The Faroe Islands is a nation connected by a system of simple ferries, well used and affordable helicopter routes, incredible tunnel systems (one of which travels underneath the Atlantic Ocean itself) and by stories that bond the Faroese. The need to communicate between islands, villages and the large extended families is something of a Faroese way of living. Connecting these islands and bringing the news has historically been down to the hard work of the postal workers. With the adoption of the internet and the Faroese government’s desire to encourage people to spread out across their most remote islands, the postal workers have a potentially new role in reconnecting those people and places.
This story was feature by the BBC and can be accessed here
The background and portfolio of my long term photographic work on the Faroe Islands can be viewed elsewhere on my website. This story of how the postal service and the network of boats and helicopters has helped the smaller communities remain connected to itself and to the wider world was born out of this long term work.
With remote island communities shrinking more and more in some places the postal service and helicopters are servicing very small numbers, however there are also adventurous young people and families who are trying to build new lives out in the wilds. Before the islands were so well connected a system called Skjúts was set up in the 1860’s. This system involved each village appointing an agent who would coordinate men to send parcels and post from one island to another. Certain known postal routes over mountain ridges and along fjords are a fond part of Faroese living memory but of course no longer used. The need to connect and tell stories is part of the Faroese tradition and with television in the Faroese language only being broadcast officially for the first time in the early 1980’s the sharing of information in a more traditional way via stories is still remebered by an older generation. The postal service has been connecting not only the geography of the Faroe Islands but the idea of a people connected through complex familial ties and deep sense of place.
Jancy the postmistress of Mykines
Jancy has been the postwomen on Mykines an island of currently 9 inhabitants, all her adult life. At 67 she will soon retire and pass on most of the responsibility to her brother Bjartni. I’d met Jancy before and I’m glad she’s still meeting the helicopter three times a week for the post.
She wears a floral headscarf, simple jacket and short wellingtons. No gloves, despite the freezing wind coming off the ocean. She’s never cold she says. When the helicopter comes, like the seabirds that migrate here, she can see the arrival from her living room with pair of old fashioned binoculars lined up between her potted plants on the windowsill.
In summer the island is served by boat, and the mail arrives this way in hessian brown postal sacks. At this time of year it’s too dangerous to sail. Most of the islanders will gather near the helipad when the helicopter arrives, this is a big moment in the day, the sheepdogs join too. There are no roads on the island, only small lanes between tiny stone houses, many of which have the traditional grass roofs. The village sits in a hollow in the side of a giant wedge of basalt to the west of the Faroes. Sheep graze high up on the slopes, rollers break at the tiny harbour and seabirds, most famously puffins when they arrive nest all along the islands most westerly tip.
Jancy lives in a red house with a blue postal box attached to the wall. This is the house in which she was born. The ground floor was until a couple of years ago, where the cattle were kept. The front room has chairs stacked with piles of crossword books and sudoku puzzle books. A deck of worn playing cards are close by. Jancy bakes ginger cakes and sips black coffee in the shadow of a begonia struggling towards the few hours of Faroese winter sunlight. The other islands’s residents can always see Jancy walking the village with their letters, sometimes she carries a canvass shoulder bag holding printed copies of the Faroe Islands’ two daily newspapers, both of which have loyal readerships and connect many of the islands older residents to the issues of the day. Jancy and her brother have four cats and two dogs, Barry and Alf. The dogs can be heard barking below in the cow shed. The last children left the island recently, one to study physics abroad and the other to study in a Faroese town on the mainland. The school sits empty, through the window I can see wooden desks reflecting the low sunlight and a globe that has sat still for a long time. ‘Without animals, life on Mykines is lonely’ says Jancy. She shows me photographs of dogs from her childhood. Her daughter is in her 30’s and lives in Copenhagen where she works as a vet. ‘She’ll never move home’ says Jancy ‘still, I understand. I like Copenhagen, there you can be anonymous, not like here’.
