Faroe Islands - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Faroe Islands: the Bradt Travel Guide

Although the Faroe Islands have never been linked politically with Iceland, 400km to the northwest, their histories frequently overlap. In both cases some of our best glimpses of early life come from the stories or sagas written down around the 13th century. Neither Iceland nor the Faroes had an indigenous population to be conquered or subjugated when the first brave travellers arrived from the south and east. Both were visited first, in all probability, by Irish monks but owe their early development to the Vikings. Both had to come to terms with centuries of rule from Norway and Denmark, and both have struggled to establish their independence – the Icelanders succeeded eventually, although the Faroes remain to this day a Danish dependency.

The Faroe Islands today

The discovery of oil deposits has excited a lot of optimism for the future, not least because Denmark signed away any rights to oil and mineral finds before the discovery was made. So far it seems the oil may be hard to extract and, while the first drilling started in 2001, exploration is still underway on the southern edge of Faroese territorial waters in the hope of finding oil in commercially exploitable quantities. Optimists point out that it took Norway over 30 attempts to strike gold, and exploration off the Faroes is still in the very early stages. On land, tunnel fever remains high following the success of the newly opened subsea link to Klaksvík. There are plans to link the southern end of Eysturoy by an underwater tunnel to Tórshavn and even to build a tunnel under the fjord which separates Streymoy and Sandoy.

Natural history

Sheep Faroe Islands by James Proctor


Other than the vast numbers of seabirds that are attracted to the Faroe Islands, visitors will notice a distinct lack of fauna. The islands have no indigenous mammals due to their isolated location in the middle of the North Atlantic and all animals currently found in the Faroes have been introduced here.

(Photo: The literal translation of the Faroese word for the islands, Føroyar, is ‘The sheep islands'. © James Proctor)


One of the first things that visitors to the Faroe Islands notice is the obvious lack of trees. Although there are a handful of small plantations – mostly of spruce, ash, maple and willow – dotted around the islands, there are no indigenous trees; the islands’ 80,000 or so sheep nibble anything they come across, putting paid to any chance a tree may have of re-establishing itself elsewhere. In fact, anything that does grow in the Faroes has been brought to the islands by birds, the wind, the sea currents or, since the time of the Settlement, by people. Today, there are around 400 species of flowering plant (a quarter were introduced by man) and around 30 or so mosses and fungi. The islands are characterised by large areas of hilly grassland divided into the homefield (the area immediately enclosing a village) and the outfield (everything on the other side of this division, ie: valley sides, mountaintops, etc). During the summer months, the sheep are not allowed in the homefield, where vegetables are cultivated, and it’s here that you’ll find the islands’ various buttercups, violets, wild orchids and cranesbill. In the outfield the terrain can often be boggy and peaty, and it’s here that you’ll come across plants that can tolerate high amounts of water such as cottongrass and rushes. Buttercups are one of the few wild flowers you’ll see in the outfield among the sheep because they have a bitter taste and are poisonous. Often in the proximity of bird cliffs you’ll find angelica which, during previous centuries, was cultivated as a vegetable; it particularly likes soil which is rich in phosphates and nitrates, caused by bird droppings. Faroese mountaintops are renowned for their extensive areas of camomile, knotgrass, lady’s mantle and sorrel. Ravines and gorges are the places to look for the several varieties of saxifrage which grow in the islands because here they can grow out of the reach of sheep; five of the most beautiful are the mossy saxifrage (Saxifraga hypnoides), alpine saxifrage (Saxifraga nivalis), purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Irish saxifrage (Saxifraga rosacea) and starry saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris).

People and culture

According to the latest demographic figures available for the Faroes, 48,000 people live in the islands, 19,800 (about 41%) of them in the capital, Tórshavn, and 4,900 in Klaksvík, the country’s second town on the island of Borðoy. Population density in the Faroes is 35 people per km², considerably more than Iceland’s three per km² though much less than Denmark’s 124 per km². The Faroese are of Scandinavian origin, descendants of Vikings who came originally from southwestern Norway. It’s estimated that around 25,000 Faroese now live in Denmark, bringing the total number of speakers of Faroese to around 70,000. Although there are a number of Danes living in the islands, and small numbers of other nationalities, immigration to the Faroes is still relatively small. It is not common to see any other skin colour than white in the islands.


Religion is important to the Faroese and 84% of the population belongs to the established national church in the islands, the Evangelical–Lutheran Føroya Kirkja, which has 61 churches in the Faroes and three out of every four marriages are held in one. In addition to the national church there are several other religious communities in the islands, including the Plymouth Brethren (13% of the population are members), the Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, the Pentecostal movement, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Philadelphia Congregation and the Bahá’í faith.


The arts scene in the Faroes is in its infancy. The lack of a written language for centuries combined with a subsistence lifestyle meant there was little time left for the finer things in life. Culture, as we know it, was essentially limited to the chain dance, which is still going strong today. The dancers hold hands to form a chain or ring which moves slowly to the left in a heavy rhythm marked by two double steps to the left and one to the right. This form of dancing began in France, where it was known as the branle simple, from where it spread across Europe, eventually reaching the Faroes, now the only place it still exists. The singing of the dancers is the only music and the texts used are mainly those of the kvæði – lengthy medieval ballads written in 6/4 time which tell of heroic deeds of the period. Although the ballads were never written down, they were passed orally from generation to generation and remained the sole linguistic form of Faroese until the mid 1800s.

It was in this manner, too, that the first Faroese stories were passed on, though once again they were not written down. Over the years a number of minor authors and poets came and went, but it was not until the early 20th century, with the acceptance of a standardised written language, that writing began to progress. However, it’s the work of William Heinesen, born in Tórshavn in 1900, that really marks the beginning of the Faroese novel. Although regarded as one of the Faroes’s greatest writers, Heinesen wrote in Danish rather than Faroese, Danish being considered the language of culture in his day.

A similarly delayed start was also the case for the visual arts in the islands. Although several new artists are now coming to the fore, there is little tradition of painting or sculpture in the islands. The most renowned artist in the Faroes is undoubtedly Sámal Joensen-Mikines, whose work is displayed in the National Art Gallery in Tórshavn. Drawing heavily on the unforgiving character of the Faroese landscape, his and his successors’ work has produced some inspired interpretations of land, sea and sky. One of the latest stars to emerge is Tróndur Patursson, whose work with stained glass in particular has won him justifiable praise, whilst a group of new artists, such as Øssur Johannesen and Edvard Fuglø are moving away from the use of traditional motifs and taking Faroese art in a new contemporary direction.

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