregnant women. And my girlfriend is expecting a baby."

It is the kind of thing people in Faroes need to know.

The Faroese seem to have struck a balance between living in the modern world and respecting their ancient, and isolated, island past

On the island of Vagar, there is a small museum dedicated to the British occupation of the islands during World War II.

On display, I spotted a book written by one of the British soldiers in 1943.

It was entitled Kansha - The Land of Maybe - which it seemed was a nickname for the Faroe Islands.

Back at the airport I told Magni Arge, the chief executive of Atlantic Airways about the museum exhibit.

"Kansha means more than maybe," he explained.

"It's really a state of mind, part of our Faroese character.

"Perhaps, it's why our passengers and crew take it in their stride when we make a diversion."

The Faroese seem to have struck a balance between living in the modern world and respecting their ancient, and isolated, island past.

"It's great to be working in London," one of the passengers told me while we were stranded in Iceland.

"But when I have children I'll go home. They need to grow up with the sea always in view, and with the wind in their hair."

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SEE ALSO
Regions and territories: Faroe Islands
01 Nov 11 |  Country profiles

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