On the Way to Iceland

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Travelers on the way to Iceland usually stopped at the Faroes. The descriptions of the Faroese and their houses are similar to what is later described in Iceland but with some surprising differences. Symington, like travelers before him, gets off the boat at Thorshaven and keen observer that he is, has this to say about the town.

“Houses, stone for a few feet next the ground, then wood, tarred or painted black, and generally two stories in height; small windows, the sashes of which are painted white; green turf on the roofs. The interiors of the poorer sort of houses are very dark; an utter absence of voluntary ventilation; one fire, and that in the kitchen, the chimney often only a hole in the roof. Yet even in these hovels there is generally a guest-room, comfortably boarded and furnished. In such apartments we observed chairs, tales, chests of drawers, feather-beds, down coverlets, a few books, engravings on the walls, specimens of ingenious native handiwork, curiosities, etc. This juxtaposition under the same roof was new to us, and struck every one as something quite peculiar and contrary to all our previous experiences. The streets of Thorshavn are only narrow dirty irregular passages, often not more than two or three feet wide; one walks upon are rock or mud. These passages wind up steep places, and run in all manner of zigzag directions, so that the most direct line from one point to another generally leads “straight down crooked land and all round the square.” Observed a man on the top of a house cutting grass with a sickle. Here the approach of spring is first indicated by the turf roofs of the house becoming green. Being invited, we entered several fishermen’s houses; they seemed dark, smoky, and dirty; and, in all, the air was close and stifling. In one, observed a savoury pot of puffin broth, suspended from the ceiling and boiling on a turf fire built open like a smith’s forge, the smoke finding only a very partial egress by the hole overhead; on the wall hung a number of plucked puffins and guillemots; several hens seen through the smoke sitting contentedly perched on a spar evidently intended for their accommodation. In the corner of the apartment; a stone hand-mill for grinding barley, such as Sarah may have used, lay on the floor; reminding one of the East, from whence the Scandinavians came in the days of Odin.

Faroese boatman

Faroese boatman

In passing along the street we saw strips of whale-flesh, black and reddish-coloured, hanging outside the gable of almost every house to dry, just as we have seen herrings in fishing-villages on our own coasts. When a shoal of whales is driven ashore by the boatmen, there are great rejoicings among the islanders, whose faces, we were told, actually shine for weeks after this their season of feasting. What cannot be eaten at the time is dried for future use. Boiled or roasted it is nutritious, and not very unpalatable. The dried flesh which I tasted resembled tough beef, with a flavour of venison. Being “blood-meat,” I would not have known it to be from the sea; and have been told that, when fresh and properly cooked, tender steaks from a young whale can scarcely be distinguished for beef-steak.”

This description is one of the best I’ve read simply for its details. Symington sees a man on the roof of a house with a sickle cutting grass for his livestock. Spring is heralded by the roofs of the houses turning green. He actually gives us a description of cooking being done and of both plucked birds and live chickens in the house. He tries the whale meat and describes it as tough beef.

The Faroese are less well known than the Icelanders. That may be for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps, in part, it was their greater willingness to be part of the Danish empire, partly because it was the Icelanders who had the sagas, partly because Iceland excited a great deal of curiosity during the 19th C. because of its geology. However, the Faroes have always been a safe harbour, a stopping point on a dangerous journey, and Icelanders have, through the centuries, sought shelter in Faroese harbours. The climate is just enough different that grain can be grown. There has been enough prosperity that as Symington describes, there are a variety of crafts, often admirably done in spite of the dark, dank, unhealthy living conditions.

It is a shame that the visitors who came to Iceland were more interested in the geology than the people. Because they come from wealthy, often noble families, they have little or no interest in ordinary people and if they comment on the fishermen or the paupers, it is dismissively. Even Ebenezer Henderson, the minister who comes to distribute Bibles is a snob, interested only in associating with individuals he considers worthy of his attention. His Christ would have been quite comfortable in the temple of the money changers.

The scientific reports that came of all the expeditions to Iceland have long ago become irrelevant. The mechanisms of the geysers have been revealed, the rocks, classified. Quite by accident, the simple fact that there were no commercial inns or hotels, meant that the people where the travellers stayed were described. That, ironically, is what is valuable.

It is impossible to separate the Faroes and Iceland. Historically, they are joined. Politically they were joined. They are bound by custom and circumstance. Symington is quite right to call his book Faroe and Iceland.

It is by comparing the Faroese and the Icelanders that we can obtain a deeper understanding of our ancestors. Too often we talk and write of Iceland as if, somehow, it was separate from all the islands between it and Europe but nothing could be further from the truth. Ships and sailors seek shelter. They seek trade. They establish social and business relationships. It is in these other places where we can get a glimpse of what our ancestors were and were not like.