History of the Faroe Islands

History of the Faroe Islands


Pre-Norse history

Faroese stamp depicting Saint Brendan discovering the Faroe Islands

The early details of Faroese history are rather nebulous. It is possible that Saint Brendan, an Irish monk (a Papar) sailed past the islands during his North Atlantic voyage in the 6th century. He saw an 'Island of Sheep' and a 'Paradise of Birds', which some say could be the Faroes with its dense bird population and sheep.

In the late 7th century to early 8th century the islands were visited by monks from Ireland, possibly looking for converts or solitude. Little is known about them, except that they used the Faroes (and Iceland) as a hermitage. As these monks were celibate and lived in all-male communities, their populations were not self sustaining.

The earliest text which is believed to include a description of the Faroe Islands, was written by an Irish monk in the Frankish Kingdom named Dicuil, who wrote about the countries in the north. Dicuil had met a "man worthy of trust" who related to his master, the abbot Sweeney (Suibhne), how he had landed on the Faroe Islands after having navigated "two days and a summer night in a little vessel of two banks of oars." Around A.D. 825, Dicuil wrote a book, Liber de Mensura Orbis Terrae, (Measure/description of the sphere of the earth) in which he states:

"Many other islands lie in the northerly British Ocean. One reaches them from the northerly islands of Britain, by sailing directly for two days and two nights with a full sail in a favourable wind the whole time.... Most of these islands are small, they are separated by narrow channels, and for nearly a hundred years hermits lived there, coming from our land, Ireland, by boat. But just as these islands have been uninhabited from the beginning of the world, so now the Norwegian pirates have driven away the monks; but countless sheep and many different species of sea-fowl are to be found there..."

The physical description of these islands and the travel time described, fits the Faroe Islands, and the name Faeroe is thought to mean Sheep Islands. According to this, the first settlers in the Faroe Islands were Irish monks, who introduced sheep and oats to the Faroe Isles. Recent pollen analysis showing that oats were grown in the Faroes about the year 650 A.D supports this theory.

The Faroese ethnic group is of primarily Norse Viking descent and Scottish.

Pre-14th century

1904 illustration of Færeyinga Saga, depicting Tróndur í Gøtu

Little is known about Faroese history up until the 14th century.

The name of the islands is first recorded on the Hereford map (1280), where they are labelled farei. The name has been explained as derived from a Celtic term for "far islands"[by whom?], but in popular etymology it has long been understood as based on Old Norse fár "livestock", thus fær-øer "sheep islands".

The main historical source for this period is the 13th century work Færeyinga Saga (Saga of the Faroese), and it is disputed as to how much of this work is historical fact. Færeyinga Saga only exists today as copies in other sagas. In particular three manuscripts called Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, Flateyjarbók and one registered as AM 62 fol.

According to Flateyjarbók Grímr Kamban settled in Faroe when Harald Hårfagre was king of Norway (872 – 930). But this version does not correspond with the above mentioned writings of Dicuil. Ólafs Saga Tryggvasonar, however, does. According to that manuscript, Færeyinga Saga starts like this:

There was a man named Grímr Kamban; he first settled in Faroe. But in the days of Harold Fairhair many men fled before the king’s overbearing. Some settled in Faroe and began to dwell there, and others sought to other waste lands.

According to this many men did indeed flee from Harald Hårfagre. But the text suggests that Grímr Kamban settled in the Faroes some time before. Maybe even hundreds of years. His first name Grímr is Norse. But his last name Kamban (Cambán) is Gaelic. He may have been of mixed Norse and Irish origin and come from a settlement in the British isles; a so-called Norse-Gael. These Norse-Gaels had intermarried with the local Gaelic speaking people in Britain, a feature that is still visible in the Faroese genes today, which prove to be mixed Scandinavian-British.

If many men settled in the Faroes in the reign of Harald Hårfagre, people must have known about the Faroes. And therefore someone may have settled or visited there some time before.

The fact that settlers from Norway also settled in the Faroe Islands is proven by a runestone (see Sandavágur stone) found in the village of Sandavágur on Vágoy Island. It says:

Þorkil Onundsson, austmaþr af Hrua-lande, byggþe þe(n)a staþ fyrst.

I.e. "Thorkil Onundsson, eastman (Norwegian) from Rogaland, settled first in this place (Sandavágur)".

This description "eastman" (from Norway) has to be seen together with the description "westman" (From Ireland/Scotland) which is to be found in local place-names such as "Vestmanna-havn" i.e. "Irish-mens harbour" in the Faroe Isles, and "Vestmannaeyjar" i.e. "Irish-mens islands" in Iceland.

Faroese stamp depicting Tróndur í Gøtu raising the hammer of Thor against Christianity

According to Færeyinga Saga there was an ancient institution on the headland Tinganes in Tórshavn on the island of Streymoy. This was an Alþing or Althing (All-council.) This was the place where laws were made and disputes solved. All free men had the right to meet in the Alþing. It was a parliament and law court for all, thus the name. Historians estimate the Alþing to have been established from 800 to 900.

