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History of the Faroe Islands

Archaeological excavations on the island of Sandoy bear proof that people lived in the Faroe Islands in year 300. However, these excavations do not reveal anything about who these people were.

The closest we come to finding out who the first settlers were is through Dicuil, an Irish scholar-exile at the court of Charles the Great in Achen, France. In 825, Dicuil writes about a man who had spoken to a priest who had been (most likely) to the Faroe Islands. The priest claimed that in 825, Irish monks, who had lived in the Faroe Islands for the past 100 years, were driven away by Northerners.

Another story, which historically is a little open to doubt, is about the Irish abbot St. Brendan, who in the sixth century goes in search of “The Promised Land of the Saints”. One particular story talks of a visit to “The Islands of the Sheep and the Paradise of Birds”, situated several days’ sailing distance from Scotland.

In the ninth century, emigrants from Norway, who were either searching for new land or wanting to escape the tyranny of Norway’s first king, Harald I, settle on the remote islands. Some decades later, settlers from Scotland and Ireland also arrive. According to writings from the Papar, an order of Irish monks, the original first settlers leave the Faroe Islands because of “ongoing Viking raids.”

Faroese Althing

Around year 900, the Faroese Althing (parliamentary council or assembly) is formed, making it the oldest existing parliament in the world today. The main historical source for early Faroese history is the 13th century Icelandic work ‘Færeyinga Saga (Saga of the Faroese).

In the late tenth century, Faroe Islander Sigmundur Brestisson and his family flee to Norway after being nearly exterminated by invaders from the northern islands. Sometime after, Sigmundur is asked by Olaf Tryggvason, king of Norway, to return to the Faroe Islands to take control of the country and place them under Norwegian rule.

Another request by King Olaf Tryggvason is to introduce Christianity to the Faroese. Initially, Sigmundur seeks to convert the islanders by reading King Olaf’s decree to the Althing (parliament), but he is nearly killed by the resulting angry mob. Realizing this is not going to work, he instead raids Viking chieftain Tróndur í Gøtu’s house by night, offering him the choice between accepting Christianity and facing beheading. Tróndur chooses the former. The Faroese Althing adopts Christianity in year 999.

In 1005, Tróndur í Gøtu has his revenge. He attacks Sigmundur at night at his farm in Skúvoy. Sigmundur manages to flee by swimming to Sandvík on the southernmost island of Suðuroy. He reaches land in Sigmundargjógv in Sandvík, where a farmer kills the exhausted Sigmundur, stealing his precious golden arm ring.

The Faroe Islands become a Norwegian province in 1035, the same year as the death of Tróndur í Gøtu, the last Viking chieftain of the Faroe Islands.

King Sverre

In 1151, Sverre Sigurdsson is born in Norway to a Norwegian mother, Gunnhild, and a Faroese father, Unås. Aged five, Sverre moves with his family to the Faroe Islands where he is raised in the household of Unås’ brother, Roe, bishop of the Faroe Islands in Kirkjubøur. Sverre studies priesthood and is ordained as priest during his years in Kirkjubøur. In 1175, Gunnhild reveals that Sverre’s father is, in fact, Sigurd Munn, king of Norway. Sverre returns to Norway the following year and becomes king of Norway in 1184.

In 1349, the devastating pandemic The Black Death reaches the Faroe Islands, killing approximately a third of the population (at least 1000 of 3000 people).

In the late fourteenth century, Norway and Denmark join to form a double monarchy.

In 1524, King of Norway and Denmark, Christian II, goes into exile. He offers the Faroe Islands and Iceland to Henry VIII of England as collateral for a loan. Henry declines the offer. Historians believe this saved the two countries from losing their languages, similar to what happened with the Norn language in Shetland and Orkney. Christian II’s successor, Christian III, introduces Lutheranism to the Faroe Islands, replacing Catholicism.

When Norway is ceded to the King of Sweden in 1814, Norway’s western most territories, among them the Faroe Islands, remain under the sovereignty of the Danish Monarch. Not least due to the large geographical distance to Norway and Denmark, the Faroe Islands have always maintained a special jurisdiction, along with their distinct language and culture, guarded by the ancient Althing (also called Løgting since the thirteenth century).

