Norse settlers arrived in the 9th century CE and would leave a lasting linguistic, cultural, and historical heritage that survives to this day.
Islands in the middle of the Norwegian Sea
Between Norway and Iceland lays a group of 18 rocky, windswept islands that draws tourists, "twitchers" and hikers the world over to experience its volcanic beauty and charm: the Faroe Islands.
This "Island of Sheeps" - a blending of the Norse and Gaelic linguistic influences, is now part of a self-governing autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark.
It is famous nowadays as a cool place for hiking its many rocky outcrops, kayaking around some of the most majestic fjords in the world (sorry, western Norway!), or getting soaked under striking waterfalls; it wasn't always on the tourist map.
Before the recent hipster tourism boom, this was a tough and remote outcrop of Denmark, renowned for its whaling and fishing industries.
Yet it is, historically speaking, only a recent addition to the Kingdom of Denmark following the fallout of the Napoleonic Wars.
Before the 1814 Treaty of Kiel, these islands were part of the Kingdom of Norway, with their acquisition originating in the early 11th century CE, the apex of the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE).
Just how they became a part of the Kingdom of Norway is a history of human endeavor, cultural and civilizational synthesis, and a great deal of adventure.
It started with monks and sheep
The story of human settlement on the Faroe Islands dates back to, at least, the early 9th century CE.
Whether humans made it to these remote islands before the Norse settlers is open to debate.
Evidence of the remains of domesticated barley has been found on the island, which has been radiocarbon dated to somewhere between the 5th and 8th centuries CE.
Scholars have speculated that humans could have made it to these isles from Scotland, Ireland, or Scandinavia or, possibly, from all three areas.
There is a rich cultural history attached to the settlement of the Faroes from Ireland. A whole class of tales, concerning a hero's sea voyage to an "Other" world, emerge from the 7th and 8th centuries.
One of the most famous involves an Irish saint, Brendan of Clontarf, who was said to have visited the Faroe Islands during the 6th century CE.
Whether our Irish holy man did make the epic voyage across the North Sea can never really be found out, but it is not only in Irish annals that there are tales of discovery.
The Færeyinga Saga (The Faroese Saga) seems to point to a Norse settler, Grimr Kamban, who was first on the island.
The saga points out that he sailed from Norway following the fallout of the unification of Norway during the rule of Harald Fairhair.
Like the more famous Norse exiles that would go on to settle Iceland following the Battle of Hafrsfjord, Kamban may well be a metaphor for another chapter in Norse expansion and settlement in the North Sea.
Today, the Faroes are famous as a cool place for hiking and kayaking. Photo: LouieLea / Shutterstock
Norse settlers and political developments
Regardless of who reached the Faroe Islands first, the age of settlement of the Faroes by the Norse was from the early 9th to 10th centuries CE.
This rough 100-year period saw a widespread migration of peoples from Viking societies head across the North Sea to settle this remote volcanic outcrop.
Unlike other Norse settlements, the Faroe Islands had a particularly unique political formation.
Scholars have argued that the quest for arable land may well have been a vital factor in the outward expansion of the Norse from the late 7th century CE onwards. Despite its remote location and (relatively) tiny size, the deserted Faroe Islands still represented valuable real estate.
- READ MORE: Why did the Vikings leave Scandinavia?
It is believed that mostly farmers from western Norway arrived to settle the Faroes, and they would also import political ideas from their Scandinavian homeland.
They organized a polity (land), on this new outpost of the Viking world, with its own constitution, and all free men were able to meet at the Løgting - a proto-parliament.
This was established in the largest settlement, Tórshavn, which today has evolved into the capital of the islands and still houses the Faroese parliament.
Like their Viking brethren across the North Sea in Iceland, the settlers on the Faroes can lay claim to founding one of the oldest still-functioning parliaments in the world.
An agrarian economy and trade
When the Norse settlers weren't busy laying the foundations for modern parliamentary democracy, they were men and women of the plow and field.
Even before the Norse settlers had arrived, there were signs of the domestication of crops centuries ago – though the question remains by who?
