The Mastiff at the Faroes, 1878

Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909

Trollope and his friends leave St. Kilda and head for the Faroe Islands. They are on a sightseeing junket paid by the head of Cunard Lines. They’re travelling on the yacht, the Mastiff. They hold high positions, individually, or as members of important families. They are used to life in European cities. At St. Kilda, they’ve seen what life is like in an isolated place where bare survival requires charity. Where good fortune is the gift of a few feet of rope. Now, they go to the Faroes, also isolated, but with a population of around ten thousand and circumstances that allow them to fish and farm more successfully. This visit is good preparation for when the Mastiffs  reach Iceland.
The Faroes are inextricably linked with Iceland. Numerous books about Iceland are also about the Faroes. Harper&Brothers published a book, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes in 1841. Kneeland says in his book, Travels In Iceland, 1874, that travellers should go to Iceland via Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, and the Faroes. Russell’s, Iceland, 1914, starts with a chapter on the Faroes.
The Faroes, as small as they are, were the first country to offer Iceland financial aid during the recent economic crises. In spite of that, the Faroes are often dismissed by Icelanders, brushed off with a sniff. That may be because of their size or it may be lingering resentment that the Faroes were always treated well by the Danish king. When Christian IX stopped at the Faroes on his way to Iceland in 1874, the Faroese had nothing to ask from him. No one asked for a new constitution. The population was quite satisfied with the way it was being treated. The Icelanders wanted a new constitution and independence. They’d suffered for centuries under harsh Danish law and trading monopolies that exploited them.
When the Mastiff’s passengers arrive at Thorshavn, Trollop says, “The postmaster, with a considerable proportion of the population, was there, on the rocks, to receive us.
“We were taken first to the postmaster’s house, – only, I think, because the doing so was an act of hospitality. Here we found ourselves in a very pretty room, comfortably furnished, overlooking a beautifully picturesque nook of the sea.” This would be, in Iceland, the description of a Danish trader’s house, not an Icelanders. Ida Pfeiffer, in 1845, upon arriving in Iceland describes the Danish traders’ houses this way: “If any person could suddenly and without having made the journey, be transported into one of these houses, he would certainly fancy himself in some continental town, rather than in the distant and barren island of Iceland.
She then adds, “From these handsome houses I betook myself to the cottages of the peasants, which have a more indigenous, Icelandic appearance….Throughout my subsequent journeys into the interior, I found the cottages of the peasant everywere alike squalid and filthy.”
Trollope, having landed safely and been greeted politely, says, “Then we proceeded upon a walk, a number of men and a long string of pretty maidens accompanying us. We went about among the narrow streets, – streets which are required for no wheeled vehicles, – and saw other maidens looking at us from out of the windows. These streets were not rectangular, straight, and ugly, but ran crookedly here and there, up and down hills, round the little indented bays of the sea, with houses standing sometimes angularly, sometimes with gables to the roadway. And the houses were all covered with green turf, with turf that at this time of the year was growing, – a mode of roofing which gave a singularly picturesque appearance to the place.
“The turf is used as a protection against snow, and is a protection of which the ‘Mastiffs’ saw more when they found themselves in Iceland. That it should have been found necessary here I am surprised, as Thorshavn though it lies between 61 and 62 N.L., is not a place of very much snow. The climate is moist and foggy, and storms are frequent; but the winters are not severe. The frost lasts hardly beyond a month, and the harbours are seldom icebound. But there are the houses covered with grass, giving to the place from a little distance the appearance of a town under the sods.
“When we had perambulated the streets we were taken up to a little hill over the town so that we might look down upon and see the nature of its situation and its structure. Thorshavn lies all around various little nooks of the sea, and has the smell and flavour of the sea which is peculiar to such places. It is very pretty, but its smell and flavour, combining that of many fishes, is one to which the visitor must become accustomed before it will be palatable. There is certainly the ancient and the fish-like smell; – otherwise Thorshavn is delightful.
