What It Means To Be Faroese

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“I am not Danish.  I am Faroese.”  Oddmar’s eyes grow serious as I tentatively bring up the notion of Faroese independence.  “I have my own genes, I have my own history, I have my own language.

I am a Faroese,” he repeats, softer this time, though no less intense.  “Not a Dane.”

I’m having dinner with Oddmar, his wife, Kamilla, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Gudrun, in Tinganes, the tiny old town of the Faroese capital, Tórshavn.  After seeing “Dinner with a traditional Faroese family” on my itinerary, I wondered just how traditional it would be.  A massive extended family, grandparents hanging around every corner?  Lamb slaughtered at the table?

Traditional turns out to be entirely familiar — fried fish on the table, an enormous ginger cat, a tween daughter who loves One Direction.  Remove the giant leg of cured ham and I could be sitting at any dining room in America.

What is nontraditional, however, is the talk about life in the Faroe Islands today: an independent nation living under the governorship of a nation hundreds of miles away.

I’ve always been fascinated by independent communities with a vocal minority set on breaking apart from their nation.  Places like the Shetland Islands, Quebec, Basque Country, and, I have to admit, Texas.  The Faroe Islands are another fascinating destination to add to the list.

The Faroe Islands were originally settled in the sixth century by Gaelic settlers from Scotland and Ireland, and Nordic explorers arrived two centuries later.  From that point through the nineteenth century, the Faroe Islands were passed back and forth between Norway and Denmark.

During World War II, Denmark was invaded by the Nazis and the British occupied the Faroe Islands to maintain authority in the region.  This occupation was welcomed, and to this day, the Faroe Islands and Britain maintain a strong relationship.  After the war, Denmark took control once again, though this time, they gave the Faroe Islands much autonomy.

As a result, the Faroe Islands have plenty of pan-Nordic influences — but they’ve always maintained their own language, culture, and identity.  I learn that the Faroese language is most similar to Icelandic.  (“Icelanders says that all the seasick pirates got dropped off here, and the healthy pirates went to Iceland,” Oddmar tells me.)

Later that night, Oddmar takes me on a walk around his neighborhood, Torshavn’s tiny old town.  The Faroese government is clustered here, its buildings painted bright red.  You can actually walk up to the Prime Minister’s house.

Oddmar proudly points out a Viking symbol etched into the rock — a sundial.  I find it hard to believe that this etching could have lasted for so many centuries, but he tells me it’s the real thing.  Amazing.

On the way back, we meet a neighbor wearing a t-shirt reading SUPPORT FAROESE INDEPENDENCE across the top.  As passionate as these movements on, there’s no way the islands will be breaking away.  Theoretically, they could, but without Denmark’s resources, they wouldn’t be able to maintain the quality of life that they have now.

I mean, it’s common to see Mercedes and Audis parked next to traditional grassy-roofed homes.  Life is good here.

In the Faroe Islands, as well as similarly individualistic regions of the world, there is so much pride in their region — pride in heritage, pride in culture, pride in traditions.

These traditions are in mind when I arrive at Gjáargardur Guesthouse in the isolated town of Gjov, on the north coast of the island of Eysturoy.  It’s Faroese Culture Night at the hotel, one of their big draws.  I’m immediately swept into a dinner with traditional guitar music.

Afterward, the jovial hotel staff invites us to join in singing and dancing, warning us not to open a door or window, as local superstition dictates it ruins their voices.  Faroese dancing, it turns out, consists of holding hands in a circle and stepping twice to the left, then once to the right, over and over until the song finishes.

My favorite song, a surprisingly cheery ballad, tells the story of young Marita and Herman.  Herman pines for Marita, but she’s betrothed to another man and says it’s God’s plan.  Herman kills the other man and tries to pick her up, saying, “Well, now, since you’re single…” (what a charmer!).  Her response?  She’s going to become a nun.

Smart girl.

These little anecdotes, I know, are a random hodgepodge of experiences.  With only three days in the Faroe Islands, I know I’ve only scraped the surface when it comes to Faroese culture.  But you can consider me intrigued — and I would relish the chance to go back for more.

Many thanks to Visit Faroe Islands and Travel PR for hosting my trip to the Faroe Islands.  All opinions, as always, are my own.

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47 thoughts on “What It Means To Be Faroese”

  1. Fascinating. As a Quebecois, we face similar problems – we do feel that we are different from the rest of the country, but without their financial support and resources there is no way Quebec could be a viable country. It’s very hard to find a balance between the two extremes.

  2. Great post about a place I know nothing about, Kate! The local culture sounds intriguing and that dance is something even I, with my horrible non-ability to learn movements, could pick up.

    Plus, I totally want to eat that ham.

  3. Those grass roofs are definitely not something I’ve seen before! I really know nothing about the Faroe Islands beyond that they exist, so it’s interesting to hear about your experiences there.

