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Fisherfolk of the Faeroes

It is the duty of the Fishery Protection Service to see that British and foreign fishing vessels abide by the regulations and restrictions governing the fishing grounds. After an offence against territorial laws, however, fishermen will often run considerable risks to avoid arrest


THORSHAVN HARBOUR, on the Island of Strömö, the largest of the Faeroes



THORSHAVN HARBOUR, on the Island of Strömö, the largest of the Faeroes. A number of coastal steamers visit the port, as do the Shetland fishing smacks. Many of the Faeroes fishing fleet are registered at Thorshavn, or Torshavn, as the harbour is called in Danish.





A THOUSAND years ago the longboats of the Vikings pulled out from the cliff-locked bays, fjords and havens of the Faeroes, to brave the ever stormy North Atlantic and sweep down upon the rich coasts of Scotland, England and France in search of plunder.


Westward they sailed, too, to the Vestmann Islands and Iceland, and beyond. Greenland and the coast of Labrador saw the slim black galleys of the sea rovers. Even to-day those dreary, storm-swept wastes of sea are still the familiar hunting ground of the Faeroemen.


Their ancestors, in undecked boats with single squaresails, carried fire and sword to the prosperous villages of the south. To-day the Faeroemen plunder the rich cod-banks of Iceland and Greenland for a silver harvest that yearly brings wealth to the Faeroes, and prosperity to the pleasant homes of a people who have learned to live full, happy lives in an archipelago of bleak and rockbound islands.


A century ago the seventeen inhabited Danish islands of the Faeroes supported a meagre population of a few thousands who eked out a bare existence by netting sea-birds, catching inshore fish and rearing sheep. To-day there are nearly 25,000 people and several thriving little towns, with electric light, telephones in almost every house and to every island, and shops and cinemas and busy trade. Inter-island telephonic communication is by submarine cable or wireless.


The fisheries are the foundation of all this new prosperity. Recently the value of dried cod and other fish exported in one year totalled over £650,000 — nearly £30 a head and ample for importing all the food the islands cannot themselves produce, and the luxuries of life.


Strangely enough, Shetland, that British Viking colony, taught the Faeroeman how to plunder the distant banks. Shetland smacks, sheltering often in Thorshavn (Torshavn), Vestmanshavn or other Faeroes ports and using them sometimes as a base, would take occasional Faeroemen as crew, until the Faeroemen themselves thought of buying and manning smacks. These boats, averaging 80 tons — little, sturdy wooden vessels, ketch-rigged, but now all fitted with powerful Danish auxiliary motors — are built for seaworthiness and designed to live through the wildest Atlantic gale. With their straight stems, square transoms and long bowsprits, they are an echo of the last century, for few of them are much under fifty years old, and some of them were laid down in Hull or Grimsby as long ago as 1850.


They still bear their old names, for no Faeroeman would commit the crime of changing a ship’s name. So you may read, with a quickening of interest, the neat lettering upon the transoms, with their registration ports of Thorshavn, Vestmanna or elsewhere. Names such as Alexandra, Queen, Westward Ho! and Victory may be seen. At one time the Shetlanders sailed to the Iceland banks, and brought back not only fish, but also contraband tobacco and brandy to be smuggled into Scotland. When that ceased to be profitable, they were glad to sell out to the Faeroemen, and so the modern Viking came into his own.


In the first half of the fifteenth century the deep-sea fisheries were chiefly in the hands of the Dutch, although there were also French, German and British vessels and the Danish fisheries were considerable. During the two centuries that followed Holland gradually lost her sea power and Great Britain became supreme. The prosecution of fishing in northern waters by ships of all nationalities, to the lasting detriment of British interests, is a comparatively recent growth.


THE FAEROES are a group of Danish islands



THE FAEROES are a group of Danish islands about 195 miles north-west of the Shetlands. The inhabitants of the islands are descendants of the Vikings who raided British shores 1,000 years ago. The largest of the Faeroes is Stromo, on the east coast of which is situated Thorshavn, the capital.





During the war of 1914-18, a wave of prosperity came to the Faeroes, for their fishermen alone could fish in comparative safety. Often, however, their ships were threatened by German submarines so that they suffered considerable privations and for a time were faced with a serious famine.


The war helped the Faeroes to establish themselves, and even in the depths of the world depression the islands have not suffered unduly. The cod fleet numbers more than 160 auxiliary sailing vessels, including one or two schooners of the Newfoundland type. There are besides nearly 200 motor boats and about 1,600 rowing boats.


The Faeroemen used motor boats while the first motor craft were still a curiosity in British waters. The Danes were pioneers of these small engines, and the Faeroemen, hitherto at the mercy of the wind and sea, and the swift currents and treacherous tide rips that make navigation among the islands a constant peril, adopted the new invention enthusiastically.


These little engines are noisy, but the Faeroeman has no objection to noise, and night and day in the summer months may be heard the racketing of open exhausts echoing across the bays and between the high green hills that lock the fjords.


