- The coastal scenery is magnificent and changes with the light …
- … every couple of seconds new facets were revealed as the filtered light enhanced the natural sculptures.
- The water was as clear as the finest gin …
- … many ornithologists visit the Faroes to marvel at the huge colonies of seabirds …
Simon Everett goes on a personal pilgrimage to the land where his father was stationed during the war.
I guided the bike down a tiny little track, with its loose gravel surface and hairpin bends that led towards the sea. Rounding a rock, where the road flattened out, a group of wooden buildings appeared, flanked by even older stone-built ones with turf roofs. This was the national museum. I had an appointment to see the curator, one Erland Joensen. I climbed the wooden steps to the entrance, whereupon he greeted me with a warm smile and an outstretched hand before showing me into his office. I had brought with me a large brown cardboard-backed envelope – I hoped the contents would be of interest to the museum. You see, 70 years earlier, my father had been stationed here during his tour of duties in command of North Atlantic convoy escorts and I had made the trip both to donate his wartime pictures to the museum and to see for myself the magnificent islands that he spoke so fondly of and where, had it not been for the bravery of the islanders, he would certainly have met a watery grave.
When I put the small black and white prints on his desk, Erland’s eyes lit up like beacons. I could tell he was excited as he examined the pictures carefully through a magnifying glass and started telling me about them, sorting them as he recognised some as being local and others from Iceland or possibly northern Norway. Dad had been skipper of an armed trawler, which, like many others, had been requisitioned for the Royal Naval Patrol Service and pressed into action with nothing more than a strengthened foredeck to take a single 4″ gun, Lewis guns mounted either side of the bridge, a twin Oerlikon on the poop deck and a rack of depth charges to roll off the stern. At just 422 tons, she had a crew of 19 in total.
At the outbreak of war, Britain had to act swiftly to increase the size of her fleet, and these former civilian vessels were drafted in to perform vital roles, such as escorting merchantmen and harbour patrol services, thereby freeing up the Royal Navy ships to concentrate on keeping our shipping lanes open. The Royal Naval Patrol Service mainly comprised merchant navy men, like my father, who were seconded to active duty and were thus dubbed ‘Churchill’s pirates’ by the Royal Navy, a name they were rather proud of, and lived up to.
As Erland worked through the pictures he was able to place some of them for me, and we also realised that ‘The Plane’, which is marked on the tourist map of the islands, was one of a pair of Heinkel 111s that attacked my father’s ship in the approaches to Torshavn. She was struck by two bombs that crippled her. Fifteen of the crew were lost, but the survivors, Dad among them, were rescued by the Faroese fishermen who braved the hail of strafing machine gun fire to row their small boats out to pick up the men from the water. The Plane, as it is depicted on the tourist map, is one of the Heinkels that was shot down by the Lovat Scouts with a Bren gun. The Heinkel crash-landed in the neighbouring fjord, and the four surviving airmen were taken prisoner. It is one of the enduring stories from the war, but there are so many others …
The Faroes were a lifeline for Britain – literally. With the annexation of Denmark, to whom the Faroes owed their governance, our northern trade route with America was under serious threat. Thankfully, Churchill had foreseen this and had been courting the local Faroese government in preparation. Within 48 hours of the Germans invading Denmark, we had an advance party of the Pioneer Corps on the main island of Streymoy. We were tolerated as a protection force. In return, Britain desperately needed food supplies. The Faroese lost their main market when the Germans took over Denmark. So instead they turned to Britain to sell their fish and we were glad of the vital supplies of protein that were landed in Scotland instead of Denmark. It was a symbiotic relationship that sustained both countries throughout the war and continued in friendship afterwards.
So it was against this background of history that I made my motorcycle journey to this small group of islands situated in the Gulf Stream between Scotland and Iceland. I could have taken a plane, but surely a journey is something to be savoured, and there is little poetry in jumping on a jet. Instead, I set off from home to ride to Hirtshals, on the northern coast of Jutland in Denmark, where the Smyril Line ferry serves the Faroes docks. The same ferry also goes to Iceland, but it stops at Torshavn en route each way, giving travellers like myself the chance of a minimum of four days on these unspoiled, rugged islands. I can tell you, it is worth every ounce of effort.
The islands, like Iceland and the north-west coast of Scotland, are the result of volcanic action. The dramatic mountains rising out of the sea and lush green covering of grasses provide a similarity between the Faroes and Hawaii – for me, anyway. For a visiting boater the scenery is amazing, and the waters offer challenging navigation with strong tidal flows and the open North Atlantic to test your seamanship to the utmost. That said, there are also days when the islands are mirrored in a flat calm sea with the clearest blue skies you have ever seen, and the colours become vivid in the bright northern sunshine.
The history of these islands is fairly recent. Archaeological evidence of habitation goes back as far as 500 AD, with a voyage by St Brendan and Irish settlers. The Viking and Norse settlers took over the islands around 1035, when they were part of the kingdom of Norway, until 1814 when the Treaty of Kiel ceded the islands to Denmark, along with Greenland and Iceland. In 1948, the islands gained self-governing independence, but they are still a protectorate of Denmark.
