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Definition: Faroe Islands from Philip's Encyclopedia

(Faeroe Islands) Group of 22 mountainous, volcanic islands (17 inhabited) in the N Atlantic between Iceland and the Shetland Islands. The largest are Streymoy and Esturoy. Settled in the 7th century, they were part of Norway from the 11th century to 1380, when they were ceded to Denmark. In 1852 parliament was restored, and since 1948 they have enjoyed a degree of autonomy. Capital and chief port: Tórshavn (Streymoy), pop. (2000) 16,700; Language: Faroese; Industries: fishery, sheep-rearing. Area: 1,339sq km (540sq mi). Total pop. (2000) 46,000.

Summary Article: FAROE ISLANDS from Encyclopedias of the Natural World: Encyclopedia of Islands

The Faroe (or Faeroe) Islands, 61° 24′–62°24′ N and 6°15′–7°41′ W, are a series of small islands oriented in a northwest-southeast direction situated in the North Atlantic between Iceland, Norway, and Scotland (Fig. 1). They consist mainly of steep mountainous plateaus with narrow terraces, gorges, and cirque valleys, divided by narrow fjords and sounds. Most of the outer coastal reaches are vertical cliffs several hundred meters in height, which are extremely exposed and subject to erosion by breakers. The islands are slightly tilted, with the eastern parts experiencing some subsidence after the land uplift following the last glaciation, as evidenced by the presence of submerged bogs.


The Faroe Islands are positioned on the ridge that stretches between Scotland and Iceland and further to Greenland. This is the region where Atlantic water enters the Nordic Seas, with main flows on both sides of the Faroes. The water on the Faroe shelf circulates clockwise (anticyclonic), and a persistent tidal front separates the shelf water from the surrounding ocean. This current system provides the basis for a small (8,000 km2) and uniform coastal ecosystem that is surrounded by an oceanic environment. Within this ecosystem there appears to be a trophic relationship between plankton, fish, and seabirds, with marked interannual variability driven by changes in the physical conditions.

The position of the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, showing the geology and the localities mentioned in the text.


The islands are part of the North Atlantic basalt area, which was formed during a period of intense volcanic activity in the Tertiary ~60 million years ago. They are the remnants of large, low-relief flood basalt lavas, built up in near horizontal layers mainly from rift volcanism, which were laid down as the northwestern European and North American continents began to drift apart. The width of the island group from north to south is approximately i13 km, and it is approximately 75 km from east to west. They cover a total land area of almost 1400 km2, dominated by steep cliffs in the outer coastal regions on the north and west (Fig. 2). The only habitation areas are close to the coast, where there are flat or sloping areas that can support cultivation. The highest mountain is 882 m above sea level. The basalt sequences can be separated into three distinct volcanic phases called the Upper, Middle, and Lower basalt series (Fig. 1) with intervening layers of volcanic ashes, tuff, slate, and basaltic sandstone and coal-bearing sequences. The latter contain rich pollen and spore floras, including Polypodiaceae (ferns), Lycopodia- ceae (club mosses), Sphagnaceae (bog mosses), Ginkgoa- ceae (maidenhair tree), Taxodiaceae (bald cypress family), Cupressaceae (cypress family), Palmae (palm family), and Pinus haploxylon (pine trees).

The western cliffs on the island of Skúvoy. Stóra Dímun and Lítla Dímun are in the background. Photograph by Bergur Olsen.

The U-shaped valleys, fjords, and sounds that separate the basalt plateaus are aligned northwest to southeast and have been cut into by the repeated glaciations of the Quaternary Period. The Faroe Islands had their own ice cap during the last glaciation, with valley glaciers radiating out from a few central areas to a maximum height of 700 m above sea level in the central region of Eysturoy, leaving some of the higher mountain peaks ice-free. One interglacial deposit of clay/gyttja can be seen exposed between two moraines a few meters above sea level in a coastal cliff sequence at Klaksvík on the northern island of Boräoy (Fig. 1). This unit contains Picea (spruce) and/ or Larix (larch) wood, together with a flora distinctly different from the present day flora of the islands, including Buxus (boxwood) pollen. The unit yielded an infinite radiocarbon age but has now been identified as being of Eemian interglacial age by the presence of the 5e-Midt/ RHY tephra. This tephra has been located in several marine cores in the North Atlantic and has an age of ~124,000 years ago.