On Mykines the residents will visit their neighbours everyday. Doors are never locked, there’s no crime, visitors are always welcome. In summer the island is visited by tourists, often looking to view the seabirds. Flasks of black coffee and tins of old fashioned chocolates sit patiently on plastic covered tables in every home. Few words are said. Always. In low roofed wood panelled rooms, the walls are covered with paintings of their island home.
Kristina runs a small guesthouse on the island. She tells me how her children, the last to leave the island, would increasingly order more things off Ebay and Amazon, keeping the postal service in business she laughs. Ordering parcels less than 300 Danish Kroner means avoiding heavy taxes and so most young people are aware of this, ordering multiple smaller ones. This pattern of internet shopping for young people is the same across all the Faroese islands, young people connecting to the fashions of the outside world. It’s by no means new to the islands though, Kristina tells me how she would always mail order clothes from Denamark for her and her children that they felt gave them an identity that was far away from their island home.
Oskar was born on Mykines. At 81 he leads an active, full life with his friendly sheepdog Tania. Everyday he walks to the top of the mountain, here he tends to the sheep and further down the slopes he’ll feed the geese. He went to sea at an early age, eventually working on huge cargo vessels. He said he’d been to every port in the world or at least it felt that way. He stopped that life at 42 and lived in Denmark for many years. He used to come back to Mykines with his daughter, just the two of them, once when she was 17 she said to me ‘Dad you must move back. You will be happy’ I did. She was right. I’ve been back here since. Oskar keeps in touch with his family via internet but also receives things in the post, drawings from his grandchildren and small gifts fill his room. Oskar visits his neighbour Rose everyday, he has known her since childhood. When cutting through the village later I see Rose at home, slowly putting the pieces of a jigsaw together in the fading light.
Meinhard and his wife Jessie live on the island of Skúvoy, an island of 22 people. A tiny wedge to the west of the Faroes with a fantastic Arctic Skua population and known for it’s daring fulmar egg hunt carried out by local men from high cliffs in the summertime. Meinhard is a third generation postman on the island, the last in the line. His four children have moved away, although most still live in the bigger towns. Before taking over from his father Meinhard worked as a fisherman. In the 1960’s it was typical for the Faroese boats to fish around Scotland and it was there that he met Jessie a native of the island of Lewes. Leaving the Hebrides behind they settled on Skúvoy and raised a family. They opened the islands supermarket in 1975 and later he became the postman on the 1st April 1975, a job his father had taken up in 1938. Meinhard is now in his 70’s and the post is grinding to a near stop as there are fewer and fewer letters and no children on Skúvoy. Still the boat comes three times a week with a small brown postal sack and Meinhard is there on time to collect it. The helicopter comes three times a week weather permitting. At night Meinhard will feed the sheep kept in a nearby old stone building in the winter. They rarely have taken a holiday but will occasionally travel to the mainland to spend time with their eight grandchildren. The weekend after I was due to leave Jessie was planning to take all the grandchildren to the capital’s bowling alley for a treat.
None of the dogs on Skúvoy have ever been put on a lead, they roam the lanes freely. Rolf, Meinhard’s dog is thirteen and he follows him on his postal round. Meinhard doesn’t like to leave Rolf, its one of the reasons he doesn’t leave the island much.
