A Tale of Two Tours (Part 2: Days on the Faroe Islands)

Yes, it really looks like this. Plus sheep.

Our next day started with breakfast and a small coach or mini-bus awaiting us outside. Unne met us once more, as did our driver Jakven. (Unne is pronounced “ooon” and Jakven is “yahk-ven”. That took me some time to work out, believe me.)

A bit out of order, but I want to mention here the massive tunnels that have been built to connect the islands under the surrounding water. Some are quite long. It was a huge undertaking and they continue to work on them, one at a time. I’m guessing that an above-ground bridge would be so vulnerable to the natural forces around it, an underground option is less expensive. But I don’t know for sure. So you go from deep darkness to light off and on as you journey from one island to the next.

Start here.
Pass through this.
Emerge here. Or somewhere similar.

Our first stop was Snaelden, a family-run woolen mill. It’s now the only remaining extant mill on the islands. Snaelden sources wool from the surrounding sheepkeepers, blends some of it with wool from the Faulkland Islands (a softer type), spins it into yarn and produces machine-knit, hand-finished garments in very traditional Faroese patterns and styles. Of all the places we visited, this one felt the most authentic to me – trying to use local materials and Faroese traditions but in a way that will be used and appreciated by locals and visitors alike. I loved it.

Gathering for a welcome at Snaelden.

Oh my. I just discovered how to select multiple photos to include — all at once instead of one by one (which takes a lot of time). It’s a miracle!!!

You can see from the photos that traditional Faroese knitting is two-color, stranded style. This kind of knitting creates a doubly-thick fabric. Very appropriate for cold, wet weather.

Right side, or “front” of knitted, two-color stranded knitting. You see a nice pattern on the front. Its similar to what we call “Fair Isle” knitting or even “Mosaic”. Multiple colors make a pattern in the fabric. Traditional Faroese patterns are generally in tiny, intricate shapes.
Wrong side, or “inside” of the fabric. Those wide, horizontal stitches are the second yarn being “carried behind” the other. Two layers of yarn thickness make super warm clothing.

We reluctantly left the mill, heading on to further adventures. But first, more sheep. And let me tell you about sheep on the Faroe Islands.

They are everywhere. They outnumber people by a huge margin. They are basically feral, uber-tough little buggers that are left on their own most of the time, only rounded up and brought “in” for shearing or slaughter. Faroese sheep have a tough, double-coated fleece — longer, coarse hairs that shed water and protects the animal from wet and cold, grow along with a softer undercoat that provides a thermal layer. Sheared, scoured and spun together, it makes a reasonably wearable (i.e. not soft exactly, but acceptable) and tough, tough, tough yarn. For residents on the islands, this material was their only textile resource for centuries. The sheep on the island have no natural predators. Not a one! The largest animal on the islands after humans is a fox. It’s not big enough to take down a sheep or even a lamb. So with no predators, you can see how sheep became the basis of food, textiles and frankly, wealth, on the islands. And in a sense, there are so many of them that they feel almost like a part of the landscape. Like the sea and the sharp landforms and the ever-changing sky.

We next visited Saksun, a preserved historical farmhouse that allows you to see how the Faroese lived on the islands until very recently. We were met there by the owner of the property. She and her husband live in a newer, nearby home and run a farm there while helping to keep the historic buildings/grounds open for visits from the public.

While seated in the main room of this farmhouse – which really was more of a farm collective, as up to 25 individuals worked and resided on this subsistence farm – Jakven took the opportunity to speak with us about whale hunting in the Faroe Islands. I was glad for the opportunity to hear about this subject from a local. The Faroese have been roundly criticized by animal rights activists for years because the islanders still actively hunt and slaughter whales. In fact, a yarn producer in the UK once declined working with us because we take people on trips to the Faroe Islands. Having no understanding of the issue, I was surprised and curious. Apparently the Faroese trap whales on their beaches, many of them, and then slaughter them en-masse. Yikes.

And… as ever… there are elements of truth in circulated tales. The full story offers an antidote to sensationalized versions. And once explained, makes complete sense.

If you’ve not been to the Faroe Islands, let me emphasize that there are few natural resources — especially when it comes to food. There are sheep. There are sea birds and their eggs. There are potatoes and rhubarb (about the only things that grow well here). And there is what you can harvest from the sea. Whales, along with fish, shellfish and seaweed, have been a part of the Faroese diet since a small band of Vikings first landed on them.

The whales that the locals hunt are called pilot whales. They aren’t a true whale, just as killer whales aren’t. And they are called pilot whales because when swimming in a pod, they will follow the leader, or “pilot”, wherever it goes. The Faroese learned long ago that if a pod of whales was spotted, and they could shepherd the pilot whale up onto the beach by chasing it from their boats (this involves rock dropping and other things to move it along, I won’t go into all that), that several other whales would also beach themselves. Cornucopia!

Historically, it took an entire village to butcher the whales and turn them into food for the community. It still does. Not everyone participates anymore. But for those who do, an equal share of the whale harvest is distributed plus shares to anyone in the community that requests but isn’t able to do the work involved. It’s been the process since Viking days and is so today. The harvest is for food and every part of the whales is used. The person who dispatches the whales is specially trained to do so quickly, with a particular knife, so the whales are not conscious for very long once they’ve beached. There is more involved, such as proving to the community that you are capable of helping in the round up and harvest, that women now participate in all parts of the hunt whereas it used to be just men, etc. But basically my questions were answered as to why would anyone do such a thing? And continue to do it if it’s not necessary?!?!?

Well, it’s a traditional and still valued effort by a community to harvest a food source, it’s no more inhumane than any other animal slaughtering as far as I can tell , the pilot whales are not endangered by these hunts (in fact, they are carefully monitored populations that are doing just fine) and it’s very easy for those outside a culture to misunderstand other peoples’ actions. Good reminder.

Okay, back to our day…

Another heimablidni!

A visit at Navia Yarns, also a Faroese producer. Plus short talk about Faroese sheep. An altogether different type of Faroese textile endeavor. Thoroughly modern, sophisticated, yarns spun and dyed off the islands, all kinds of wool(not just sheep), even a 3D printer producing finished garments. Wow.

What? This is only day two on the Faroe Islands? More to come.

One comment

  1. It was interesting to read about the wheel slaughtering. As much as I don’t like killing whales, there are two big truths here: first, pilot whales are not really whales, and second, the food is necessary for the people who live there.
    The islands look absolutely amazing. If I could handle cold weather at all, I would definitely want to visit.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s