Windswept Islands of the North Atlantic

This article was written following a trip as a guest of Visit Faroe Islands and Atlantic Airways.

    The southern sea cliffs of Vagar, the second most westerly of the Faroe Islands, looked impressive enough through the window, but as the plane banked to enter the fjord, the serrated, knife-edge summit of Tindholmur and those of smaller sea stacks raised the view into a higher league altogether. The drama continued as the plane came in low over the water, with the walls of the fjord drawing closer, until we landed at the tiny Vagur airport, surely one of the most bleakly situated in Europe. But this was my kind of country, and with my five companions, I was eager to immerse myself, if for just a few days, in the wild ambience of these beautiful islands.

    The eighteen Faroe Islands lie in the North Atlantic, roughly half way between Norway and Iceland. They are separated by narrow sounds and cut by deep fjords, and are the eroded remains of a plateau of volcanic basalt, created during a series of tectonic movements between 60 and 54 million years ago. Other remnants are found in Scotland and Northern Ireland, notably at Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway.

Though the islands share their latitude with South Greenland, they are washed by the Gulf Stream, which gives them relatively warm winters and cool summers, and a climate described as maritime sub-arctic that brings strong winds and frequent rain. They are thus more likely to appeal to a visitor who seeks a measure of mild adventure  rather than relaxation in the sun.

Tinganes image001

    Having booked into Hotel Hafnia in Torshavn, the smallest capital city in Europe, we were taken on a short guided tour of our environs. This brought us to Tinganes, a small peninsula jutting into the harbour, which houses Logting, the Faroese parliament. Since 1948, the Faroe Islands have been a self-governing country within the kingdom of Denmark, but outside the European Union. The parliament building and government offices consist of a series of red-painted wooden houses around which anyone can wander freely. We saw not a single guard or policeman, or indeed any kind of security evidence on our stroll.

Black guillemot image002

     On reaching the rocky point of Tinganes, we spent some time photographing black guillemots and eider ducks that bobbed about in the harbour. It was largely an interest in the birds of the Faroes that had drawn me here as well as David, one of my companions.

There are an estimated two million breeding pairs of sea birds on the islands. About half of these are puffins, while the rest consist of kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, shags, skuas, terns, gannets, shearwaters and the world’s largest colony of storm petrels. Some of these, such as the black guillemots, are a subspecies, endemic to the islands. The only breeding sea ducks are red-breasted mergansers and eiders, the latter, also a sub-species, being perhaps the most abundant bird that we saw during our short stay.

The following day, we drove to Vestmanna, on the largest island, Stremoy, and boarded the ferry that would take us along the base of the western cliffs. Black guillemots and eiders floated in the harbour along with a pair of red-throated divers.

image003 Red-throated diver

    We passed a salmon farm consisting of a dozen circular pens, each holding ninety thousand fish. The clean waters here are ideal for high quality fish farming. Indeed, sea food makes up around 95% of the Faroes’ exports. Aware of the dependence of the economy on ocean products, the government ensures that stocks are harvested sustainably, using the most modern ships, and with careful consideration for the marine environment. Prudent management relies not on a quota system, but on allowing the ships to fish only on a certain number of days each year. A 200-mile exclusion fishing zone operates around the islands.

We sailed out of the sound into the open sea, clinging to the northern cliffs which, though steep, were not vertical, and so held grass that was being cropped by many sheep, some of which ventured down to the water’s edge. The soil is thin in the Faroes, so here, as elsewhere, countless streams had scoured shallow channels, and coursed down the exposed bedrock. Out of the shelter of the land, the sea became choppy, and spray blew frequently over the deck.

Vestmanna sea cliffs image004

As we progressed, the cliffs became steeper, more rocky and taller, approaching 700 metres in height. Seals lay on the rocks and kittiwakes crowded onto tiny ledges. We had come here before the nesting season had fully arrived, so the numbers of birds on the cliffs were tiny compared with what they would become in a few weeks. Nevertheless, puffins, shags and guillemots flew low over the waves and a small raft of razorbills bobbed close to the cliffs. A great skua flew past, perhaps looking to make a meal of an early chick.

We passed small caves and navigated narrow channels between the cliffs and huge, shark-fin stacks. We approached a cave that looked ridiculously small, but sailed into it and through an archway, to emerge in a gully, the walls of which appeared to impend over the boat. We repeated the performance farther along the cliffs, this time passing through a tunnel perhaps a hundred metres long. The walls seemed to reach higher as we progressed. Cameras clicked incessantly. After about an hour-and-a-quarter, we reached the limit of our trip and turned back toward Vestmanna. We had probably seen as much magnificent scenery as we could cope with for one day.

Not all of the birds in the Faroes cling to the coastal cliffs. Indeed the country’s national bird, the oystercatcher, despite being a tideline wader, is more likely to be seen on the hills than by the shore. Other birds, such as the resident starlings and wrens, have been isolated on these islands for sufficient generations to have evolved into distinct sub-species, both slightly larger and of darker plumage than their continental mainland relatives.

After a night in Gjaargardur guest house, in Gjogv, a pretty village with a dramatic harbour guarded by cliff-nesting fulmars, in the north of Esturoy island, David and I accepted the offer of a trip with bird expert, Silas Olofson. To meet him, we were driven through an undersea tunnel to the island of Bordoy and the town of Klaksvik, the second largest on the archipelago.

Silas informed us that the eastern island of Svinoy was his favourite place to study birds, but the low cloud, drizzle and rough sea crossing would preclude a visit that day. Instead, he took us through some single-carriageway tunnels, with occasional passing places, and on up to Vidareidi, the most northerly village in the Faroes.

Villingsdalsfjall mountain rose gently above the village to a height of 844 metres, before plunging down the Enniberg sea cliffs, the second tallest in Europe. Despite the increasingly heavy rain, we ventured a short distance up the hillside. David and I thought it was windy, but Silas assured us of the contrary: “It’s windy when the waterfalls don’t reach their bases.” We were rewarded with sightings of a whimbrel, great skua, arctic skua, pairs of oystercatchers and small flocks of dunlin and barnacle geese. On our way back to Klaksvik, we paused for half-an-hour at the head of the fjord at Arnafirdi where we added a common scoter and a long-tailed duck to our total.

Barnacle geese image005

Our final day saw us following a mountain footpath from Torshavn to Kirkjubour, accompanied by the piping calls of oystercatchers, and the occasional whirring wingbeat of a snipe. Kirkjubour is thought to be where the first inhabitants of the Faroes, Irish monks, built their earliest monastery. It is now the site of Roykstovan, the oldest inhabited wooden house in Europe.

Late in the afternoon, we returned to Vagur for our flight back to Edinburgh. As we taxied to our take-off, small flocks of greylags and oystercatchers foraged in the grassy areas to the sides of the runway.

Useful information

I travelled from Edinburgh to Vagar as a guest of Visit Faroe Islands http://www.visitfaroeislands.com/ and Atlantic airways https://www.atlantic.fo/en/

The 4th edition of Faroe Islands by James Proctor, published by Bradt www.bradtguides.com is a comprehensive guide to the islands.

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