From frog dance to chain dance

Giving up the struggle to make the room into last week’s various resting places, it’s four in the morning not half past six and the lit doorway leads nowhere more magical than my own bathroom.

My head is Faroe full; only four non-travel days but the intensity of memory stacked on memory makes it longer, the initially exotic rapidly becoming familiar.

Unwished images of the pilot whale hunt intrude – the blood red sea, the panic of the pod when pressed into the shallows, the flashing of the knives of the multitude, bureaucratic procedure as the haul is recorded, dissected and distributed. I don’t remember where the memory comes from. I’ve read the Faroese author Hedin Bru’s bloodstained description of “grindjakt” but it’s very visual, from you tube perhaps. I find it distasteful, I wouldn’t want to be there or to eat the meat or blubber. But I can’t protest – this is a country where little grows, perhaps potatoes not much else; five per cent of the land is cultivable, if that. They have to live, we have to prioritise our own species and the slaughterhouse of commodified death is hardly better, although concealed from the casual eye. But I do have a right to my way of being although I know I wouldn’t be viable there. I wouldn’t do the right things to put people at their ease and their hearts would harden against the refusal to integrate.

I felt this when we visited the island’s even smaller second “city” Klaksvik, with much more of a “frontier feel” than Torshavn, which was remarkably city-like for a settlement of 20,000. But Klaksvik was the odd mix of the suburban and the frontier, which I recognise from my sojourn in northern Sweden, where many practical folk gathered to discuss and arrange practical doings and I would be an unviable form of human life.

Other memories beside the carnage, the towering hills everywhere, even closely around settlements; an underwater mountain range, the peaks being the visible Faroes. And vigorous in my youthful West England life, I remember very occasional climbs, how you could go up and up with increasing difficulty and suddenly discover that you were no longer on a steep slope but hanging perilously above a long drop, and edging back to safety in the days before squeamishness kept me away from cliffs, domes and towers.

The country is more populated than the mute emptiness of the Scottish Highlands, although sheep density seems similar. Here I have found no trace of pleasure-seeking deerstalkers seeking to clear the land. I don’t know either how the wool industry is organised, certainly commercial rather than subsistence but I know very little about scale or ownership. The transition from subsistence agriculture and fishing to commercial fishing seems to have travelled a different path than in the Outer Hebrides, although perhaps Shetland, unknown to me, would be a better place of comparison.

I eventually found a bibliography of literature in English about the Faroes in a book from the 1990s in the University of Faroe Islands library. I hope it will help me find material that can answer my questions. I suspect much can be found in my local academic library in Uppsala, Carolina Rediviva, although I need the magic “signa” before the doors to the treasure chamber will open.

The small population makes its presence or non-presence felt; there is a good local bookshop/cultural centre in Torshavn but no Faroese-English dictionary on sale (just Faroese-Danish). (Bumping against the frontiers of my knowledge, I wonder whether the Latin plural of “signum”, signa is used in Sweden or whether “signums” is used. Here’s material for me to earn a few eccentric old man points next time I’m at the library. I have a feeling too that, while signum exists that it’s not used as a synonym for shelf mark in the Anglo world and that needs to be sorted out before that area feels harmonious and at peace with itself…..).

I’d hardly thought about Faroese before going there; it was fascinating to discover a new Nordic language, especially one that had its roots in the West Nordic family with Shetland’s lost Norn and Icelandic. The loss of Norn was important for the developing Faroese nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I discovered Jakob Jakobsen, the first person from the Faroes to obtain a Ph.D. He dedicated much of his life to studying the many traces of Norn in the Shetlands, in place names, dialect words etc. Without his contribution, we would know far less about this dead Nordic language whose last speaker was probably born around 1700. The loss of Norn was a cautionary tale for Faroese nationalists, who initially struggled in a country, first a colony and then a county of Denmark where the educational system, legal matters, the state church all pursued their activities in Danish and Faroese was a lower status spoken language of the unestablished people, referred to various non-conformist groups, including the Plymouth Brethren to worship in their own language.

I found the revival of Faroese remarkable (revival in inverted commas, as inward Danish migration to the Faroes was apparently low (unlike the situation with Scots in Shetland) and Faroese remained strong as a spoken language).

Faroese remained a spoken language until the nineteenth century when Hammershaimb, among other others worked hard and successfully on its orthography. Perhaps unfortunately, he worked on etymological principles and gave Faroese letters from Icelandic, which (as I understand it) have little bearing on how Faroese is pronounced. Jakobsen worked hard to try to reform Faroese spelling but his efforts as a solitary intellectual were in vain against the strong tide of nationalist opinion, which wanted not just to preserve and develop Faroese but hoped to restore lost sounds to bring the language closer to its roots (their success in other respects doesn’t seem to have been replicated in this latter area).

A strange experience for me, where I understand large chunks of the language from Swedish and my familiarity with Northern modes of expression. But interspersed with the unknown or dimly grasped. I would like to learn more although I’m aware that I’m seriously promiscuous when it comes to language, becoming infatuated, even when the prospect of a long-term relationship is utterly remote.

It’s now really half past six, time for porridge and to make my usual optimistic list for conquests of the day, July’s accounts and soon future travel being high on my list. Writing my blog will hopefully lull the storm of Faroese associations sufficiently long for me to chip a little at my hoped-for daily doings.

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