Monday, November 29, 2004

Chapter 1

The left wingtip of the aeroplane seemed to reach out to brush the bare rocky hillside, but I was not scared because I was used to soaring closer to the ridges of the foothills by the scottish mountains at Portmoak, and when I had a job teaching a summer course at the Cairngorms Gliding club as a professional instructor we use to turn off the wire and tuck into the beautiful tree sprinkled ridge in order to gain thousands of feet inheight, but little did I know a military jet would crash here at Vágar Airport (FAE EKVG ) a few years later.

The airliner rocked as its momentum carried it through the rough air over Søvág fiord and when we rolled to a halt on the runaway, there was a loud round of applause from the passengers. Then the engines stopped and the only sound was the cold rough wind whistling outside the fuselage, and we all sighed and shivered in anticipation.

This airport was opened in 1942 as an RAF base during the british occupation of the Faroes and from 1963 with flights to Iceland or Denmark.

I had only vaguely heard of the Faroe Isands as somewhere in the shipping forecasts on the old Philips radio of my childhood in Solihull and reading the situations vacant in the British Bandsman I saw a 3 month contract for a conductor wanted for the brass band in Klaksvik .

And who are the Faeroese? And how did they come to settle on their rocky islands? Where do they come from? So let us go fast forward.

I had been on the islands for some weeks and after two ferries and one taxi, I am spending my first Saturday morning in Tórshavn, the capital city of the Faroes, and there is this beautiful bookshop in a typical red painted wooden house with a grass roof. Bókasølan, The Faroese Bookshop and being an bookaholic I go in, but at this stage I hardly know any faroese so I looked for english language and picture books. I found Kenneth Williamson's The Atlantic Islands about the old life style observed during World War II when he was on the islands, and The Faerose Saga translated and published by G. V. C. Young and Cynthis Clewer from the Isle of Man. There was not yet television on the islands so I soon read both books. I was gripped by the story and identified with Sigmund who like me lost his father at an early age.

“There was a man named Grim Camban.
He first settled the Færeys in the days of Harold Fairhair.”
and thus starts the 1896 translation of
”Maður er nefndur Grímur kamban; hann byggði fyrstur manna Færeyjar.
Which is the opening sentence of this saga about the people of the Faroe Islands and which belongs with that group of chronicles creating a sense of national identity, and which were written down by the old monks like Bede and Saxo and the great skald Snorre, and which link lost oral histories with the conversion to to christianity and the universal questions.

What happens after we die? And where do we come from?
And what kind of people are we who live here?

But now I will tell you my version which starts more than a thousand years ago
with the eight year old Sigmundur Brestisson who loved to play with his two winters older cousin Thorer. They played together high above the family farm on the small island called Skúvoy whenever they could get away from their chores.

Those summer mornings they used to beg some food to take with them, and
Sigmund's mother Cecilia would tell the old housemaid to give them the
sun dried split cod fish and bread, but if they were lucky they might even get
a sheep bone with a few scraps of a dried meat still on it.
As they left their home, which always smelled of peat smoke and cattle,
their mothers saw that they looked like delightful miniature Vikings.
They carried their food in their left hands so that their right hands were free to
grab the hilts of the hand carved wooden swords in their belts.

One dark evening last winter in the smoky hall lit by the flickering light of the
central peat fire and the fish oil burning in the flat soapstone lamps,
the two brothers, their fathers, had lovingly carved the swords.
The women were weaving the thick woollen cloth on the vertical frame loom with the warp tightened by hanging stones and the beautiful brown worsted would be bartered at the next market day for wood and iron and a few luxuries from the east. The men used their knives making small things of bone and wood and horn for use on the farm and in the boats.

The oldest man slave had a good memory and was entertaining the company by retelling the story of the troll who lived in the great stone by the peat moss, when Sigmund's father Brester found an odd shaped piece of oak in the firewood. It was left over from a boat repair, and its shape suggested a sword for weaving, or for play becaus it was too thick Brester took an axe and spit it down the middle with a few gentle taps.

"Here Beiner," he said handing over one of the pieces, "It's about time we taught the boys a little bit about sword fighting, let's carve them each a sword."
"Yes dear brother" said Beiner "they are sleeping deeply now and it will be a great surprise for them in the morning"and after about an hours work with their daggers, and then rubbed smooth with a rough stone, the new toys were finished.

Those wooden swords were jiggling at their hips as the boys walked past the hut where their kinsman Einar from Suderoy still snored.
“Silly old fool – whenever he gets drunk he gets into fights,” said Thorer.
“And runs around waving his axe” answered Sigmund.
“Wicked!” was the reply as they vaulted the sheep proof stone wall around the inner field
of the village.

And they climbed and climbed because Skúvoy, except for the peat bogs and the high meadow, was just one great slope up to the top of the black basalt cliffs. There were no schools but the children learned their duties and roles by working with their parents and watching and copying whatever they did. So at the cliff top they knew how to go down on all fours and crawl to the edge of the cliff in order to avoid being blown to their death by a sudden gust of wind and they loved to look down at the seals in the breakers more than a thousand feet below and the host of birds soaring in the updrafts.. The egg collecting season was every spring and past for this year, but soon it would be time to catch the fat young puffins by standing on the cliff edge with the fowling net at the end of a twelve foot long pole. The boys' young mouths watered in anticipation of the fishy taste of the dark meat. The islands were no stranger to starvation and food was seasonal and always a topic of conversation amongst the grown ups.

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