Faroe Islanders

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Faroe Islanders

ETHNONYM: Føroyingar


Identification. The Faroe Islands are a culturally distinct, monoethnic, internally self-governing dependency of Denmark.

Location. Comprising seventeen inhabited islands and several islets, the Faroes lie between 62°24 and 61°20 N and 7°41 and 6°15 W. The land is mountainous and treeless, with rocky outcroppings seaming upland reaches of moor, meadow, and fen. Settlements lie amid hayfields along the shores of fjords or sandy bays. Elsewhere, the land ends in sea cliffs up to 600 meters high. The highest point on the islands is 882 meters. The average temperature ranges from 2.6° C in January to 10.7° C in July and August. The average yearly Precipitation is 159 centimeters. Winter storms are frequent.

Demography. The Faroese population is 46,313. (1986 figures are used here and throughout.) The live birthrate is 17.1 per thousand; the death rate is 8.0 per thousand. Tór-shavn, the capital and by far the largest town, has 13,905 inhabitants. Eight other townships, including Tórshavn's suburbs, have more than 1,000 inhabitants.

Linguistic Affiliation. Faroese is a linguistically Conservative descendant of Old West Scandinavian akin to Icelandic and the western dialects of Norwegian. Having passed out of written use in the sixteenth century, it was given an orthography resembling that of Icelandic in 1846 and has been the primary official language since 1948. Danish is taught in the schools and may be used for many official purposes but is rarely spoken.

History and Cultural Relations

Occupied by Norse settlers in the early ninth century, the Faroes were Christianized and made subject to the Norwegian crown in the early eleventh century. At the time of the Reformation (ca. 1535-1540), which took place peacefully, the Dano-Norwegian king appropriated the extensive holdings of the Catholic church; most became tenant farms. In 1557, the Faroese bishopric was reduced to a deanery. In the early seventeenth century the islands' governance was shifted from Bergen to Copenhagen. From 1709 through 1855 all trade with the Faroes was in the hands of a Copenhagen-based royal monopoly, whose store in Tórshavn was the Islands' only commercial establishment. In 1816, the Faroes were made a Danish province (amt ), and their ancient high court, the Løgting, was abolished. Reconstituted as an advisory assembly in 1852-1854, it eventually acquired legislative powers. The introduction of free trade in 1856 led to the growth of an export fishing industry and the rise of a native intelligentsia and middle class. A cultural revitalization movement that gained widespread support in the 1890s soon entailed the growth of political separatism. Following an amicable British occupation during World War II and an inconclusive referendum on full independence in 1946, the Faroes were made internally self-governing in 1948. Varied and extensive relations with foreign, chiefly Scandinavian, countries are maintained by individuals and numerous officiai or semiofficial institutions, mostly in Tórshavn. The Faroes acquired a radio station in 1957 and a television station in 1984.


Until the nineteenth century, Faroese villages consisted of one or more loosely agglomerated hamlets. The industrialization of the fishery after 1880 spurred the growth of Tórshavn and a few distant-water fishing ports, while the most isolated villages began to dwindle in size. The revival of the inshore fishery since the 1950s has enlivened a number of small and medium-sized villages (roughly 250-800 inhabitants). Dwellings were formerly built of fieldstone, with sod roofs and tarred wooden siding. In the early twentieth century, most were sided and roofed with gaily painted corrugated metal. Since World War II, most construction has been in poured concrete, also painted. Today's densely populated settlements take several forms, but except for Tórshavn and to some extent the larger towns, they have no well-defined centers.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Faroese economy has always had a monolithic export sector and a diversified internal one. Formerly, the principal export was wool; subsistence pursuits included fishing, fowling, sealing, pilot whaling, digging peat, keeping milk cows, raising hay, anduntil potatoes became popular around 1830raising barley. Today, most villagers raise potatoes and own a few sheep; some fish inshore for domestic needs or supplementary income. Pilot whaling provides an important and prized source of meat and fat. The principal export is fish. Fish and fish products regularly account for about 95 percent of Faroese exports by value; and fishing and fish processing, which employ about a fifth of the working population, account for 24 percent of the gross domestic product. The next largest categories are government services (19 percent), Commerce (14 percent), shipyards and other industry (11 percent), transportation and communication (8 percent), and construction (8 percent). The GNP is about 5.6 billion krónur, or about $12,000 per person, and is growing at a real annual rate of 4.3 percent.

Industrial Arts. In addition to a fishing fleet, which includes 270 vessels of over 20 gross tons, there are three shipyards and numerous firms engaged in construction, road building, food processing, and so forth.