The islands were converted to Christianity around the year 1000, with the Diocese of the Faroe Islands based at Kirkjubøur, southern Streymoy, of which there were 33 Catholic bishops. The Faroes became a part of the Kingdom of Norway in 1035.

Early in the 11th century Sigmund or Sigmundur Brestisson, whose family had flourished in the southern islands but had been almost exterminated by invaders from the northern, was sent from Norway, whither he had escaped, to take possession of the islands for Olaf Tryggvason, king of Norway. He introduced Christianity, and, though he was subsequently murdered, Norwegian supremacy was upheld and continued.

King Sverre of Norway was brought up in the Faroe, being stepson of a Faroese man, and relative to Roe, bishop of the islands.

Foreign commercial interest: 14th century to Second World War

The 14th century saw the start of what would prove to be a long era of foreign encroachment in the Faroese economy. At this time trading regulations were set up so that all Faroese commerce had to pass through Bergen, Norway in order to collect customs tax. Meanwhile, the Hanseatic League was gaining in power, threatening Scandinavian commerce. Though Norway tried to halt this process it was forced to relent after the Black Death decimated its population.

Norwegian supremacy continued until 1380, when the islands became part of the dual monarchy Denmark–Norway. The islands were still a possession of the Norwegian crown since the crowns had not been joined. In 1380 the Alþting was renamed the Løgting, though it was by now little more than a law court.

In 1390s, Henry Sinclair I, Earl of Orkney, took possession of the islands (as vassal of Norway, however) and for some time they were part of the Sinclair principality in the North Atlantic.

Archaeological excavations on the islands indicate sustained pig keeping up to and beyond the 13th century, a situation unique compared to Iceland and Greenland. The Faroese at Junkarinsfløtti remained dependent upon bird resources, especially puffins, far longer, and to a greater degree than any of the other Viking Age settlers of the North Atlantic islands.

English adventurers gave great trouble to the inhabitants in the 16th century, and the name of Magnus Heinason, a native of Streymoy, who was sent by Frederick II to clear the seas, is still celebrated in many songs and stories.

In 1535 Christian II, the deposed monarch, tried to regain power from King Christian III who just succeeded his father Frederick I. Several of the powerful German companies backed Christian II, but he eventually lost. The new King Christian III gave the German trader Thomas Köppen exclusive trading rates in the Faroes. These rights were subject to the following conditions: only good quality goods were to be supplied by the Faroese and were to be made in numbers proportionate to the rest of the market; the goods were to be brought at their market value; and the traders were to deal fairly and honestly with the Faroese.

Christian III also introduced Lutheranism to the Faroes, to replace Catholicism. This process took five years to complete, in which time Danish was used instead of Latin and church property was transferred to the state. The bishopric at Kirkjubøur, south of Tórshavn, where remains of the cathedral may be seen, was also abolished.

After Köppen, others took over the trading monopoly, though the economy suffered as a result of the war between Denmark and Sweden. During this period of the monopoly most Faroese goods (wool products, fish, meat) were taken to the Netherlands where they were sold at pre-determined prices. However, the guidelines of the trading agreement were often ignored or corrupted. This caused delays and shortages in Faroese supplies. Subsequently they produced poorer quality goods, and received poorer quality goods themselves. With the trading monopoly nearing collapse smuggling and piracy were rife.

The Faroe Islands as seen by the French navigator Yves de Kerguelen Trémarec in 1767.

Denmark tried to solve the problem by giving the Faroes to Christoffer Gabel (and later on his son, Frederick) as a personal feudal estate. However, the Gabel was harsh and repressive, breeding much resentment from the Faroese. This caused Denmark, in 1708, to take the islands and trading monopoly back to central government. However, they too struggled to keep the economy going, and many merchants were running at a loss. Finally, on the 1 January 1856 the trading monopoly was abolished.

Denmark retained possession of the Faroes at the Peace of Kiel in 1814, but lost continental Norway.

In 1816 the Løgting (the Faroese parliament) was officially abolished and replaced by a Danish judiciary. Danish was introduced as the main language, whilst Faroese was discouraged. In 1849 a new constitution came into power in Denmark. This new constitution was announced in the Faroes in 1850, giving the Faroese two seats in the Rigsdag (Danish parliament). However, the Faroese managed to re-establish the Løgting as a county council with an advisory role in 1852, with many people hoping to eventually achieve independence. The late 19th century saw increasing support for the home rule/independence movement, though not all people supported it. Meanwhile, the Faroese economy was growing with the introduction of large-scale fishing. The Faroese were allowed access to the large Danish waters in the North Atlantic. Living standards subsequently improved and there was a population increase. Faroese became a standardised written language in 1890.

