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Monks and Scandinavians

Like Iceland, the Faeroe Islands were uninhabited when the first Europeans arrived. The Faeroe Islands may have been discovered in the 6th century when St Brandaen and his monks explored this region on their seven-year journey. However, there is no hard evidence for this. All that is known is that they visited two islands. One was called the "island of sheep" and the other the "paradise of birds". The "island of sheep" may have had something to do with Føroyar (Faroe Islands) which is derived from faar oy, which also means "sheep island". Paradise of birds" may have been the westernmost island of Mykines which indeed has a very large bird population. The first real settlers were Irish monks who settled on the Faroe Islands at the end of the seventh century. Little else is known about the stay of these monks on the islands. The first Scandinavians arrived in the early ninth century and came from Southern Norway and the Orkney Islands. They were not real Vikings, but farmers and shepherds looking for a quiet life, far away from the pirates and tyrants on the mainland. Little is known about this period because nothing was put down on paper by the islanders until the 14th century. The most reliable work for information on the islands is the Færinga Saga, written in Iceland in the 13th century. Although not everything is credible, the fact that the Faroe Islands were Christianised around the year 1000 could be correct. Furthermore, the Faroe Islands could have been a constitutional part of the Kingdom of Norway in 1035. The administration of the islands was very early on in the hands of the Alting or the 'assembly of the people', the equivalent of the Icelandic Alþing. They met in Tinganes, a small peninsula from Tórshavn, and were the universally accepted authority on the islands until 1035. After this year, the Alting had only limited power until 1380.

Danish rule

Under the Union of Kalmar, in which Norway was added to the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroe Islands slowly changed from a Norwegian to a Danish province. They adopted the Danish system of laws and jurisprudence which was based on the Norwegian system of laws of King Magnus. After 1380, the Alting was no more than a royal court and was now called Løgting. At that time, the real power was in the hands of the king's bailiff, who only kept an eye on his interests. Unfortunately, little is known about the earliest Christian church. The ecumenical centre of the islands was located in Kirkjubøur, the Faroese diocese. From the beginning of the 12th century until 1535, the beginning of the Reformation, the seat was occupied by 33 bishops. By the end of the 13th century, the Church's influence on the islands was at its peak, and the Church owned about 40% of the entire Faeroese territory. Trade agreements stipulated that trade between mainland Europe and the Faroe Islands had to pass through Bergen in Norway, where taxes had to be paid.

From the mid-13th century, the Hanseatic League, a group of North German trading towns, took over the commercial activities in the whole region. Initially, the Hanseatic cities were forbidden to trade in Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands, but in 1361, Norway gave up its resistance and a lucrative, lively trade developed, which would last for about two centuries. The civil war in Denmark between Christian II and Christian III in the early 16th century, the Hanseatic cities sided with the loser and were banished from the Scandinavian trading scene. In 1535, King Christian III of Denmark granted the exclusive rights to trade with the Faroe Islands to Thomas Köppen of Hamburg. This monopoly agreement would last for almost 300 years. In 1535, the Danes changed their religion to the Protestant Lutheran Church and left Roman Catholicism aside. In the five-year reformation process, all church property came into state hands and Latin was replaced by Danish in church matters. Denmark's grip on the overseas territories was strengthened by these events. After the Köppen period the trade monopoly changed hands but this had little negative effect on the Faroe Islands.

A bad time was the war between Denmark and Sweden in the middle of the 17th century. The restrictions for Köppen and his successors were that they could only trade in quality goods for which there was real demand. Furthermore, the prices of the goods had to represent the actual market value and they had to trade fairly. Most merchandise, such as woollen socks, meat, sheep's wool and fish, was exported to Holland. The traders were again bound by the rules of the monopoly that obliged them to buy as much as the Faeroe Islands could produce. This seemed a fair deal but in practice it often meant that there were shortages and delays so that they were forced to accept inferior goods. Sometimes the market for Faroese goods collapsed and the monopolists lost a lot of money. Smuggling and piracy increased and the system collapsed. In 1655 the Faroe Islands were offered as a feudal state by the Danish government to Christoffer von Gabel and his son Frederik. Their oppressive regime made life very difficult for the islanders who were in fact exploited by these overlords. In 1709, the Von Gabel dynasty was broken up by the Danish government, which took back control of both the Faroe Islands and the trade monopoly. However, they had little knowledge of the market economy.

During the 18th century, the merchants and the Danish government suffered great losses and on 1 January 1856 the monopoly was abandoned. In the 19th century, the relationship with Denmark was characterised by increasing Danish domination and thus less and less autonomy for the Faroe Islands. In the first decades of this century there was only the psychological link between the Løgting and an independent past. In 1816, the Løgting was officially abolished and replaced by a Danish judiciary. Even the use of the Faroese language was discouraged and all official documents were written in Danish. In 1849, the Faroe Islands were officially incorporated into Denmark. The islands were allowed two seats in the Danish Rigsdag as a kind of compensation. In 1852 the stubborn Faeroese proclaimed their Løgting as a county council, initially only as an advisory body, but always with the desire for independence in mind.