The name ‘Faroe’ is derived from the old Norse for ‘sheep’, faer, and oerne, meaning ‘islands’. Thus the name translates as ‘the islands of the sheep’. This same name in Faroese is Foroyer, meaning much the same, which is apt because sheep are the mainstay of the islands’ agriculture and they are grazed extensively on the lush, green hillsides. Faroese lamb is fantastic, and the meat is cured by drying in airy sheds and comes out like an Arctic version of biltong. It is very smelly, but full of flavour and delicious. It is well worth trying and each household or community has its drying shed, or they just hang it under the eaves on the sheltered side of the house.
The people who live here are bred tough – their ancestry sees to that, being a mixture of Irish, Norse and Dane. It is just as well, because they have to be pretty self-reliant. Many of the villages and towns are extremely remote, even by island standards. There are 18 main islands in the group, joined by either ferries, subterranean tunnels or bridges. Getting around often involves a convoluted route by road, whereas it is straightforward by boat, which is a natural means of transport in the islands, even if most boats are powered by small engines, sail or oars.
The traditional handline fishing is carried out close to shore. There is deep water close in, so other than for the large commercial trawlers there is no need to venture far, hence there is no need for hedonistic horsepower – although faster boats are creeping into their society, but mostly for commercial tours, thrill-seeking rides and tourist trips to see the cliffs and wildlife. The Faroes are home to the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The north coast is where they rise vertically out of the sea – in the case of Slaettaratindur to a height of 2,894 feet. The skyscraping cliffs of the southern island of Suderoy are simply majestic, and in the spring the air is full of wheeling and diving birds that use these cliffs to nest.
The climate is remarkably stable, with the average temperature in January around 4°C, while the summer temperature remains cool at around 12°C, so they don’t have the great temperature fluctuations that we are used to. The steady temperature is due to the influence of the surrounding sea, with the remnants of the Gulf Stream keeping the winter sea temperature up to about 6°C. The depth of the surrounding ocean keeps the sea temperature low in summer; again the temperature remains fairly stable, resulting in the regular presence of whales and other cetaceans. Seals are another mammal that can often be seen around the coast, but land mammals are restricted to those introduced by man.
The birdlife is rich and varied, and many ornithologists visit the Faroes to marvel at the huge colonies of seabirds and to witness the migrating tundra birds that use the islands as a stopping-off point on their journeys. Another regular attraction for visitors is the aurora borealis – with the absence of light pollution, on a clear night the sky is extraordinarily clear.
Nax Adventures run trips around the islands by RIB, and they have a cruising boat that takes trips to the south to see the hugely impressive sea cliffs and birdlife. I took the RIB around the north and got a taste of the fantastic boating to be had around the archipelago. The route took us to the old Viking town of Klaksvík, which is used as a Danish naval base and is a major deep-sea fishing port. The fjords and sounds between the islands provide deep water and wonderful sightseeing.
Heading north, we approached the magnificent sea cliffs and a cave. The grass clings to the slopes and the islanders bring sheep to these remote grazings in the spring, ferrying them on boats and putting them out onto the rocks. From there the sheep make their way up to the lush, grass-covered slopes to live in quiet solitude and fend for themselves. Water is never a problem, with many natural water sources, and you can see the effects of the water erosion, which has created multifaceted faces on the cliff face. In the autumn, the shepherds return and round the sheep up, fattened and ready for eating.
We put the boat into the cave, which had a ceiling like a cathedral that was home to rock doves and other birds. The water was as clear as the finest gin – we could see every stone and the kelp on the bottom through the slightly blue-tinged liquid, yet the sounder reported 9 metres below the keel. From the cave we headed west, out to sea and across to the north coast of Eysturoy. In the distance, the mountains and cliffs made an incredible sight. We visited the waterfall at Rivtangi, where a river runs straight over the precipice and into the sea. The strength of the wind blew the tumbling water sideways and fragmented the white water.
Ahead of us lay the key landmarks of Risin and Kellingin, sea stacks that legend tells us are two giants that tried to tow the Faroes back to Iceland, but were caught in the act and turned to stone. The coastal scenery is magnificent and changes with the light – every couple of seconds new facets were revealed as the filtered light enhanced the natural sculptures. Turning into Sundini, the sound that separates the island of Streymoy from Eysturoy, the landscape softened where the surrounding highlands give way to lowland alongside the sheltered sound. There is a passage through, but passing below the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’ in a slower boat takes some commitment as the current races through and the channel is very narrow, barely 20 metres wide. It can get nasty here, where the fast current builds over the uneven bottom. Like anywhere in the islands, your seamanship will be tested to the full, something my father was forever drilling into me. It served him well, though, and I hope some of it rubbed off. From the bridge we had an easy run, at 64 knots, back to base at Torshavn. It is a trip I shall never forget and it satisfied a personal yearning I have harboured for many years.
By air: There is only one airport on the islands, built by the British to provide a supply line for our troops garrisoned there to provide a protection force throughout the war. There are regular flights and the airport is about an hour’s drive from the capital, Torshavn. Flights are available direct from Heathrow, Edinburgh and Manchester.
By sea: If you wish to take your own transport, the Smyril Line ferry runs from Hirtshals on the Jutland peninsular in northern Denmark. The MV Norröna sails twice a week and the pleasant crossing takes about 30 hours. The sailing is very much like a mini cruise, with entertainment and restaurants on board.
By your own boat: The Faroe Islands lie at Lat 62N Long 7W. From Lochinver it is about 300 miles, so you will need a fuel tank with expedition range.
Streymoy is the largest and most populated of the islands. The name means ‘island of currents’.