The oldest surviving document in the Faroe Islands is “The Sheep Letter”. Written in 1298, it explains the rules about where sheep can be kept and when they should be brought off the fells for winter. It’s hard to get away from sheep on these islands.
In summer the ewes crop the grass at the roadside, lambs a constant hazard as they scamper to their mothers’ side at the approach of a vehicle. Black, cream, golden flecked or brown, the Faroese sheep are a hardy breed, weathering the rain and winds that sweep in across the Atlantic, bringing what the Faroese will tell you is the freshest air in the world. There’s an old saying that ull er Føroyar gull – wool is Faroes’ gold.
Some 70,000 sheep live on the 18 islands that make up the Faroes, easily outnumbering the 48,000 human inhabitants, not to mention the number of foreign visitors. The islands only have a total of around 500 hotel beds, used by fewer than 1,400 British tourists last year, for example, and fewer than 350 from the US. In total, figures from hotels and hostels suggest 21,000 foreigners visit annually, the majority from other Scandinavian countries, though these figures may rise, thanks to the growth of the islands’ airline, Atlantic Airways. It launched its first flights to Spain last weekend, has extended its summer season of direct flights to London, and introduced year-round flights to Bergen, Norway.
Although they are only a little over two hours away from London, the islands feel part of a more ancient world. They look as if they have been blown into shape by Atlantic storms; western cliffs are high and sheer, the eastern edges of the basalt sculpted in steep angles sloping upwards from dark shingled shores to knife-edge ridges. Most are now connected with sub-sea road tunnels but several can still be reached only by boat: sharp-edged Mykines, Suduroy in the south and the northern group where I am headed, to visit Kalsoy, a long thin wedge of volcanic rock swathed in green. I’m staying in the capital, Tórshavn, which has the best range of accommodation, but all of the main islands are within two hours’ journey. A hire car makes life easy but Faroes buses are free – and they even have wi-fi.
The journey to Kalsoy begins with a twisting, turning drive through several tunnels north of Tórshavn, crossing what the Faroese call the “bridge across the Atlantic” at Nesvik and on to the islands of Eysturoy and Bordoy, from where the ferry, which takes only a few a cars at a time, departs for the southern end of Kalsoy, a 20-minute ride away. Arctic terns with graceful trailing tail feathers swoop over the water and there is snow, even in early June, on the surrounding peaks.
Kalsoy’s scattered settlements are restricted to the eastern coastline and the road hugs the spine of the island, ridged and undulating like spikes on a dragon’s tail. Five road tunnels pierce the basalt from one valley to the next. Emerging into the light often brings you into a different type of weather: sun, rain, mist and wind can vary widely from one valley to the next.
At the northeastern tip lies Trøllanes, a hamlet where Mikkjal Joensen offers visitors a tour of his blacksmith’s forge. But I have come to climb the natural amphitheatre behind Trøllanes to find one of the best views in all of the Faroes.
The unmarked path skirts the northwestern side of the valley, a turf-and-heather-carpeted series of ridges where the sheep have trodden a route for hundreds of years. Here and there I find patches of bare earth – small bunkers scraped out by the ewes to shelter from the bitterest prevailing winds. The hillside is also home to the national bird, the oyster catcher, which digs in the thin soil for worms during the summer nesting season. From a distance the birds seem black and white but close inspection shows legs of coral pink, beaks as orange as carrots and eyes of deep cherry red.
Cresting a ridge, I see a small lighthouse perched a few metres from the cliff’s edge, secured to its concrete base by high tensile steel wires as added security from the Atlantic winds. To avoid being blown away myself, I crawl to the parapet and stare down several hundred metres to a boiling, crashing sea. Up and up, borne by the wind there swirls a vortex of seabirds: kittiwakes, fulmars and gulls soaring and cruising on straightened wings. Due west lie the peaks of Eysturoy, a wild succession of rugged promontories atop a convoluted series of fjords. The Faroes’ highest point is visible: Slættaratindur, just shy of 900m and sheathed in cloud. Two jagged sea stacks, Risin and Kellingin – the giant and his wife – emerge from the ocean in the distance.
The rolling Atlantic and the empty landscape bring a sense of deep peace. Everything seems scrubbed clean by wind and squall, and infused with the bright shining light of the long summer day. Back in Tórshavn that night, despite the bracing mountain walk, I struggle to fall asleep, my body clock confused by the brightness outside at almost midnight.
The Faroes don’t boast a lot of nightlife. Tórshavn has only a few hotels and a handful of restaurants. There’s a national museum, a rather good art gallery featuring touring exhibitions and prominent Faroese artists. It’s set in a small park containing the so-called “National Forest”. Apart from the shrubs and the odd tree in people’s gardens, this is the only place in Faroes to see more than a few dozen firs braving the winds.
Perched above the town, the modernistic but turf-roofed Hotel Føroyar blends into the surrounding green hills. It’s all very low-impact and Scandinavian in feel, and boasts a restaurant specialising in traditional local ingredients – Faroes cod, langoustine and, of course, the ubiquitous lamb. My meal there begins with dried cod crisps served on a fish spine, cold smoked salmon with capers, onion and shaved turnip and strongly flavoured slivers of air-dried lamb on dark bread. Next comes rack of lamb followed by dried fish slices served with caramelised seaweed and a palate-cleansing dish of five types of celery cooked down in a sauce of milk with chilli and apple sauce. The dessert was a delight: crunchy Christmas cake for texture combined with tarragon sugar, cucumber, radishes and sea-green granita.
Chef Leif Sørensen has created a gourmet menu here that is riding high on the crest of the “New Nordic Cuisine” initiated by Denmark’s Claus Meyer of Denmark’s famous restaurant “Noma”. Sørensen was one of the original signatories to the Nordic Cuisine manifesto – the first tenet of which is to “express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics that we would like to associate with our region.”
The owner of the Føroyar, Johannes Jensen, is immensely proud of his chef, Leif Sørensen. “I want visitors to be surprised by the food and not just by the taste of it. Part of coming to Faroes is about thinking differently,” he says. “They should be experiencing the wind, the rain, the elements: it’s a place to give you big ideas. Don’t come if you want lots of organised entertainment – you can get that in plenty of other places in the world.”
It’s true that organised entertainment is in short supply. There’s a vintage schooner, the Norolysio, that sails out to the island of Nolsoy and along the coast to witness classical music concerts held in sea caves. Out near the airport at Vagar you can visit a museum that celebrates the “friendly occupation”, when Britain secured the islands in the second world war after Denmark was occupied by the Germans.
They may be an autonomous part of Denmark but the Faroese are quick to tell you that they are not Danes. Their alphabet and language are closer to Icelandic but their seafaring linkages have been strongly tied with Shetland and the British Isles, too.
Here at the edge of the ancient Norse kingdoms, there are not just sheep but puffins, little auks, razor bills and red-throated divers. There is a swiftly changing maritime landscape that is still wild, a vivid palette of blue water, swift scudding clouds and fresh air that will cleanse not only the lungs but also the mind.
Tim Ecott was a guest of the Faroes tourist office (www.visitfaroeislands.com), Atlantic Airways (www.atlantic.fo) and the Hotel Føroyar (www.hotelforoyar.com; doubles from DKK900, £98). Flights from London to Vágar airport operate twice weekly in summer; returns from £263