In 1816, the Løgting is officially abolished and replaced by a Danish judiciary.

Venceslaus Ulricus Hammersheimb, a Faroese Lutheran minister, creates a spelling system for the Faroese language in 1846.

In 1849, a new constitution comes into power in Denmark. This new constitution is announced in the Faroe Islands in 1850, giving the Faroese two seats in the Rigsdag (Danish Parliament). However, as part of democratisation in Denmark with regards to the constitution, the Faroese re-establish the Løgting as a county council with an advisory role in 1852.

A trade monopoly had been enforced in the Faroe Islands since sometime in the 1500s. However, the Danish King often gave this trade monopoly to individuals, for example to Magnus Heinason in the 1500s. In 1709, the King takes back this trade monopoly with the intention of running the monopoly on his own accord. There is only one store in the Faroe Islands, located in Tórshavn. In 1830, three other stores, belonging to or under the control of the Royal Danish Trade Monopoly, open in the villages of Vestmanna, Tvøroyri and Klaksvík. The Royal Danish Trade Monopoly is abolished in 1856.

The late 1800s see increased support for the national movement, though not all people support it. Meanwhile, the Faroese economy grows with the introduction of large-scale fishing. The Faroese are allowed access to the vast Danish waters in the North Atlantic. Living standards subsequently improve and the population increases.

First political parties

The first political parties, Sambandsflokkurin (The Union Party) and Sjálvstýrisflokkurin (Self-Government Party) are founded in 1906.

The first Faroese flag is created by Faroese students in Copenhagen in 1919. It is raised in the village of Fámjin in the Faroe Islands later that same year.

Up until 1938, school and churches are generally only permitted to use the Danish language. If anyone wishes to use Faroese for church services, they must ask permission. Schools generally use Danish, but in some educational instances, especially when dealing with young children, the Faroese language is allowed. In 1938, the Faroese and Danish languages are made equal in schools and churches. The Faroese language becomes the main language in 1948.

Following the invasion and occupation of Denmark in 1940, British forces launched “Operation Valentine” to occupy the Faroe Islands in an effort to pre-empt a German invasion. The occupation lasted until the end of the Second World War, with the last British troops leaving in 1945. The Faroese flag is officially recognized as the flag of the Faroe Islands by the British government in 1940. This was done so that authorities could discern what vessels were Faroese fishing boats and which were hostile boats.

During the Second World War, the Løgting and the Danish “amtmaður” (chief administrative officer) have legislative power over Faroese matters. In reality, the Faroese govern themselves during this time period. Although shipping fish to England cost many lives during these years, economically, times are good.

Independence referendum

In 1946, a referendum regarding independence is held. A small majority vote in favour of independence from Denmark, with a minority opting to remain under Danish rule. However, the parliamentary elections in 1946 result in a majority of parliament members who decide to remain under Danish rule. Nevertheless, in response to growing calls for autonomy, the Home Rule Act of the Faroe Islands is passed in 1948, cementing the Faroe Islands’ status as a self-governing country within the Danish Realm. The Act allows for the vast majority of domestic affairs to be controlled by the Faroese government. Some areas, such as military defence, police, justice, currency and foreign affairs remain under Danish control to this very day. The Takeover Act of 2005, which is an extension to the Self-Governing Act of 1948, grants the Faroe Islands extended self-rule.

In the early 1990s, the fishing industry collapses. When the bank, Sjóvinnubankin, declares bankruptcy in 1992, it triggers the worst economic depression in Faroese history. Unemployment rates rise to 10-15% and there is considerable emigration from the islands by the mid-1990s.

In 2007, the government of the Faroe Islands takes full control of Vága Floghavn airport (previously run by Danish authorities) and the Faroese State Church, Fólkakirkjan (also previously run by Danish authorities).

In 2013, the EU imposes sanctions on the Faroe Islands because of a dispute over herring and mackerel fishing quotas. The boycott bans Faroese vessels carrying herring or mackerel from all EU ports, including Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The boycott is lifted in 2014 after a breakthrough in negotiations.

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