“There are, I was told, about 10,000 inhabitants in the islands, of which the capital holds about 900. Looking at statistics composed as to the Faroes about twenty-five years ago, I find the number of the people given as 8,150 for the group altogether, and 1,500 for the capital.…The cultivation is very poor, the ground being too rocky for the general use of ploughs. Horses and cattle are rare. The wealth of the farmers consists in their sheep. The sheep, however, are never housed, and the wool is torn from their backs instead of being shorn. Here, as at St. Kilda, there is a great enterprise of bird-catching, for the sake of the flesh as well as the feathers. There seemed to be little or no poverty. A good carpenter in Thorshavn would earn 4s. a week; in other parts of the islands a moderate carpenter would earn 2s. They use Danish coins, of which the crown contains 100 farthings; this crown is worth something over as. The people generally are healthy; the girls appear to be remarkably strong. But here again I was told that rheumatism prevails.
“When we descended from the hill… to see the church. It was now considerably past midnight, and yet there seemed to be no difficulty in finding the key. The church was spacious, – not at all unlike one of our own ugly churches, with pews, and a gallery, and an organ. It seemed to me to be larger than would be wanted in England for a population of 900; but it is probably the case that a larger proportion of the population attends Divine service than is the case with ourselves. It was evident that they were proud of their church, and that they who accompanied us were anxious that we should see it.”
Although the Faroese appear much more Danish than the Icelanders–they have adopted the Danish system easily, the language, the coins, the postal service, the government appointments, and they appear to be better off–there is much similarity with Iceland. Some are in the details Trollope mentions.
Neither shear sheep. They pull off loose wool. It is an odd, wasteful practice that results in poor quality wool even though wool is a major trading item. If North American Icelandic beliefs about Iceland being held back because of lack of contact with more efficient ways of doing things were true, one could understand sheep not being sheared. It could be assumed the Faroese and Icelanders simply didn’t know that sheep should be sheared. However, the oddity of the practice of pulling off loose wool is such that not only does Trollope mention it but so do any number of other English travellers. One has to assume that the travellers mentioned it to people in both the Faroes and Iceland. Nearly every account of travels in Iceland states that wealth is not in silver but in sheep. The practice would seem to be more about attitude, a crippling refusal to change that Laxness repeatedly mentions in his novels,  than lack of knowledge.
Faroese buildings, like Icelandic ones, have turf roofs. Again, Trollope’s eye for detail, that essential quality of the novelist, notes both the turf roofs and the incongruity of them for there are other roofing materials available. In Iceland, he will see a situation where the people have no choice but to use sod, where wood is so scarce that whale ribs are used as roof beams.
Trollope notes that the streets of Thorshavn won’t accommodate wheeled vehicles. The stop in the Faroes prepares the travellers for Iceland, a country with hardly any attempt at building roads where everything, even the dead, are moved on horseback.
The major difference is that the climate is milder and Trollope makes note of it. Oats and barley will ripen. However, the winds can be fierce, so fierce that it actually strips away sod. In Iceland, the ripening of grain stopped far back in history. The one crop is grass. The Icelanders, like the Faroese, cut sod and dry it for fuel because fuel of any kind is in such short supply. In Iceland, it is so scarce that farmhouses are not heated. In the Faroes, the houses are heated but Trollope notes that the use of sod for fuel relentlessly reduces the pasture for the sheep.
This brief stop gives the travellers a preview of what is to come. Trollope, the famous writer, is the guest of Mr. John Burns, the owner of the Cunard Lines. He comes in luxury, the guest of a man who lives in a castle, a member of the nobility, the kind of successful businessman who can afford to take sixteen people on a yacht the size of the Mastiff.  A man who can afford to be both demanding and generous. One gets the impression that these tourists are no more enlightened about the condition of life for those outside their social class than today’s tourists on a cruise that stops at various ports of call. They look at the sights and buy local souvenirs. It may be when they return home, that in describing the people they saw, they will use the word “quaint”.
Trollope, used to upper class English society, a society in which he has made a place for himself among the rich and powerful, can’t help but see, because he is a novelist, what people’s lives are like. However, he is writing about the trip as a gesture of friendship to John Burns so the account of the trip must please his patron. There is no curiosity about the “peasants”, no visits to the earth like hovels like those Ida Pfeiffer made. There’s no point in complaining that Trollope isn’t Dickens. After all, none of the passengers would have any reason to enter the hovels of the local peasants in the areas from which they came. Why would they when abroad? Money shields the Mastiffs from daily reality. However, Anthony Trollope had a keen eye, and from some of his observations, one might expect that he had much to think about after he had his nightly whiskey and water and went to bed.
(Quotes from How the Mastiffs Went to Iceland)