Links in a Chain

The chain breaks to let you in. You link arms with the person either side; join in with the steps – two to the left, one to the right. The skipari (leader or “skipper”) intones the tale, verse by verse, and everyone else joins in the refrain, and as much as the rest as you can trawl from memory. As the number of dancers increases, the ring becomes a snake, coiling and rippling around the room. You watch the faces opposite as they slowly pass – young, old – male, female: all full of concentration and unity of purpose. You get warmer and warmer, as the mesmerising rhythms of purposeful steps on the wooden floor blend with the repetitive music of the ballad. After a while, you lose your sense of time, but not your sense of place. You are on the Faroe Islands, but this could be 2014 or it could be 1420. You have become a link in a chain.

Every time I have taken part in a traditional Faroese dance – whether on the tiny northern island of Fugloy nearly 20 years ago, or in Tórshavn at last summer’s Ólavsøka celebrations – I have found it difficult to remember exactly what happened. The experiences have been vivid, but afterwards it almost feels as though I have dreamt the whole thing. Participating in a Faroese dance induces a type of trance, although you are fully aware of what is going on, and there is nothing quite like it for feeling a part of living history.

So what exactly is Faroese dance? It is, in fact, not just a dance, but dance combined with song and poetry, and although it can be watched by spectators, this art form only really makes sense if you take part in it.

The origins are unclear, but it is quite likely that they go back to before the settlement of the Faroes over a thousand years ago, to the time before Christianity took root in Scandinavia. The ballads (kvæðir) deal with historical events from Northern Europe, as well as fictional heroes and Norse mythology. This video is of Regin Smiður, part of the story of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer – the legendary hero from Norse mythology. Regin the Smith forges Sigurd’s sword.

Grani bar gullið av heiði,
brá hann sínum brandi av reiði,
Sjúrður vann av orminum,
Grani bar gullið av heiði.

Grane bore the gold of glory,
He drew his sword of wrath,
Sigurd slew the dragon,
Grane bore the gold of glory.

[Grane = Sigurd’s horse]

The Faroese dance has had varied fortunes over the centuries, but the geographical isolation of the Faroes, combined with the fact that the oral culture has been so strong (the Faroese language was only written down in the nineteenth century) has meant that the Faroese dance has survived as a thriving form. Some of the country’s leading writers have added to the wealth of texts over the years, and nowadays, children learn their national ballads at school.

The dance has inspired Faroese musicians and artists, as here in this work from 1944 by the great Faroese painter, Sámal Joensen-Mikines:

S J Mikines, Faroese danceThe dancers motif was one of the knitting patterns collected by Hans M. Debes in his book, Føroysk Bindingarmynster (Faroese Knitting Patterns), published in 1932:


Here is an example of how this motif has been used:


The stories themselves have also found there way into knitting patterns, as here, with this dragon design:


It is possible to find many parallels between Faroese dancing and knitting. They both involve a repetitive action, resulting in a whole that is greater than the parts, where repeated motifs combine to form a larger design. Both activities can be rhythmically meditative for the participant. And it is perhaps not stretching the point too far to suggest that knitters are also collaborating in a culture over time, literally connecting links in a chain with their needles, passing something on to future generations, and becoming themselves links in the story of knitting.

William Morris visits the Faroes

I discovered only recently that William Morris had visited the Faroe Islands. Morris – the great Arts and Crafts designer, artist, writer, and political thinker – had a fascination with the Old Norse world, an obsession ignited by his study of the sagas. This led him to go on a pilgrimage to Iceland in the summer of 1871 aboard the Danish mail boat. As is still the case, boats to Iceland often had a stopover in the Faroes, and – just like present-day cruise passengers – Morris had a brief taste of the islands. He kept a diary of his journey, and what struck me as I read it was how vivid his descriptions are of places I know well, and also how little changed are many of the scenes he describes. It occurred to me that I have taken photographs during our last couple of trips, which could act as illustrations of his diary. So what follows are excerpts from Morris’s journal alongside these photographs. Morris had a craftsman’s eye for detail combined with a writer’s ability to turn his observations into succinct prose, but I hope that these photos might add something of interest, especially for those readers who have not visited the Faroes.


I woke up later than usual, about half-past six, and went on deck in a hurry, because I remembered the mate had promised that we should be at Thorshaven in the Faroes by then, and that we should have sighted the south islands of them long before: and now we were sure enough, steaming up the smooth water of a narrow firth with the shore close on either board: I confess I shuddered at my first sight of a really northern land in the grey of a coldish morning.

The firth opened out on one side and showed wild strange hills and narrow sounds P1010986between the islands, that had something, I don’t know what of poetic and attractive about them; and on one side was sign of population in the patches of bright green that showed the home-fields of farms on the hillsides…


Olavsøka 2013

These old fellows, like most (or all) of the men, wore an odd sort of Phrygian cap, stockings and knee-breeches, loose at the knee, and a coat like a knight’s “just-au-corps”, only buttoning in front, and generally open.

P1010668The boats are built high stem and stern, with the keel-rib running up into an ornament at each end and cannot have changed in the least since the times of the Sagas.


The houses were all of wood, high-roofed with little white casements, the rest of the walls being mostly done over with Stockholm tar; every roof was of turf, and fine crops of flowery grass grew on some of them. The houses were pitched down with little order enough, and in fact the whole town was like a toy Dutch town of my childhood’s days.


We hastened down, along the high mowing-grass of the home-field, full of buttercups and marsh-marigolds… it affected me strangely to see all the familiar flowers growing in a place so different to anything one had ever imagined, and withal (it had grown a very bright fresh day by now) there was real beauty about the place of a kind I can’t describe.

P1000902I was most deeply impressed with it all, yet can scarcely tell you why; it was like nothing I had ever seen, but strangely like my old imaginations of places for sea-wanderers to come to: the day was quite a hot summer day now, and there was no cloud in the sky, and the atmosphere was very, very clear, but a little pillowy cloud kept dragging and always changing yet always there, over the top of the little rocky islet. All the islands, whether sloping or sheer rocks, went right into the sea without a hand’s breadth of beach anywhere; and, little thing as that seems, I suppose it is this which gives the air of romanticism to these strange islands.

Close by the sea lay the many gables (black wood with green turf-roofs) of the farm of Kirkjubae (Kirkby), a little white-washed church being the nearest to the sea…

Kirkjubøur church & farm

Kirkjubøur church & farm

The evening was very fine still, the sea quite smooth and the tide in our favour; so the captain told us we were going to thread the islands by the sound called the Westmanna-firth, instead of going round them; so, as it turned out, we had the best sight of the Faroes yet to see…

P1020022[The sound] was quite smooth, clear and green, and not a furlong across; the coasts were most wonderful on either side; pierced rocks running out from the cliffs under which a brig might have sailed;P1020004 caves that the water ran up into, how far we could not tell; smooth walls of rock with streams flowing over them right into the sea; or these would sink down into green slopes with farms on them; P1020016or be cleft into deep valleys over which would show crater-like or pyramidal mountains; or they would be splintered into jagged spires; P1020020one of which, single and huge, just at the point of the last ness before we entered this narrow sound, is named the Trolls-finger…

I have seen nothing out of a dream so strange as our coming out of the last narrow sound into the Atlantic, and leaving the huge wall of  rocks astern in the shadowless midnight twilight: nothing I have ever seen has impressed me so much.