Striving for independence

The next step was taken in the last decade of the 19th century. Economic prosperity rekindled the desire of the common people for self-government. At the beginning of the 20th century, Faroese politics became polarised. The Unionists favoured complete integration into Denmark and the Self-Government Party favoured gradual independence under the leadership of Jóannes Patursson. The Faroese economy realised a growth spurt during this time, particularly due to the rise of the fishing industry in the period between 1872 and 1939. Fishermen were allowed to fish in Danish waters and their ships became more and more modern. During the Second World War, the Faroe Islands were occupied by the British in order to secure strategic North Atlantic sea routes and to defend the islands against possible German attacks. This political separation from Denmark resulted in the upgrading of the Løgting to a legislative body. However, the Danish prefect retained executive power. There were, of course, groups who immediately pushed for complete independence, but others maintained their reservations.

Self-government for the Faroe Islands

On 23 March 1948, the Act on Faroese Self-Government passed the Danish Parliament. The official status of the Faroe Islands changed from a county of Denmark to a self-governing state within the Kingdom of Denmark. Some consequences of this were: when Denmark joined the European Community, the Faeroes refused to follow. The Faroe Islands also have their own flag and their own stamps. Faroese banknotes are issued by the National Bank of Denmark. The Faroes look after their own interests as long as Denmark is not disadvantaged by them. Føroyskt is the official language during Landsstýri meetings, but children are taught Danish. Denmark retains control over insurance, banking, defence and foreign affairs and the administration of justice. The Landsstýri is fully responsible for communications and economic and cultural affairs. It also manages its own expenditure on health care, education and social programmes. Denmark provides the funding for all these matters and more than a billion Danish kroner annually in the Faroe Islands. In the late 1980s, excessive government spending resulted in the world's highest per capita standard of living. Low taxes and unlimited credit led to consumer spending ten times higher than in Denmark itself. The population, of course, enjoyed this "success story" and calls for independence resurfaced.

Economic problems

But this euphoria did not last long. At the beginning of the 1990s, overfishing led to an ever-decreasing fish stock. From 150,000 tonnes of fish caught in 1990, the stock dropped to 110,000 tonnes in 1994. The Faroe Islands, 96% dependent on fish exports, fell into an economic crisis as a result. The government had to borrow 1.8 billion Danish kroner from Denmark to get out of the crisis. A condition was that the Danish National Bank took over the National Bank of the Faroe Islands, the Sjóvinnubankin, until the loan was repaid. Other draconian measures included sharply reduced government spending, higher taxes and a 10% pay cut for civil servants. There was also talk of the fishing fleet being halved, with only six of the 22 fish-processing factories remaining. Unemployment rose rapidly and 6% of the population emigrated, mainly to Denmark, to find work there. By the end of 1993, 20% of the population in the capital Tórshavn was unemployed and almost all the fish-processing factories and trawlers were bankrupt or in receivership. In September 1993, a delegation from the Faroe Islands travelled to Copenhagen to ask for financial help for the fourth time that year, as the banks were threatening to close and the budget deficit was rising again. They asked for around 3.5 billion Danish kroner, but only received 1.3 billion, although they were told to cut public spending even more. The Faeroe Islands were also hit by a foreign boycott of their products as a result of the "grindadráp", the hunting of pilot whales with motorboats by the local population; a cruel spectacle, but an expression of culture and tradition for the Faeroese.

Economic recovery

Despite all these problems, the austerity programme worked. And it was not necessary to halve the fishing fleet; on the contrary, the fleet remained virtually intact. Unemployment peaked in 1994 at 26% of the labour force and then fell back to around 10% by mid-1996 and 5% by 2000. Around 1995, the economy definitively recovered. Six fish processing plants reopened in mid-1996. The exodus of inhabitants also stopped and the population began to grow again from 1996 onwards. Also in 1996, oil was found between the Faroe Islands and the Shetland Islands. It has yet to be determined whether the oil fields are on British or Faroese territory. The exploitation of the oil fields may take several years and it remains to be seen whether a profit will ever be made. The relationship with the European Union has been somewhat overshadowed by the economic and demographic problems. Denmark sees the European Union as a potential source of income to boost the Faeroese economy and thus to spare the Danish taxpayer, who is largely responsible for the financial aid to the Faeroes. However, the Faroes do not want to give up their independent position in relation to fishing rights or open up their territorial waters to potential competitors. Traditional superpowers such as Germany and Great Britain are obliged to buy fish from other EC members, which could put the Faeroes out of business. Perhaps the surge in demand for fish products in the EU will save the Faroese fishing fleet.


Cornwallis, G. / Iceland, Greenland & the Faroe Islands
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Last updated April 2024
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