The boat to Skúvoy is new. Light and fast she was built in Denmark before being used to ferry workers in Spain. The crossing is always bumpy as currents merge between the islands. The boat is the link to the islands survival. It connects Skúvoy to the nearby island of Sandoy. Soon Sandoy will be connected to another larger island hopefully encouraging more people to move out to try to start a life there
There has been talk of a tunnel being built to Skúvoy but with so few residents on such a small island I’m not sure how it could be justified. Here everything is delivered by boat, which runs throughout the winter. On a previous visit making the same crossing the older small ferry boat had strapped to it’s a deck a shiny white coffin, dotted with drops of salted spray from the sea. This was Gretur, a sailor and fisherman who had died at home on Skúvoy
On the new ferry I talked to the first mate at the stern of the boat. In his 30’s, he wore a flourescent woolly hat. He talked to me about the worry of illnesses that manifest themselves in a specific way in the Faroe Islands due to it’s small population. The islands need new families, new blood he said. The boat rolled in the current and I held onto the ice containers tethered to the deck to save being thrown about. At the harbour we were met by a man driving a tractor, he’ll carry anything off loaded to the village high on the cliffs above the harbour, this includes Meinhard and the postal delivery. This man is one of the son’s of Gretur and some years earlier I’d watched him help carry his father’s coffin from the boat to the shore despite the heavy swell. Getting anything off the boat, including the daily postal items requires timing, as the boat see saws up and down against the harbour wall
Before reaching the Southernmost island of the Faroes, Suðuroy, the boats and helicopters pass two tiny islands. One dome shaped and uninhabited but for sheep, this is Lítla Dímun and another, wedge shaped with sheer cliffs to the sea, this is Stóra Dímun, inhabited by two families. Brother and sister Janus and Eva have brought their own families here and made the island where they grew up their home.
The island can’t be reached from the sea without climbing a cliff face so the only way onto Stóra Dímun in winter is by helicopter. At one end is a steep wind battered peak on which sits the island’s lighthouse, at the other end is a steep curving hillside populated by hardy sheep. This glaciated slope curves up to a narrow plateau at the top where unbelievably Icelandic horses graze.
The white Atlantic Airways helicopter named Ruth, after a famous Faroese painter, turns to make her descent onto Stóra Dímun. A woman sat opposite in the helicopter wears thick padded farmer’s overalls and low cut wellington boots. Wiry with brown hair tied back, this is Eva. She helps unload the provisions from the back of the helicopter and as the blades lift Ruth towards the next island Eva is greeted by her niece Andrea who hugs her on the stone path to the families home. The children hop on the back of a trolley, used for transporting goods to the helicopter, for a ride back home. The arrival of the helicopter is a big event and their only contact with the rest of the world, everyone is there to watch.
There are two houses side by side, both are timber clad, painted a deep red with white window frames. The roof is green corrugated iron. Both houses are surrounded by farm ‘out buildings’ of traditional stone wall construction. One house has a garden filled with a home made wooden playground, swings, a slide, a small pond and a wendy house.
Between the buildings runs a stone paved alleyway, a link between the family home and the farm. It’s here that the sheep dogs will roam, the children will play and dirty wellies are left outside. Both houses are bookended by huge stone walls accessed through an arched doorway. From outside the houses and farm have the appearance of a fort, which in effect it is, protecting itself from elements.
Inside lunch is prepared. Wind dried lamb, a leg of which sits on the dinning table, boiled eggs from the chickens, cows tongue, cured halibut thinly sliced, rhubarb jam from the garden in a fat jar. The family squash onto long wooden bench in the low roofed room and conversation on Faroese politics starts. The previous day a Danish academic was secretly filmed by a Spanish journalist saying how the Faroese were so dependent on Denmark, that they’d never leave, that nobody cares anyway etc.. Not long before this the Danish government flew an incorrect version of the Faroese flag in Copenhagen. Erla, mum to three children and wife of Janus the farmer, says how she is not politically nationalist but this attitude towards the Faroese from the Danish authorities upsets her. This is a family trying to survive out on this island blending old and new. There are reminders of tradition around the house. Above the dinning table hang amber coloured transparent ellipses. They remind me of swollen cuttlefish. They are dried sheep’s bladders, cleaned and inflated at the point of slaughter. Dried out they resemble seed pod cases. The children sell these at small markets that take place elsewhere in the Faroes.