  4. There is a certain fascination that people living in the homogeneous regions of the globe (for myself, the US) have with fiercely independent subcultures. A couple months ago I spent a good couple hours looking over a libraries edition of “The Encyclopedia of Stateless Nations.” A small part of me wishes I had that much pride!

  5. Unfortunately, all I know about the Faroe islands is what I’ve seen on whale wars. I guess it’s probably not a topic they want mentioned if they are trying to promote tourism at the moment. Seems like a beautiful place!…but I wouldn’t want to ever be there during one of these whale massacres.

    1. Yeah. Whaling is a HUGE issue with the Faroes and the world. To be honest, you can’t even predict when the annual pilot whale hunt is going to take place — it starts out of the blue.

  6. I also enjoy visiting independent communities. Recently, I visited Yucatan, Mexico and it was kind of shocking to see how open is the state about their independence claims. As a person who comes from an island owned by another country, I feel identified with the Faroese people.

  7. It seems like a common feeling among islands. I experienced the same from the locals in the Galapagos Islands. It certainly does feels like a different country from Ecuador. However, contrary to more common problem of not enough resources like the Faroeses, the money from Galapagos tourism is mostly taken from them and unjustly wasted on mainland Ecuador. Apparently, it used to be poured back into the islands, but times have changed under new government.

    Nice post, it is refreshing to read about places that are off the beaten path.


  8. For me personally the Faroe islands is a place that I would love to relocate myself and my family. I have talked with s few locals and read a lot of info on the islands. I don’t think there are many places in the northern hemisphere that are as unspoilt, traditional cultural and proud as the Faroe’s are and I respect this a lot, the Viking heritage is still relevant there, and so it should be. Should to opportunity arise for my and my family to leave the UK were making a b-line for the Faroe,s I can’t imagine a better place to raise my son, and a place that might teach him to have the right values in life, unlike here in the UK as sadly its all screwed up here much like the rest of Europe these days.

    1. Really, Owen! This is very interesting to hear. It would be nice to raise a child in such a beautiful and unspoiled place. I’m not sure I could handle the year-round cold, though.

  9. There are many of us who disagree – thinking that the islands would do just fine as an independent nation as ‘Danish resources’ add very little. Our progress has to a large degree happened in spite of – not because of – the Danish connection. But there are of course many opinions on these issues. Here, the most important thing to say is: Lovely post, good insights and great pictures!

  10. It is not at all impossible to maintain the same standard of life if we do break away from Denmark. The danish influx of money is a very little part og the faroese GTP.

    And another thing, it is not a “local superstition” that opening a window or door will ruin the singers voice. It is a scientific fact, that you will be lightly to lose your voice, while using it (a lot, for instance singing) in a hot room with a cold draft coming through.

    Nice article tough 😉

    1. Thanks for the info, Suni! It’s not only the money from Denmark — there are lots of factors, many compounded by the small population. But the Faroe Islands will always be very individualistic!

      1. And it’s not just a ”vocal minority”, either. At least half the population is pro-independence. The difference is mainly in the how and when.

  11. Call me intrigued too! It sounds like a really interesting place and it’s great that you got such good chances to meet people there. I’m interested to hear more since I really don’t know much about the Faroe Islands. And how cool are those grass roofs?

    Also, I loved the reference to Texas being fiercely independent! We never will let anyone forget that we were once our own country…

  12. Funny seeing Oddmar in a picture in an article about Faroe Islands written by a foreigner from far away :)) Curiously familiar too, I always forget how tiny Faroes are and how easy is to recognise a familiar face.

    Living in such a place has it’s own perks but also disadvantages. But I learned to love it and I miss it every day when I m away, even though it’s not my birthplace. It is one of the best places in the world in terms of life and culture and nature beauty.

    Thank you. It is a pleasure to read posts like that.

      1. By the way, I saw Oddmar shows the famous skerpikjøt in the picture (the matured lamb leg). Out of curiosity, did you like the taste? I have been trying to eat it for years, I still can’t 🙂

  13. I visited Faroe Islands in 2009 via a school project from Finland. I so fell in love with the place and the people. Want to go back there 🙂

  14. how about the mass murdering of whales every year, hundreds of them by Faroese people, driven on to beaches and slaughtered for no reason. the place may be beautiful but the people ARE NOT!!

  15. I’ve been interested in the Faroe Islands for a while now. One of my favorite novels was written by a Faroese, Heðin Brú, ‘The Old Man and His Sons’.

  16. I’m really dying to go to the Faroes Island! And I might live there too along with my family! Or make it my 2nd home like every summer from may-august pr september and come back to new york after that. They seem to be very nice, hospitable and lovely. Their goodness just matched their beautiful paradise.

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