Saksun, Faroe Islands

An excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold, exploring the tiny northern Atlantic archipelago called the Faroe Islands:

Five people live in Saksun now, way up at the end of Streymoy, 44 kilometers from Tórshavn on the far end of the island, at the end of the world. It’s one of a kind, a real find, but around here there’s one of a kind around every bend.

The air fills your chest so fresh it stings. The bay, the mists, the waterfalls that fill the hillsides, the pop-up rills after rain, everything in sight glittering, utterly pristine.

When Lars Gunnar Dehl Olsen was born in the 1990s, Saksun was home to 33. Tow-headed, lanky with a free range beard, Lars Gunnar stands in benevolent welcome at the end of the road. Which is also his farm.

For a time he rented a big white house from Johan Jogvonsson, a man in the “village.” There are more than enough houses in the village for five or 33, because some are summer cottages. Now, out here on the point Lars Gunnar and his wife will endeavor to raise sheep and to do their part to keep Saksun alive, having just bought their own freehold in paradise.

Lars Gunnar calculates that 600 sheep is the minimum to make a farm viable and he has 700. Would more be better? If he had more he would need many more, enough to hire a farmhand. Seven hundred is about all he can handle by himself.

It’s part of the old farm Dùvugarðar. Now a National Heritage Museum, its outbuildings – with turf roofs – recreate life in the old times. Today the museum stands tiny and deserted, locked tight, beside a hjallur, or curing house, those wooden, slatted buildings for air-curing skerpikjøt.

We can only peer through the museum windows at cooking pots and an iron tea kettle, a lambskin rug and a grandfather clock. There is bedding on bunks reminiscent of the tiny sleeping quarters at the Hanseatic League museum in Bergen, bunks much shorter than a grown man today.

Perhaps the Olsens’ role is as much cordial host as lonely farmer. In the space of our visit, ours and two other cars call at their farm, for here at the end of the road is a fine panorama.

One thing for sure, the Olsens are safe from Viking raids. Sand has made the mouth of the bay so shallow that these days it is navigable only by small boats at high tide.

People may be a bit sparse out this way but the Olsens can rest content in their surroundings. Saksun is just utterly gorgeous.

Saksun

The ground never dries. The sheep squish-step about and drink from pools surrounded by moss. (How do they not get hoof rot?)

Forests of pine, birch and aspen covered Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes and even Iceland up to around 5,000 years ago, when the northern climate grew cooler and wetter. Land waterlogged and trees died off, replaced by peat-forming mosses that sealed in rainwater, furthering the wetness. I have read that peat accumulates at the rate of perhaps a meter a millennium.

There are not many trees in the Faroes so settlers burned peat for heat and cooking. Like their ancestors, villagers make roofs of sod. Early inhabitants did it because sod was ubiquitous – and free. They still do it today because it works.

Here is how they do it: The earth is cut to manageable one-foot squares three or four inches thick and applied two-ply, with the first square grass/moss-down and the second upright so that they grow together into one impermeable unit.

While there are boards underneath (or birch bark where there are birch trees), the weight of the sod, about 500 pounds per square yard, helps to compress the logs in log homes and that helps to reduce the draft inside.

•••••

Life was hard for settlers and it still isn’t easy, even here in gorgeous, glittering, scrubbed-clean Saksun. In his book Harvest, Jim Crace suggests the tenuousness of living on the edge of the world: “We do not press too closely to His bosom; rather we are at His fingertips. He touches us, but only just.”

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