The climate of the islands is strongly maritime with mild winters (mean January temperature of 3.4 °C) and cool summers (mean August temperature of 10.5 °C). Higher altitudes have an arctic climate. Mean annual temperature at Tórshavn, close to sea level, is 6.5 °C, whereas at high altitudes the mean annual temperature can be as low as 1.7 °C. The annual rainfall varies widely both regionally and with altitude. The range is from 800 mm per year on the western island of Mykines to 1300 mm per year toward the center of the islands and increasing to 3300 mm in the northern, higher relief areas. May and June are the driest months, and October and November are the wettest.


The number of breeding bird species is low (around 60). Seabirds breed in large numbers, and the Faroes are home to a substantial proportion of the northeastern Atlantic populations. Twenty-one seabird species breed regularly, and the total populations are estimated to be about 1.7 million pairs. Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) and puffins (Fratercula arctica) are the most numerous breeders, followed by European storm petrels (Hydrobates pelagicus) and kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla). The most important breeding habitats are the large seabird breeding colonies found on steep west- and north-facing cliffs (Fig. 3), grass-covered slopes, and boulder screes. Eighteen sites are considered of international importance for their cliff- breeding seabird populations, especially guillemots (Uria aalge), puffins, and kittiwakes. European storm petrel numbers are of major international importance, with the islands probably holding about 40% of the world population. In summer, the seabirds mainly feed within 60 km from land, at depths less than 150 m, but in the winter most of them migrate away from the islands, particularly to Norway, the North Sea, and the United Kingdom. Because of the geographical isolation of the islands, there are some endemic subspecies of birds. Among the seabirds, the eider Somateria mollissima faeroeensis and the black guillemot Cepphus grylle faeroeensis are both endemic for the islands.

The number of fish species recorded in Faroese waters is 235. Because of the circulation pattern with retention of the shelf water, the Faroe Plateau contains self-sustained populations of demersal fish, mainly saithe (Pollachius virens), cod (Gadus morhua), and haddock (Melano- grammus aeglefinus). These support the fisheries that are important to the Faroese economy. Sand-eels (Ammodytes sp.) are also found on the Faroe Plateau, and they play an important role in the ecosystem as prey for fish and seabirds. The resident nature of the shelf water gives a distinctive character to the phytoplankton and the zooplankton community composition, which is the basis for production in the higher trophic levels within the ecosystem. Five species of fish are found in Faroese freshwater lakes. These include brown trout (Salmo trutta), Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus faroensis), eel (Anguilla anguilla), three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), and flounder (Platichthys flesus). It may be that Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) once also occupied Faroese fresh waters.

Guillemots with chicks on the bird cliffs. Photograph by Bergur Olsen.

More than 1200 species of invertebrates are recorded in the Faroe Islands, most of them from the classes Insecta, Crustacea, and Arachnida. The terrestrial mammals on the Faroes have all been introduced by humans. Sheep (Ovis aries), cattle (Bos taurus), and horses (Equus caballus) were brought in as domestic livestock by the early settlers, and the mountain hare (Lepus timidus) was introduced in 1855 as game. The brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) and the house mouse (Mus musculus) were introduced unintentionally and are found on only some of the islands. In the sea, the gray seal (Halichoerus grypus) breeds in the Faroe Islands, and other seal species are rare. Whales use the Faroes waters as a feeding area. Most notable is the pilot whale (Globicephala melds), which feeds primarily on squid. The bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), and white-sided dolphin (Lageno- rhynchus acutus) are also common in Faroese waters.


Soils formed during the last 10,000 years or so have developed from the parent basalt materials and are strongly acidic and more or less continuously wet or moist. As the islands are sparsely vegetated and almost treeless, the vegetation has a tundra-like appearance. Cultivated land comprises about 6% of the lowlands, mainly near the coast (Fig. 4). Crops, mainly barley (Hordeum vulgare and Hordeum distichon), have been grown in the past. Hay is almost the only crop that remains important today which is used as winter food for sheep.

About 70% of the land area of the islands is more than 200 m above sea level, and the vertical vegetation zonation from this point upward is low alpine, grading into an arctic vegetation zone on the mountain tops. At high elevations, grass vegetation is found on both south- and north-facing slopes. The alpine area is dominated by Racomitrium heaths, some snow-bed vegetation in areas with late-lying snow, and fell-field vegetation. Common species in this area are Salix herbacea (dwarf willow) (Fig. 5), Carex bigelowii, Bistorta vivipara, and Racomitrium lanuginosum. The predominant vegetation on north-facing slopes is grassland from sea level up to the mountain tops.

