Local author, James J. McGrath II, has traveled extensively around the world, and is a perennially traveler to the Faroe Islands. He was interviewed on Faroese National Radio in August 2010, and was given the opportunity to explain why he likes to travel there every summer. He also explained what got him interested in the language. McGrath has been auto didactically teaching himself the Faroese language for the past three years, and has gained a proficiency in reading, writing and spoken Faroese. He is a freelance writer and author of A Pictorial View of the Faroe Islands, which is a pictorial description about towns in the Faroe Islands.
The Faroe Islands – a group of 18 islands – is located midway between Iceland, Norway and Scotland, and the 48,500 inhabitants speak the Faroese language. This language is steeped in Old Norse and is linguistically close to Icelandic. Many archaic features of the language have been preserved due to the isolation of the country, and it’s quite unique compared to other Scandinavian languages (Norwegian, Danish and Swedish). Denmark ruled the Faroe Islands for hundreds of years, and Danish was the official language of business, administration, schools and churches. Not much was documented about the Faroese language until the late 18th century, when a growing nationalist movement began to take place.
Many historical ballads in the Faroe Islands were passed down orally from generation to generation by the national chain dance, sung to the tune of sea shanties. The dance is performed in a ring and led by a captain (skipari). McGrath knows the ballads in their entirety, even though many of the songs have hundreds of verses. Everyone knows the chorus, and many chant along if they know the rest of the lyrics.
This dance has seen resurgence in popularity, and is a highlight of the St. Olaf’s Day (Ólavsøka) festival on July 29th. Ólavsøka means “St. Olaf’s Wake,” and is the national holiday in the Faroe Islands. This date marks the death of St. Olaf at the Battle of Stikkelstad in Norway in the year 1030. The three day Ólavsøka festivities are held in the capital city of Tórshavn (pronounced Tor-shawn), and this city has a population of only 19,000. People dress in their traditional Faroese costumes (Kvæði), and often approach people by saying “Góða Ólavsøku,” which means “good Ólavsøku.”
The Faroese flag, Merkið, can be seen almost everywhere in the Faroes during the time of their holiday, and it was first recognized as the official flag in World War II. The Faroes were occupied by 250 British troops on April 12, 1941, which was three days after Denmark was occupied by the Germans. This British defense of the Faroe Islands was called “Operation Valentine,” and the number of troops on the islands grew to 5,000. Most of these troops were from Scottish regiments, such as the Scottish Cameronian Rifles and Lovat Scouts.
The British troops built a network of roads, and a landing strip on the Faroe Islands. This is now Vágar International Airport – the only airport in the Faroe Islands. As much as 220 Faroese people lost their lives in the war by floating mines and in Luftwaffe attacks. It’s said that the Faroes lost more of her people in the war proportionally than any other country except the Soviet Union.
When the war was over, half of the Faroese people wanted home rule from Denmark, and on September 14, 1946, there was a referendum on secession. That was the first time the Faroese people asked about having partial autonomy from the Danish kingdom. The Faroe Islands have been a self-governing protectorate of Denmark ever since.
McGrath illustrates many of these details of the Faroe Islands in his new book, which showcases his photography of the archipelago. The full color pages capture vistas from around the country with descriptive captions explaining many various facts. People traveling to the Faroe Islands can forget about sending home postcards because this book has all they’ll need.
McGrath graduated from Post University and spent a semester at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He lives in Prospect, and is the webmaster of www.faroeislandsfan.com. His new book, A Pictorial View of the Faroe Islands, is available in select bookshops and on his website. Find out why the Faroe Islands are considered one of the world’s best kept secrets.