The family made the move back to the island of Stóra Dímun after some years living in Tórshavn. They moved to continue Janus’s family farm, a move made earlier by his sister Eva. They keep cattle, sheep, chickens and geese. They also grow small amounts of crops, mainly turnips. They sell some of the turnips, some goes towards animal feed but there’s plenty left over. Their plan is make cider or an aquavit spirit with the turnips in partnership with a Faroese brewer. They’re entrepreneurial and full of energy. The children aged 1,3 and 5 are schooled on the island in a specially built traditional grass roofed cottage that doubles as a house where visitors to the island can stay. The teachers are often young graduates or early in their teaching careers, looking for a new experience. A rota ensures the children see different teachers regularly and this is working well. The children are also connected to corresponding class in school on the mainland and see themselves as being ‘with their classmates’. Friends and pupils come and stay on Stóra Dímun by helicopter.
Janus tells me that when he was a boy growing up on the farm he was quite bookish and felt there was no pressure to help his dad with the daily farming tasks, this is something he has tried to carry over with his own son Óla Jákup, who seems to be more keen on getting involved with the farm jobs. He wants to give him the choice Janus says. Janus’s sister Eva was always the outdoor one, more likely to take over the farm and indeed she did after agricultural school in Norway. When she moved back to the island with her husband and their two children she led the way for Janus to return also. The families also decided they would try and set up a tannery, using the sheep skins left over after slaughter. Using donated old machinery from a nearby island they tried the process themselves after corresponding with a small Germany tannery that offered them free advice on technique and process. The top floor of a farm building is filled with finished Faroese sheep skins, many black and brown, corresponding to the deep peat colours of the earth on Stóra Dímun.
The day starts with milking the cattle in the traditional way. The family have more than enough milk for themselves and are always trying to think of innovative ways to use it. They make a traditional Faroese yoghurt that they offer to the tourists in the summertime when they stay over and use the rest in their home cooking, for cheese and so on.
The post and the helicopter are essential to life on the island. Oil is flown in drums, hung like a trawler’s net full of fish below the helicopter. A building houses the generator and they are developing a system of batteries to help make the farm more energy efficient. The farm buildings are also covered in solar panels utilising the exposed setting.
When the helicopter leaves the island and the children have waved the passengers and pilots goodbye, they return to their home to get their bikes and go carts, which they drive onto the helipad, the only piece of asphalt on the island. This small circle is used for a multitude of purposes, it’s a cycling practice area, a canvas for the children to draw with chalk, playground and exercise area of the sheep dogs to navigate around. Janus tells me that when he was little his parents bought him a BMX bike and the only place he could ride it was round and round on the helipad. He said when he’d go to visit relatives on the mainland, walking on pavements and asphalt made his legs hurt as he wasn’t used to it. The same is now happening with his own children as we watched them whizz around on their bikes.
The dispatch riders of Tórshavn
Robert Bjanarson is 21 and a dispatch rider for the Faroese Postal service in the capital,Tórshavn. The capital is home to half the population and many people there feel disconnected from the smaller more remote islands, although it is common for them to have holiday homes on these islands. A lot of what Robert delivers now he says are parcels for young people buying stuff off the internet, especially clothes he says, boxes and boxes arrive everyday. He jokes how ASOS is keeping the island going. Robert is a product of this too, buying stuff online, mainly musical equipment like guitar pedals to add to his collection. Whizzing around the islands small roads often helmetless the dispatch riders are the embodiment of the young Faroe Islanders.
Annika 19 is from Denmark, she moved to the small village of Eiði from Denmark about six months ago. Annika’s parents are Faroese and the decision was made to move back. Annika relies on the postal service to buy clothes from the big stores.
Gunnhild works in a supermarket in Tvøroyri in the southernmost island of the Faroe Islands, Suðuroy. She loves sports, handball and volleyball but has to take a two hour ferry trip in often heavy seas to play other teams.
Ólavur has recently finished a stint as a dispatch rider for the postal service in the capital Tórshavn. For him the connection between the Faroese is part of the national identity. ‘The whole system now though is supported by internet purchases, young people trying to keep up with trends in Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Also US culture, the NFL has gotten big here with my friends. ‘I think we don’t travel as much as young Danes, I think this is because of the ticket price, we have to get there (mainland Europe) before going anywhere elsewhere so the ticket prices are high. When I am in Denmark the Faroe Islands seems very far away, much further than say Sweden for instance. Here in Denmark you can pass out of a train and wake up in Sweden. The Faroe Islands seems a long way away.’