Trade. The Faroes depend heavily on imported food, petroleum products, machinery, manufactured goods, raw materials, etc. About half their imports come from Denmark, and a quarter from Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom (U.K.), and western Germany. About a fifth of the Faroes' exports go to Denmark, and over half to the United States, the U.K., and Germany. The balance of trade is perennially negative. The larger towns and especially Tórshavn have many wholesale firms and specialized stores; the villages have small general stores selling foodstuffs, clothing, and Household wares.

Division of Labor. A strong sexual division of labor is only gradually weakening. Women performed household tasks and, for example, some chores in haying and digging peat. Men performed outdoor tasks and helped to card and spin wool in the winter. Women, who began to work in fish processing in the nineteenth century, today also work as clerks, nurses, teachers, etc.

Land Tenure. Lands may be either leasehold or freehold. About half the land in the Faroes is leasehold (kongsjørð ), owned by the state. The approximately 300 leaseholds are impartible and inherited by male primogeniture. Freeholdings (óðalsjørð ) may be divided by sale and inheritance. All land is divided between outfield (hagi ) and infield (bøur ). Tenancy or ownership of a stretch of outfield confers rights to a proportional stretch of infield, and, for example, to certain fowling privileges. The outfield is used for summer pasturage. The infield is used for crops and winter pasturage. A stone wall separates infield and outfield. Large sections of outfield are similarly divided, but the infield is unfenced. The village is set in the infield.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is traced bilaterally. An agnatic bias is expressed in the terms æett or, colloquially, fólk, a patriline of indefinite depth often associated with an ancestral homestead. An ancient system of patronymics was formally set aside in 1832 in favor of surnames passed from father to child and husband to wife, but it survives informally in a modified form. A person is said to be hjá ("of," "at the home of") his or her father, except that a married woman may be hjá to either her father or her husband. In informal usage, a person is often identified by reference to his or her natal homestead. There are no corporate kin groups larger than the nuclear family.

Kinship Terminology. Most kinship terms are (or may be) descriptivefor example, pápabeiggi (father's brother), mammubeiggi (mother's brother), beiggjakona (brother's wife), etc. All first cousins are called systkinabørn (sing. systkinabarn, sibling's child). The terminology is thus bifurcate-collateral in distinguishing all uncles and aunts, and Eskimo in lumping all first cousins together. Grandparents are called omma (grandmother) or abbi (grandfather), and depending on the sex of the speaker a grandchild is called ommubarn/-dóttir/-sonur (grandmother's child/daughter/son) or abbabarn/-dóttir/-sonur (grandfather's child/daughter/son). Firstdegree affines may be identified by combining a pair of nuclear terms, or by prefixing ver - to one of them (e.g., versystir, konusystir, sister-in-law) ; but the term svágur covers wife's brother, sister's husband, and daughter's husband (the last of these may also be called mágur ). Within the nuclear family, a married couple is a hjún, siblings are systkin, and a father and son together are feðar.

Marriage. Marriage is generally neolocal (occasionally patrilocal). Divorce is very rare.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is the nuclear family.

Inheritance. Except for leaseholds, inheritance is Generally equal among male and female heirs.

Socialization. Children are allowed considerable freedom. Depending on their ages, children are looked after by their mothers or by an older (female) relative, or play in roughly age- and sex-segregated groups. Sibling rivalry is discouraged. Corporal punishment is virtually unheard of. Schooling begins at age 7.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There was formerly a fairly marked distinction between tenant farmers and freeholders. (There were also many servants on the larger, leasehold estates, and a few paupers.) Society's upper ranks were swelled in the late nineteenth century by wholesale merchants and shipowners; however, continued economic growth, occupational diversification, and a strong egalitarian ideology have forestalled any clear class distinctions.

Political Organization. Since 1948, local legislative authority has been vested in the Løgting, a democratically elected body of (at present) thirty-two members. The Løgting elects its own foreman, the Løgmaður, who chairs a three-member executive council (the Landsstýri) and is in effect the Faroes' prime minister. Governments are formed by coalitions among the Løgting members, who represent the several political parties (at present seven). The Faroes are divided administratively into 6 counties (sýslur ), 50 townships (kommunar ), and 108 villages or hamlets (bygdir ). The counties are exclusively administrative units, whose chief official, the sheriff (sysluma ur ), is, among other things, a policeman. Townships are governed by elected councils. Party affiliation has little importance in township politics outside Tórshavn and the larger towns. Meanwhile, on the Danish side of things, the queen is the head of state, and the Faroes elect two members of the Danish parliament. Danish interests in the Faroes are overseen by the Rikisumboðsmaður (in Danish, Rigsombudsmand), an ex officio nonvoting member of the Løgting. The Faroese króna is defined as equal to the Danish krone, although Faroese control their own taxes, customs regulations, and so forth. Foreign affairs are the sole responsibility of the Danish government (in consultation with the Faroese). Because of the threat to the fisheries, the Faroes refused to follow Denmark into the Common Market in 1973, and in 1977 the Faroes joined the other North Atlantic fishing nations in establishing their own 320-kilometer economic zone. In both cases, special accommodations were worked out with Danish and foreign governments. Membership in NATO, which maintains a radar facility near Tórshavn, continues to be a sore point.

