Faroe Islands

25 October 2016

In the epochal silences between rumblings, a rich tangle of vegetation grows. Transformed into fertile topsoil. Pressed into thick seams of black coal between layers of molten rock

There was a man named Grim Camban. He first settled in the Faroes in the days of Harold Fairhair. In those days many fled before the king’s overbearing. Some settled in the Sheep Islands and began to dwell there while others sought further-flung empty lands. On her way to Iceland, Aud the Deeply Wealthy stopped in the Faroes and offered Grim Camban Olof, the daughter of Thorstan the Red in marriage. From their union came the greatest lineage of Faroe folk, called Gatebeards of Eastrey.

It begins with the prow of Camban’s longship cutting through the choppy waves in the bay. The wind scours the tops off the breakers as they crash onto the shore, whisking salt water over the threadbare grasses embroidered over rock and shingle. A shudder, a thud. The hull scrapes into the sand and gravel of the seabed. Oars knock rhythmically as the ship rocks in the current. Rain hisses onto the water, scrambling reflections, gluing hair to foreheads, splashing the contours of cheeks like tears. Seabirds call broken heartedly and feet splash down into cold surf, unanchoring seaweed as they slosh onto dry land for the first time in eight days. Sea spray, hard bread, constant motion. The air is chill even though it is the height of summer. The sun breaks through the shelf of heavy cloud illuminating angular hills before retreating once more, a pale shifting patch in the mass of roiling grey. Camban himself may be the first ashore, his voice ringing out. Or perhaps it is a member of his household to make first landfall; a servant carrying a bundle of cloth over their head; slaves dragging a heavy chest up out of reach of the lapping waves, murmuring to one another in the liquid syllables of their native Gaelic. The livestock comes next; chattering, complaining, quarrelling.

The land around the bay is flat, sheltered from the constant winds that barrels in loaded with rain. It will not be long before the first pillars of the first longhouse are hauled into place, casting a gloomy smoky pall over a square of terrain in the same proportions as the longships. Ships that are already bringing others here, to other bays. These Norsemen and their boats will define the outer appearance of these islands. They will name them Føroyar – Sheep Islands – for their livestock. They will build their parliament in a sod-roofed house on a rocky promontory. They will write their sagas. They will trade with their clansfolk when the winds are in their favour. Orkney, Shetland, Ireland, Scotland, Iceland. They will kneel, reluctantly at first, at the altar of Christianity. They will see themselves absorbed into the very kingdoms they were fleeing from. They will lose a third of their number to the Great Plague. They will see their horizon narrow, squeezed into a parish under a distant bishop. They will free their slaves and then enslave them again. It is these slaves and servants, invisible other than as addenda to deeds of sale or in short lived declarations of emancipation in royal decrees, who will shape this nation’s insides. It is they who will work the land, shear the sheep, cut crops, bake bread under roofs they will build. It is their tongues that will knock the harsher edges off Old Norse and lace it through with a Celtic melody, even as their stories are silenced. They will be lovers and mothers, and what was erased from the historical record will be passed down through their bloodlines, providing close to half the mitochondrial DNA of the islanders.

Camban’s voice may have been the first to utter a word in Norse here, but the Gaelic of his slaves has rung out over these lichen mottled hills before. The feet that churn the frigid soil as the pillars for the longhouse soar skyward stamp the remains of earlier settlements into the mud. Ash from peat fires, scraps of parchment, scattered grains of barley. A hunger to be alone with the sea and sky might have already driven these firstcomers to an even more remote horizon by the time Camban arrived. Or perhaps failed harvests or disease silenced them. Or maybe they simply faded into a collective liver spotted senescence. Those flat lands around the bay are narrow, and these newcomers don’t look like the type who want to share. The hermits may have fled inland when they saw the first slender silhouette on the horizon. A simple crack in the rock is enough for a life of silent contemplation, and if the press of humanity comes too close, the rocking horse waves beckon. Perhaps they never leave at all. Norse scribes write from the very first of the illuminated books, the bronze bells and the ornate shepherd’s crooks they find, even as they make no mention of flesh, blood, and bones. They call these Celtic monks papar or Westmen. Paparøkur, Papurshίlsur, Vestmanna. In the end, they leave behind nothing on Faroe but their names.

There is a beginning in these islands even before the desire for seclusion among the papar drives them here. This final story takes place long before even the most rudimentary vessel sets sail from the western shores plying a course northeast. The only voices ringing out are the slow groans of the landmasses of Greenland and Europe as they take the first steps in their long dance of separation. Levered apart by the sporadic clamour of molten basalt. Punctuated by great gasps of volcanic ash. The Eurasian Plate yawns wider, prising open the North Atlantic. Small mammals begin a journey of evolution that sees their bodies transform as they occupy niche after vacant ecological niche. Three great eruptions between 58 and 54 million years ago send streams of magma sizzling up through the brine, coalescing and hardening into a vast empty plateau. In the epochal silences between rumblings, a rich tangle of vegetation grows. Transformed into fertile topsoil. Pressed into thick seams of black coal between layers of molten rock. As time wears on, a chorus of deep sea currents and howling gales gnaw at this plateau and it sinks below the waves, drifting east, far from the boiling cracks in the earth’s mantle. The highlands and peaks remain, carved and sculpted by the juggernauts of each Ice Age, as they roll south from the Arctic. Eighteen islands scored with rivers and lakes, home first and last to the seabirds.