Eyðun Eliasen has worked on the island of Kalsoy simultaneously as postman, farmer, lighthouse keeper, sometime taxi driver and father. He lives with his wife Anja and their three grown up children in a village called Trøllanes on the most northerly tip of the island. The village sits in a hollow, smoothly rounded by glacial ice. To get to the village you must drive through a narrow one way tunnel with no lighting, before the tunnel arrived in the 70’s the village could only be access by boat. In the hollowed out valley on the other side of the mountain large boulders are dotted along the valley floor, each has a name and the village name Trøllanes means Troll peninsula. This relates to Faroese folklore. Eyðun’s mother was born in the nearby village of Mikladalur, home to the Faroese legend of the seal woman or selkie. The whole island of Kalsoy has this folkloric significance. Eyðun is the renaissance man of the island having lived away and studied and then returned to make a home in the village. At the time of visiting him there where less than 20 people living in Trøllanes
The ferry to Fugloy brings the post from Hvannasund, a village in fjord between the islands of Borðoy and Viðoy. It was winter and there was an icy breeze. As the boat ‘Ritan’ pushed her way along the sound out to open ocean I could see the snow sprayed sides of the ridges, this view framed by the winches and ropes that swung overhead every time the vessel rolled gently side to side. The cargo was light, a postal sack and a box filled with 50 or 60 light bulbs. The bulbs had been ‘used’ at a party to illuminate a community house, a deckhand said. The crew wore close fitting oil rig worker jackets and woollen hats. Below deck a worn bible lay on a shelf at the waterline, the front cover missing. Two bubblegum machines with globe like tops where chained to the stairs and then to the deck. Their colourful sweets rolling around with the swell. I was the only passenger.
It grew colder as the boat left the fjord for open water and her destination of Fugloy.
Arriving at the island the swell was high at the village of Kirkja. The boat couldn’t dock and so deliveries were thrown towards the harbour where postman Joannes was waiting.
Joannes is the postman of the village of Kirkja, the village with the lowest population I’d visited. He wore a blue cotton shirt and jeans. It was cold outside and raining but the older Faroese men never wear outdoor clothing, at best a sweater and wellies or leather clogs. In the family home Svanhild his daughter sat at the dinning table. Her forearms were covered with white emulsion paint. The dog had a strip of paint along it’s side. She’s been helped her dad on the farm, painting the buildings that house the sheep during winter. ‘We paint it because the sheep like it painted new’ she laughed. Later she returned at 10pm, she’d been painting until then. Like her father joining the table late she washes the paint from her hands in the sink and then sat at the dinning table calmly buttered a thick slice of black bread.
We have four calf’s and still keep sheep. The village is shrinking. The last of the children has left, the school is empty. There are just four of us. People come and go. But she is determined to make a go of it, working on the farm and helping with the helicopter duties. She loves horses and sometime later I noticed in the kitchen a drawing she’d done in biro of seven horses in a field her father had pinned to the fridge door.
The Faroe Islands is experiencing the global developed world process of urbanisation and the struggle will be to find a logistical arrangement to support the redistribution of people across it’s island geography. The islands have a sophisticated communication network of tunnels, helicopter routes and boat journeys all of which are second nature to the Faroese.
For the Faroese Stepping into a boat is like opening a door to familiar house in the village.
More tunnels are planned, some of which are already underway. The postal workers left now are the last in a long line of workers who have kept the islands connected, not just with letters and parcels but with news and friendship. To encourage the Faroese to live on the smaller most remote islands will likely mean a blend of old ways and new. The Faroese concern to look out for one another and support one another has shown that living on small remote islands such as Stóra Dímun is possible.