Social Control. Formai social control is exercised by the police and the court in Tórshavn, with the Danish supreme court serving as a court of last appeal. Most social controls are informally yet effectively exercised through gossip and humorously slighting anecdotes, nicknames, and songs.

Conflict. Conflict is avoided as much as possible, open altercation being considered scandalous.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Faroes form a subdiocese of 13 parishes within the established Danish Lutheran Church. Some 85-90 percent of Faroese are Lutheran, perhaps 10 percent are Plymouth Brethren, and the rest belong to a scattering of evangelical sects or to a small Catholic congregation in Tórshavn. Despite a strong evangelical strain within the Lutheran church, the bulk of the population is only moderately observant. The principal supernatural is the Christian God. Traditional beliefs in such semisupernaturals as trolls and sea sprites have largely disappeared, although huldufólk (a gray, elvish people of the outfields) and vættrar (rock sprites) are still believed in to some extent.

Religious Practitioners. Religious practitioners include the Lutheran priesthood and lay readers; the ministers, missionaries, and more active members of the Lutheran and other evangelical groups; and the Catholic priest and a few nuns, who are all foreign.

Ceremonies. The old holiday season running from Christmas to Lent traditionally featured weekly communal dances. (Traditional Faroese dance, in which people link arms and chant heroic and lighter ballads, is the last survival of a style common in medieval Europe. Today it is most actively preserved by private dance clubs.) Other festive times, still recognized but no longer celebrated as energetically as formerly, include Christmas, New Year's, Shrove Tuesday, and Mid-summer Eve. The slaughter of a school of pilot whales (grindadráp ) traditionally offers an occasion for festivity. A number of occupational ceremonies (parties for fishing crews, groups of milkmaids, etc.) passed away because of the advent of a cash economy and, since they involved drinking, because they offended temperance advocates. Significant moments in individual life cyclesbaptisms, weddings, funerals, and some birthdays and anniversariesare celebrated with meals for family and friends. Dancing is customary at wedding parties. The national holiday, Ólavsøka (July 29), marking the opening of the parliamentary session, features processions, sporting events, dances, and exhibitions, and it draws large crowds to Tórshavn. Several regional holidays are patterned after it.

Arts. The vital Faroese literary scene is centered in Tórshavn, as is a smaller but no less lively scene in painting and sculpture. Several rock bands are the most visible producers of popular-culture artifacts.

Medicine. Medical services are provided by general practitioners in each county, small hospitals in Klaksvík and Tvøroyri, and a large central hospital in Tórshavn. Medical, dental, ambulance, and apothecary services are supported by a comprehensive national health program. Additional care may be obtained in Denmark.

Death and the Afterlife. Except to some extent among evangelicals, death and afterlife are secondary if not exactly minor concerns in popular belief and practice. Faroese believe that a person's soul leaves the body at death. A good person's soul joins God in heaven, while a bad person's goes to hell. The body is buried in a simple ceremony in a graveyard or churchyard on the outskirts of the village.


Danmarks Statistik. Statistisk Årbog. Copenhagen: Danmarks Statistik.

Føroya Landsstýri and Rikisumboðsmaðurin i Føroyum. Ársfragreiðing fyri Føroyar. Tórshavn: Føroya Landsstýri and Risumboðsmaðurin i Føroyum.

Joensen, Jóan Pauli (1978). "Føroysk Fólkamentan: Bókmentir og Gransking." Fróðskaparrit 26:114-149.

Joensen, Jóan Pauli (1980). Färöisk Folkkultur. Lund: LiberLäromedel.

Nielsen, Niels, et al., eds. (1968). J. P. Trap, Danmark. Vol. 13, Fæerøerne. 5th ed. Copenhagen: G. E. C. Gads.

Wylie, Jonathan (1987). The Faroe Islands: Interpretations of History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.