This process only accelerated with the arrival of the Norse, and soon the Faroes had a sophisticated agrarian economy based upon barley, hay, and livestock.
The famous Faroese sheep – which seem to outnumber locals and tourists by the hundreds – were expertly reared by the Norse, and other livestock, such as goats, pigs, and cows, were introduced and soon littered the islands.
To add a local flavor to their cuisine, Norse settlers also apparently dined on puffin – the Vikings really were experts at environmental adaptation when it came to their cooking.
Though many original settlers had fled the supposed "tyranny" of Harald Fairhair and the tightening of political power and imposition of more aggressive taxation, there was still contact with the Scandinavian homeland.
Trade, especially with western Norway, flowed to the islands with the remains of small manufacturers and household utensils made with Norwegian products, found in the remains of Norse settlements.
The introduction of Christianity spelled an end to the Viking history of the Faroe Islands. Pictured is a diocese museum in Kirkjubøur, Faroe Island. Photo: PietFoto / Shutterstock
The introduction of Christianity
The next phase of the history of the Faroe Islands involved the introduction of Christianity.
When the first Norse settlers arrived on the islands, they brought with them their spiritual practices and beliefs stemming from the Old Norse religion.
However, throughout the 10th century CE, Christianity became a powerful and influential religion throughout the Scandinavian peninsula.
It had been introduced from the 6th century CE in Norway, but by the second half of the 10th century CE, it had gained a foothold amongst the Norwegian ruling elite.
The history of Christianity on the Faroes wouldn't be complete without mentioning a powerful Viking chieftain, Sigmundur Brestisson.
Born in 961 CE, he came from an influential, powerful family from the southern islands.
His early years were full of despair as he was forced to flee to Norway as "invaders" (scholars disagree whether these were peoples from the Scandinavian homeland or from the northern Faroes) had butchered much of the southern population.
He wound up in the court of Norwegian King Olaf Trygvasson, the first nominal Christian king of the Norwegian realm. Brestisson was sent back to his birthplace to seize the islands for his liege as well as convert the entire population to Christianity.
Full of youthful bravado, Bresistsson first went about his mission by simply reading out the royal decree, on the widespread conversion of the islands to the new Christian faith, at the parliament in Tórshavn.
Not everyone was happy with this new paradigm, and he was forced to flee (for the second time in his life) from an angry mob.
This forced a change of tactics, and he broke in one night, with armed men, to a powerful local chieftain's house and offered him a choice: convert to Christianity (along with all of his community) or have his head chopped off. Not surprisingly, the chieftain opted for the former.
The islanders appear to have the last say, though, as Bresistsson was eventually killed by an angry farmer (a disgruntled former pagan perhaps?) in 1005 CE. Yet, despite his death, Christianity had gained a foothold in Faroese society.
Like so many of the characters in Norse sagas, Brestisson's life and exploits are of a historically dubious nature, but there is no doubt that conversion from above, often by the sword, was a feature of the spread of Christianity throughout Viking societies.
Norwegian and Danish control
The introduction of Christianity spells an end to the Viking history of the Faroe Islands.
Despite Brestisson's death, Norwegian political control was established over this volcanic outcrop, and the islands would be part of the Norwegian realm for the next 800 or so years.
The islands also saw a significant Norse-Gaelic community established, with emigrants arriving not just from the Scandinavian peninsula but also from Viking settlements on the British Isles, especially in Ireland, Scotland, and the "Northern" isles of the Shetlands and the Orkneys.
The islands remained in possession of the Norwegian crown until 1380 CE, when Norway and Denmark entered into a personal union.
This union lasted until the Napoleonic Wars when, despite Denmark-Norway ending up on the losing side, Denmark (and Denmark only) was allowed to keep the Faroe Islands.
Despite the decline of the whaling and fishing industries in the 20th century CE, which saw an economic downturn that helped fuel a separatist movement, the Faroe Islands are still very much a part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
The Travel has published an easy-reading tour guide of the islands, including some of the best Viking-related sites to visit, available to read here.
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