In Shetland the fishing season lasts for little over six weeks; but in the Faeroes it extends as many months, or more. When the worst of the winter storms are past the small boats put out for the inshore hand-line fishing, and in February and March the cutters and ketches are being fitted out.


They lie alongside the quays, taking in stores, and when they are ready for the sea the master, a seasoned veteran, goes on board. The men follow — the cook, who also is an old hand, and the mate, younger, but reliable; then the hand-line fishermen — men and boys, with youth preponderating.


Among most Faeroes families it has become a tradition that every boy shall have at least one season on the Banks, whatever his subsequent career. Thus there may be future doctors, lawyers, schoolmasters, business men or builders among the twenty-two who make up the crew.


The day of sailing comes; and now a little knot of women and girls, with here and there a father, grandfather, or young brother, gathers on the quay to say farewell. They know, those people who are being left behind, what dangers their men must face. They know that disaster may overwhelm the tiny vessels at any moment, and that the long weary months of waiting will drag on with no respite for those who wait.


Some fishing communities make it a rule that not more than two members of a family will sail together. But the family is the most powerful unit in the Faeroes, and men of the same kin tend to keep together. Ships are manned by families or by crews from the same village or the same island, and when disaster comes there is stark desolation to follow.


Recently two smacks were reported by a trawler homeward-bound, almost within sight of safety. They carried on board altogether thirty men from the same island, almost the whole active male population. Both ships were lost with all hands, and flags of mourning were flown from every house in the Faeroes, in sympathy for the appalling loss.


Some years ago three men from Koltur (Kolter) were out fishing in a boat several miles from the island, when a sudden fierce storm came up. The remaining men of the island launched the largest and stoutest of their boats, to put out to the rescue. All were drowned. The island was left without a single adult male.


AN AUXILIARY KETCH in Thorshavn Harbour





AN AUXILIARY KETCH in Thorshavn Harbour. There are more than 169 vessels of this type in the Faeroes cod-fishing fleet. They average about 80 tons and are fitted with powerful Danish auxiliaries. Outstanding characteristics are the long bowsprits, straight stems and square transoms.







Disasters such as these are inevitable in communities that live by the sea and on the sea. To the Viking, they are to be accepted with resignation. But it is little wonder that while the men are such magnificent sailors no Faeroes woman can feel at home on the water, and the slightest storm will make her violently ill. A subconscious terror of the sea seems to have been bred into the Viking women, for it is on them that the burden of tragedy falls. So the farewells called from shore to ship are a genuine cry from the heart.


At length our smack begins to move. Last God-speeds are called, her mooring ropes are cast off, her engine is started up, and she slides away, swinging her bow for the harbour mouth. As she slips through the smooth water, men run to the halyards, the great patched brown mainsail creeps up the mast and the jibs are broken out.


She passes through the channel between the breakwater and the rocky shore, and now her head lifts a little to the long swell, the wind fills her canvas and she begins to lean over. The swell becomes steeper, with broken foaming crests, and she pitches more and more, until she settles down to her heaving, scrunching battle with the age-old enemy and friend.


She passes out of sight, hidden by a cliff-bound headland, and the watchers on the quay turn sadly away. Few words are spoken. There is no need of words. Tight-lipped, stoical, they drift away, back to the empty houses and to the daily tasks that will occupy their hands until their men get back.


Clear of the islands, a course is set for the Iceland Banks, and day after day the smack trudges on, close-hauled to the prevailing south-west wind. Again and again she is hove-to, to ride out a fierce swift gale; but at last, her men already worn out with the long hard struggle, she reaches her chosen fishing ground.


Quarters are cramped. Twenty-two men and boys crowded on board a little smack—twenty-two mouths to feed, twenty-two weary bodies to find resting places in the tiny fo’c’sle or saloon. They are well found with oilskins, sou’westers, thigh-length American sea-boots, thick Faeroes sweaters in fancy patterns, so heavy and firm that the heaviest downpour scarcely soaks them through. They can afford to be well clad, and they have none of the British seaman’s groundless objection to gloves, or fur- or wool-backed mittens.


When they have reached the Banks the real work begins. As soon as the ship is ready, snugged down to whatever weather the North Atlantic sends against her, the lines are brought out — four lines a man. From dawn those lines are out and constantly at work. The cod come on board in a steady stream, hauled over the gunwales and killed with a single blow, until the heaving wet deck is piled with a slithering mass of fish.


Hot meals are rare, and all the more welcome when the cook can serve them. Sometimes the men work thirty hours at a stretch if the cod are running well, then turn in to snatch a few hours

of deep slumber, then out again for another long spell with the lines. The ship wallows in the troughs, and rears up on the crests. Cold water piles green on board, swirls frothing along the deck among the catch and cascades over the men, who crouch by the bulwarks with their lines. The ship groans and strains and works, and struggles always to free herself from the hampering weight of water, to heave her low bowsprit up clear of the seas, and shake herself along her whole length while the water foams in torrents through the scuppers. Generally at dusk she retires from the Banks, to lie hove-to in deep water where the seas are longer, smoother and less steep. There the work goes on with barely an intermission for food or sleep. The fish are ripped open and gutted, carefully washed in seawater, split and put into the hold between layers of salt.


