03 May 2016

Faroe Islands, the Vikings and the Shetlands

The Faroe Islands archipelago lies halfway between Norway and Ice­land, 320 kilometres off the NE Scottish coast of Great Britain. The Faroe Islands were part of the Kingdom of Norway until 1814. when the Treaty of Kiel granted Denmark control over the Faroes in 1814, along with other ex-Norwegian regions: Greenland and Iceland. Since then the Faroe Islands have remained a part of Denmark, self-governing since 1948.

How close were the histories of the Faroes population to the histor­ies of the populations in Scandinavia or Scotland? And when did the first Christian inhabitants of the Faroe Islands settle? Saint Brend­an (484–578), an Irish monk, first described the Faroes in his written chronicles. Another Irish monk of the early C9th described "hermits from our land of Ireland" who had lived on the northerly islands of Britain for almost a century until the arrival of Norse pirates. Note that alth­ough the islands’ Celtic Christian slabs and crosses seem to date from c850 AD, the official conversion date for the islands did not occur until 999 AD.

Even if the Norse settlers did not come from Scandinavia directly, it did not matter. The Norse communities around the Irish Sea, including Scotland's Shetland and Orkney islands, were still seen as rugged invaders against whom there was no defence.

The Viking Age (800–1066 AD) was the era in Northern European history when Scandinavian Norse­men moved over waters for seasonal raids, permanent conquest and flourishing trade. No area escaped the dragon ships that filled local citizens with awe or horror. In this period, the Norsemen settled in Scot­land, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Newfoundland, Iceland and even furth­er afield eg Normandy.

Shetlanders celebrating their Viking heritage
with the Up Helly Aa festival

 In the Faroes, Viking influence is seen in the language, the place names, establishment of a Norwegian parliament in the C10th and the Saga Museum in Vestmanna. It would be useful to know how many settlers did not like King Harald I of Norway (850-932) and left Norway to settle instead in the Faroes. They certainly brought the Old Norse language to the Faroes and maintained it as the local language. And because the Norsemen were not celibate as the Irish monks had been, the population started increasing.

Since the Vikings originally established their parliament on the Tórshavn peninsula, Tórshavn has been the capital and largest city with a current population of 20,000. But it was not always important; in fact until the C18th, the settlement was very small. Only then did it become a centre for international trade, the seat of the bishop, a modern harbour and the site for regular markets. Today the Tourist Guide suggests that travel­l­ers enjoy the cultural events in cosy cafés by the harbour, concerts on the pedestrian street and in the old church, local paintings and sculpture at the Faroe Islands Art Museum, and the beautiful Nordic House packed with Scandinavian culture and esprit.

Tórshavn, capital of the Faroes.
Boating and fishing are always close at hand

Not far away are Scotland’s Shetland Islands which hover above the North Atlantic and lie closer to Scandinavia than to Scotland. In fact they were part of Scandinavia for 600 years, starting when Norwegian king Harald annexed Orkney and Shetland in 875. Only in 1469 was Shetland pledged by King Christian of Norway as the dowry of his daughter Margaret when she married King James III of Scot­land. The islands were soon directly annexed to the crown of Scotland.

In Shetland locals love Up Helly Aa, a mid winter fire festival celebrating their Viking heritage. The festival in­cl­udes the burning of a replica longship and copious amounts of alcohol.

Travelling to Orkney and Shetland is easy as NorthLink Ferries have daily sailings into the Scottish mainland. These Scottish islands are in turn linked with Denmark, Norway, the Faroes and Iceland by weekly ferries in summer. A heavenly curtain of coloured light, aurora borealis, can best be seen in the Arctic sky from October to January inclusive.

Aurora borealis/northern lights
as seen in the Faroes

The connections between Faroe Islands and the Scottish islands will continue into the future. Faroe is one of the world’s leading nations in producing sustainable electricity, with the majority of their electricity com­ing from renewable energy sources – wind and tidal power.

