His tale is ripped straight from the pages of high adventure and medieval derring-do. 

Who got there first? 

The Faroe Islands seem to be one of the most unlikely places you would want to settle. 

Cast adrift in the troubled waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, this rocky archipelago of 18 islands is wedged between Iceland and Norway. 

Whilst today it is renowned for its natural beauty and dramatic landscapes, it is still a 90-minute flight across the North Sea from Oslo, Norway, not exactly close to the Viking homeland of Scandinavia, even by today's standards. 

Given its remote location, most scholars agree that it did not see human settlement until the early medieval period. 

Currently, a scholarly debate persists about who exactly first reached the Faroe Islands. 

Although there's no doubt that the Norse began settling the islands in the late 9th century CE, it seems they were not the first people there. 

Recent discoveries, including the remains of sheep and ash, have undergone radiocarbon dating. The results suggest that there might have been inhabitants here as early as the 6th century CE. 

The identity of these early settlers remains a mystery. However, due to the islands' relative proximity to the northern part of the British Isles, some scholars suggest a Gaelic presence. 

A 9th-century CE Irish chronicle relates how Brendan of Clontarf, also known as Brendan the Navigator, "discovered" certain isles off the north coast of Britain, which some modern scholars have assumed to be the Faroe Islands.

However, like with most medieval chronicles, this tale is shrouded in historical inconclusiveness and met with a high degree of skepticism. 

The Faroe Islands' formative years, captured in a now-missing saga from Iceland, saw a massive movement of Norse settlers, their shift to Christianity, and the islands' ultimate subordination to the Norwegian monarchy. Photo: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

The Vikings arrive... second? 

The story of human settlement of the Faroe Islands can, in part, be told thanks to the rich tapestry of the Norse sagas

Though many of the sagas are heavy on adventure and tall tales and light on historical detail, there is a saga (Færeyinga saga) dedicated entirely to the early years of the Norse settlement of these remote islands. 

Written in Iceland sometime in the early 13th century CE, this saga, now lost, dealt with the early history of these islands, a mass migration of Norse settlers, their conversion to Christianity, and the islands' eventual subjugation under the Norwegian crown. 

One of the manuscripts in the Færeyinga saga seems to suggest that Norse settlement occurred during the reign of Harald Fairhair (c. 872 – 930). 

Given Fairhair's unification of several petty kingdoms into what would become Norway, there were a great number of people who were on the losing side and probably wanted to flee the new king's wrath and supposed heavy taxation. 

We already know that many of these malcontents sailed to settle in Iceland. So, some historians have speculated, many might have left for the Faroe Islands as well. 

But how did they know about this remote and rocky outcrop? 

Peering through the saga, one name is mentioned as the first Norse settler – Grímur Kamban. 

However, Kamban isn't necessarily mentioned as the absolute first settler on the islands. 

Other Norse sagas use the term Papar (an Old Norse term for "Father," essentially shorthand for a Christian monk). These suggest that Irish monks may have settled here first, later displaced by Viking raids or Norse settlers. 

So, what do we know about Grímur Kamban? 

A Norse-Gael or a Norwegian refugee? 

Like most early medieval figures, we have scant historical records or evidence about Grímur Kamban. 

This makes his mention in the sagas frustrating for historians, and writers at The Viking Herald, who deal in facts and historical truths, not mere speculation and tall tales. 

Nevertheless, the saga states that Kamban was among the malcontents who fled Norway after its unification under Harald Fairhair in 872 CE. 

However, other sagas mentioning him suggest he was born in the early 9th century CE. This would make his travels to the Faroe Islands highly unlikely – though not necessarily impossible – if he was in his 70s. 

Regardless of his age, he seems to have possessed an adventurous spirit – even if that adventure was fleeing from the minions of the new Norwegian king – and he set sail for the Faroe Islands. 

This implies that there was some awareness of these rocky outcrops, knowledge likely passed on to people in Viking societies either directly from Vikings who raided the northern shores of the British Isles or indirectly from British monks. 

Whilst his given name, Grímur, is of Norse origin, his surname could possibly be of Gaelic origin.

Kamban, in Gaelic, means crooked, and some linguists have interpreted this to imply some sort of physical defect. 

Another interesting theory links Kamban to the Gaelic sport of curling, which uses a crooked stick. 

Several historians have speculated that Grímur may have been of Norse origin and lived for a time in Norse settlements in Ireland, where he received this name. 

We know that the Norse had established settlements along the eastern coast of Ireland, mainly centered around what became Dublin

The Faroe Islands experienced a significant shift in the early 10th century CE, with a notable increase in Norse settlers, the establishment of the Althing, and a rise in sheep farming, which inspired the islands' name meaning "Island of Sheep" in Old Norse. Photo: Lachlan Gowen / Unsplash

Grímur sets sail and settles 

According to the sagas, Grímur led a crew and set sail to the Faroes. 

They first reached the island of Fugloy, the easternmost island in the Faroe Islands. However, climatic conditions saw them abandon this island shortly. 

Given its location, the island has no protection from the swirling northern winds that plague the North Sea. 

Setting sail again, they eventually reached calmer conditions in the natural protective harbor of the region of Eysturoy. 

It was here that Kamban helped establish a village named Funningur. 

Despite the presence of the natural harbor, the settlers appear to have had trouble anchoring, and the village name means something akin to "difficult to anchor" in Old Norse. 

Regardless of their troubles, Kamban helped establish what is believed to be the first permanent Norse settlement on the Faroe Islands. 

We know little of the life of Grímur Kamban following his flight, but the sagas relate how he passed away in 901 CE. 

Now, if we are to believe some of the sagas, this would make him the ripe old age of 101. 

However, frustratingly, most of the Faroeyinga sagas do not provide us with a birth date. 

Given the scant historical detail surrounding most of his life, we cannot determine whether Grímur Kamban was an actual historical figure, an amalgamation of several individuals, or even a metaphor for the early Norse settlement of the Faroe Islands. 

Norse settlement and later 

The story of Grímur Kamban marks a turning point in the history of the Faroe Islands. 

Following his assumed death, sometime in the early 10th century CE, the small trickle of Norse settlers would eventually turn into a flood. 

The Faroe Islands would become entrenched into the Viking cultural orbit as an Althing was believed to have been established sometime during the 10th century CE. 

This rocky outcrop of islands soon saw significant importation of sheep – from which it gets its current name (Faroe means "Island of Sheep" in Old Norse). 

With a Viking political system established, as well as livestock to farm and for sustenance, the population of Norse settlements on the Faroe Islands grew. 

It is believed that by the time the islands were converted to Christianity sometime at the turn of the 11th century CE, there may have been several thousand inhabitants. 

The islands would become part of the Norwegian crown in 1035 CE. 

In the later medieval period, the islands came under the Danish crown, where Danish was introduced as the lingua franca. 

After the dissolution of Denmark-Norway following Napoleon's defeat (as Denmark-Norway had sided with the Corsican General and Republican France) in 1815, the islands became the sole possession of the Kingdom of Denmark and have remained so ever since. 

Although they've been part of the Kingdom of Denmark ever since, the Faroe Islands have preserved a distinct and independent culture. 

This culture aligns more with its other Viking-settled remote island neighbors, such as the Orkneys and the Shetlands. 

If the Norse sagas are to be believed, the entire history of these beautiful islands can be attributed to one man: Grímur Kamban. 

For more information on the early settlement of the Faroe Islands, read an article by Cosmos Magazine here.

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