When the hold is full there is no need to make the long return trip to the Faeroes to refit. Supply ships bring fresh stores and salt, and carry away the cod so that the smack can remain on the Banks to the end of the season. She may be away from home for three months, or nearly six. It is a source of bitter resentment that the embargo on the landing of crews from fishing vessels at Greenland ports applies to the Faeroemen equally with foreigners, although the Faeroes are a county of Denmark and should have every Danish privilege.


A catch of cod may total as much as 30,000 in a three-months’ trip, although this is not the record. There are 3,000 men engaged in the fishing industry, inshore and ocean, for the Faeroeman is a fisher first and a crofter afterwards, unlike the Hebridean, who persists in growing his scanty crops of vegetables and corn, and fishes only for his own consumption.


Although the soil of the Faeroes is good, the almost constant rains make most of the land sheer marsh, and drainage is a back-breaking labour. The inhabitants lay a foundation of broken stones on a steep hillside slope, then cart soil to make a little patch of cultivable ground. The Faeroeman, realizing well that even with such toil and preparation he can- rear at best a poor light crop, prefers to fish whenever the weather is favourable, and to cultivate his ground at odd moments when he cannot put to sea. He can always find a market for his catches, but he can import his vegetables and cereals far more cheaply than he could ever hope to grow them.


While the smacks are sailing for the Banks, the inshore fishermen are already at work, line-fishing mostly for cod, and there are rich spawning beds towards the north-west of the islands. They fish at from six to twenty-four miles from land, in small boats, and every night the catch is landed for immediate attention.


At the washing stations there are large tubs on pedestals, with running water, and women working under contract split, clean and wash the fish, which is then stacked for several days with pure salt crystals between the layers. Afterwards it is spread skin down on flat rocks and beaches, or

on artificial paved platforms. Drying houses have recently been built, with artificial draughts, but it has been found that sunshine is necessary as well, so that all the fish is laid in the open for at least a part of the time it takes to dry.


Link with Spain


The women and girls who carry the fish to the drying beds keep a constant watch upon the weather, eyes cast frequently to windward. At the first sign of a coming shower — and there is scarcely a day in the Faeroes year without rain — all hands rush to gather in the fish, not only the workers who are paid to do so, but also everyone in the neighbourhood. All manner of tasks are abandoned while people rush to lend a hand.


Finally, when the fish are thoroughly dry, they are piled in big stacks and covered with tarpaulins, or else stored in sheds, built for the purpose, heaped to the corrugated iron roofs. Concrete and corrugated iron have largely superseded tarred Norwegian timber, stone and thatches of living grass in Faeroes building; but the effect is not unsightly, for most of the time the Faeroes landscape is softened by a thin drizzle or haze or Scotch mist, which tones down bright colours and makes the white concrete and gleaming grey iron tone with the greys and greens of their surroundings. The dried cod is exported in huge quantities to Great Britain, Spain and elsewhere. By far the largest proportion goes to Spain, on a reciprocal agreement, for Spain supplies the essential salt. In the Balearic Islands and on the Spanish mainland every little village shop has its heap of bacallao (codfish) in a corner, generally with the cat curled up happily asleep on top. Dried cod is popular also in Africa, where it is sometimes even used as currency among the West African colonies of the European Powers.


In Iviza, one of the smaller Balearic Islands, I walked one day to the salinas — great artificial lakes of seawater evaporating in the brilliant February sunshine — and there saw a ship from the Faeroes loading salt for the fisheries. The road wound along over a great expanse of glistening flats, cut up into a geometrical pattern by narrow dividing banks, with little sluice-gates joining them, so that each square could be flooded from the sea. Some of them had more than a foot of water in them, sending up a shimmering glare under the brilliant Mediterranean sun, and others were quickly drying, leaving a rich deposit of glittering salt crystals.


A few months before I had watched the laden smacks and supply ships-coming home to Thorshavn from the distant Banks, and had seen the dried cod shipped for export. Now, in Iviza, I could handle perhaps the same slabs of fish that I had seen drying in the thin Faeroes sunshine, and watch the-glittering salt crystals being carried away in exchange — an interesting link binding Viking and Spaniard.


The Vestmanna, an auxiliary fishing vessel



THE SQUARE COUNTER of the Vestmanna, an auxiliary fishing vessel, can be seen on the right of this photograph, taken in Thorshavn Harbour. These ketch-rigged smacks may be fishing in North Atlantic waters for six months at a time. Supply ships visit the fleet with fresh stores and salt and carry the cod away. The smacks remain on the Banks to the end of the season.






[From part 36, published 13 October 1936]


You can read more on “Grimsby - Britain’s Famous Fishing Centre”, “The Harvest of the Deep” and “The Restless North Sea” on this website.