And the modern oil industry? Oil explor­ation got going in the Faroe Islands in 1993, and since then the industry has been busy with data acquisition, scientific work and the drilling of exploration wells. But note a strange event. As a result of the oil revenue and the cultural links with Norway, a small independence mov­ement developed in the Shetlands. It saw as its model the Faroe Islands in its relationship with Denmark. And the creation of flag of Shetland, shaped in the Nordic cross, marked the anniv­ers­ary of the transfer of Shetland from Norway to Scotland!

When more oil is discovered and exploited in the North Sea, the ind­ustry will boom. As Scotland is the closest nation with an existing oil industry, the new site at Rockall in the Atlantic was declared to be Scottish. But ownership of Rockall oil and fishing rights is disputed, between the UK, Faroe Islands via Denmark, Ireland and Iceland.

Locate the Faroe Islands in relation to 
Norway, Denmark, Shetland Islands and Iceland

I have read many Scottish mystery writers before eg Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride etc and found them dark, gritty and rather scary, but I was not familiar with Ann Cleeves' Shetland series. So now I am watching Shetland, a BBC Scotland crime drama series on tv starring Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. Yes the series is dark, and the landscapes are rugged, but the Shetland stories and characters are well worth watching.


Student of History said...

The Shetlands were part of Scandinavia for 600 years, but even when they transferred to Britisg control, they were still rocky and cold. Agree with you re Shetlands on tv - Douglas Henshall is perfect.

Another Student said...

Why did the Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands vote so clearly against Scottish independence? What about the relationship between the Faroes and Denmark?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Thanks for untangling the complicated histories of these Northern islands. For such cold and remote places, they are the source of much history, art and literature.

Hels said...

Student of History

rocky and cold yes, but clearly enough people must enjoy the peace and the environment to make life on Shetland very desirable. Locals love the spectacular landscapes, the abundant wildlife and eerie lights. I personally would not enjoy the icy North Atlantic gales all winter, but the monster waves colliding onto the cliff faces are amazing to watch.

Hels said...

Another Student,

in the recent referendum, 67% of Orkney residents voted against Scottish independence and 64% of Shetland residents voted against Scottish independence. The experts suggested that after spending more than half a millennium under Norse rule, it was expected that the Shetland and Orkney citizens might not consider themselves to be 100% British. If the Scots HAD in fact voted for independence, Shetland and Orkney citizens would probably have declared their total independence from Britain.

The 1814 Treaty of Kiel ended the longstanding Danish-Norwegian union. From then on, Norway came under the rule of the King of Sweden, while the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland remained Danish possessions. Denmark runs Faroe's military services, police, customs and foreign affairs and the rest is controlled locally. But attitudes are changing on Faroe too. Keep watching the Faroe independence movement that is gaining in popularity.

Hels said...


I was running a course a few years ago about British Islands and knew a great deal about Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Wight, Isle of Man etc but precious little about the islands north of Scotland and west of Norway.

However it seems a lot of people are becoming very interested in the history, landscapes etc of Orkney, Shetland and Faroe Islands. Silversea is now running a 22 day Northern Sea Route trip that starts in Copenhagen, travels to Greenland, then Iceland, Faroe Islands, Shetland Islands, Orkney Isles, Edinburgh and ends in London. Silversea's itinerary might have been designed especially for my blog post :)

bazza said...

Hi Hels. I have to say that the Faroe Islands had not been high on my radar but I find this story very interesting. I also really liked the atmosphere created by the Shetland series.
One wonders how the Faroes would do as an independent nation - they would possibly be the smallest nation on the planet!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Amazing, isn't it? Faroe Islands cover 1,400 square ks, much bigger than many island nations in the Caribbean, Tonga, Bahrain, Singapore, Guam, Malta, Cook Islands etc etc.

So the problem with Faro's independence would not be in providing services they currently run in any case eg health care, education, agriculture etc. The problem would be running those services that are currently run by Denmark eg customs, the army, running an ambassadorial service in every country of the world, immigration etc

I suppose every country that wants to establish its as an independent, sovereign nation has to face the same dilemma. Think of big countries that did successfully gain independence eg Slovakia breaking away from the old Czechoslovakia. Even worse for states that wanted to break away from the home nation but failed eg when Quebec Province wanted independence from Canada.

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Hels said...


I am writing a blog post on the Orkneys which I hope you enjoy.