World War II

During the Second World War Denmark was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. The British subsequently made a pre-emptive (but friendly) invasion and occupation of the Faroes to prevent a German invasion. Given their strategic location in the North Atlantic, the Faroes could have proved useful to Germany in the Battle of the Atlantic, possibly as a submarine base. Instead, the British forces built an airbase on Vágar. Faroese fishing boats also provided a large amount of fish to the UK, which was essential given food rationing.

The Løgting gained legislative powers, with the Danish prefect Carl Aage Hilbert retaining executive power. The Faroese flag was recognized by British authorities. There were some attempts to declare complete independence in this period, but the UK had given an undertaking not to interfere in the internal affairs of the Faroe Islands nor to act without the permission of a liberated Denmark. The experience of wartime self-government was crucial in paving the way for formal autonomy in 1948.

The British presence was broadly popular (particularly given the alternative of a German occupation). Approximately 150 marriages took place between British soldiers and Faroese women, although the scale of the British presence on Vágar did lead to some local tensions. The British presence also left a lasting popularity for British chocolate, which is readily available in Faroese shops but uncommon in Denmark.

Post-WWII: Home Rule

Following the liberation of Denmark and the end of World War II, the last British troops left in September 1945. Until 1948 the Faroes had the official status of an Danish amt (county). A referendum on full independence was held in 1946, which produced a majority in favour. This was, however, not recognised by the Danish Government or king due to only 2/3 of the population participating in the referendum, so the Danish king abolished the government of the Faroes. The subsequent elections Løgting were won by an anti-independence majority and instead a high degree of self-governance was attained in 1948 with the passing of the Act of Faroese Home Rule. Faroese was now an official language, though Danish is still taught as a second language in schools. The Faroese flag was also officially recognised by Danish authorities.

In 1973 Denmark joined the European Community (now European Union). The Faroes refused to join, mainly over the issue of fishing limits.

The 1980s saw an increase in support for Faroese independence. Unemployment was very low, and the Faroese were enjoying one of the world's highest standards of living. The Faroese economy though was almost entirely reliant on fishing. The early 1990s saw a dramatic slump in fish stocks, which were being overfished with new high-tech equipment. During the same period the government was also enagaged in massive overspending, associated with the Big 80s. National debt was now at 9.4 billion Danish krones (DKK). Finally, in October 1992, the Faroese national bank (Sjóvinnurbankin) called in receivers and were forced into asking Denmark for a broad financial bailout. The initial sum was 500 million DKK, though this eventually grew to 1.8 billion DKK (this was in addition to the annual grant of 1 billion DKK). Austerity measures were introduced: public spending was cut, there was a tax and VAT increase and public employees were given a 10% wage-cut. Much of the fishing industry was put into receivership, with talk of cutting down on the number of fish-farms and ships.

It was during this period that many Faroese (6%) decided to emigrate, mainly to Denmark. Unemployment rose, up to as much as 20% in Tórshavn, with it being higher in the outlying islands. In 1993 the Sjóvinnurbankin merged with the Faroes second largest bank, Føroya Banki. A third was declared bankrupt and folded. Meanwhile, there was a growing international boycott of Faroese produce over the grindadráp (whaling) issue. The independence movement dissolved on the one hand while Denmark found itself left with the Faroe Islands' unpaid bills on the other.

The measures largely worked. Unemployment peaked in January 1994 at 26%, since which it fell (10% in mid-1996, 5% in April 2000). The fishing industry was not curtailed as much as was being considered, so it survived largely intact. Fish stocks also rose, with the annual catch being 100,000 in 1994, to 150,000 in 1995. In 1998 it was 375,000. Emigration also fell to 1% in 1995, and there was a small population increase in 1996. Oil has been discovered nearby as well. By the early 21st century, weakness in the Faroese economy had been eliminated and, accordingly, many minds turned once again to the possibility of independence from Denmark. However, a planned referendum on a roadmap towards independence in 2001 was called off following Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen saying that Danish money grants would be phased out within four years if there was a 'yes' vote.


  • Church, MJ, Arge, SV, Brewington, S, McGovern, TH, Woollett, JM, Perdikaris, S, Lawson, IT, Cook, GT, Amundsen, C. Harrison, R, Krivogorskaya, Y and Dunar, E. (2005). Puffins, Pigs, Cod and Barley: Palaeoeconomy at Undir Junkarinsfløtti, Sandoy, Faroe Islands. Environmental Archaeology 10 (2): 179-197.

Further reading

  • Brandt, Don. Stamps and Story of the Faroe Islands. Reykjavík: Nesútgáfan, 1996. ISBN 9979919442
  • Johnston, George. The Faroe Islanders' Saga. [Ottawa]: Oberon, 1975. ISBN 0887501354
  • West, John F. The History of the Faroe Islands, 1709-1816. København: C.A. Reitzel, 1985. ISBN 8774214861
  • Wylie, Jonathan. The Faroe Islands Interpretations of History. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. ISBN 0813115787

See also

External links

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