The lowland island vegetation (less than 200 m above sea level) is usually classified in the temperate vegetation zone. The dominant species in the lowland grassland are Nardus stricta and Anthoxanthum odoratum, together with Agrostis capillaris and Agrostis canina, which is common from low to high altitudes. The vegetation is heavily affected by sheep, the most common domestic animals, which are allowed unrestricted grazing in uncultivated areas throughout the year and in the infields during the winter months.

Viôareiôi on the island of Viôoy. Photograph by Gina Hannon.

Salixherbacea. Photograph by Dánjal Jespersen.

Heathland vegetation is found only on the larger islands on warm south- and west-facing slopes up to 200 m above sea level, where this vegetation type disappears. The heathland is very mixed with many grasses, herbs, and mosses. The dominant plant species are Calluna vulgaris, Empetrum hermaphroditum, and Vaccinium myrtillus, with Erica cinerea and Vaccinium uliginosum. Of the herb species that are found in the heathland, Potentilla erecta, Hypericum pulchrum, and Polygala serpyllifolia are worthy of note. The limiting factor for the growth of heathers is probably too little sun, but the heavy sheep grazing and the northern limit of Calluna also could have a negative effect on its distribution.

Three types of mires are found in the islands: topogenic mires, which are overgrown lakes; soligenic mires, which are found on hills and slopes; and ombrogenic mires, which are found in valleys and called "blanket mires." Common species in these wetland areas are Juncus squarrosus, Scir- pus cespitosus, and sedge species such as Carex nigra and Carexpanicea as well as Eleocharis species. Common herbs found are Pinguicula vulgaris and Saxifraga stellaris. There are a great many lakes, which support several genera of submerged water plants including Isoetes and Potamogeton along with algae such as Chara and phytoplankton. Species richness is poor, most likely because of the low nutrient content and the substrate, which is often stony.

The coastal cliffs are covered in algae at and below water level, as well as crustose lichens such as Verrucaria, foliose lichens Xanthoria, and species of Ramalina higher up. Zostera marina is recorded in one of the fjords, on the southernmost island, Suäuroy. Where coarse-textured soil has built up in crevices formed by weathering, some species that can tolerate constant salt spray survive. In more protected localities of the inner fjords, where the saltwater has difficulty disappearing, salt marshes are found around the mouths of small streams. Sand dunes are found only on Sandoy, which is the island with the lowest relief. Behind the sand dunes away from the sea, the species diversity is higher, with species such as Dactylorhiza purpurella, Coeloglossum viride, and Ligusticum scoticum.

The few areas of trees on the islands today have been planted, yet a significant proportion of the islands lie within a climatically suitable zone for tree growth. The first forestry plantation was established at Tórshavn in 1885, but it was only in the mid-1900s that tree-planting became mildly successful in sheltered localities. The only locality to have shown positive presence of trees on the islands during the Holocene is the Viking site of Argisbrekka on the northern island of Eysturoy (Fig. 1), where a thick layer of wood peat dating from ~4250 calendar years ago (2300 BC) contained a network of tree roots and stumps of Betula pubescens (tree birch) (Fig. 6). Sub-fossil Betula, Salix (willow) and Juniperus (juniper) found buried in peat profiles from several islands show that there was at least partial woody vegetation cover until humans and their grazing animals arrived.

Sub-fossil tree birch (Betula pubescens) roots at Argisbrekka. Photograph by Ditlev Mahler.


The onset of deglaciation is not definitely known from the Faroe Islands. The oldest dated lacustrine sediments of 11,360–11,180 calendar years ago come from Hoydalar on the island of Streymoy. The vegetation record begins ~10,980 years ago, with a succession from sparsely vegetated tundra to Betula and Salix shrub tundra. This is followed by the development of grassland with tall herbs and Juniperus, which after the mid-Holocene is largely replaced by Calluna heathland. The first people to settle permanently on the islands left a distinctive mark in the paleoecological record, including pollen evidence for the cultivation of cereal crops, cultural macrofossil assemblages, and charcoal fragment as seen at Tjörnuvik on the island of Streymoy (Figs. 1 and 7).

The transformation of the flora of this fragile ecosystem is best expressed by the large number of ruderal, post- settlement plants recorded as plant macrofossils. Many plant macrofossil taxa occurred either just before or at the horizon in which the cultivated crops were recorded and can be associated with human impact. Montia fontana, Stellaria media, Sagina procumbens, Lychnis floscuculi, Cardamine flexuosa, Linum catharticum, Galaeopsis speciosa, Plantago sp., Caltha palustris, Ranunculus repens, Chenopodium album, and Rumex cf. longifolius are continually recorded after settlement. Domestic animals were introduced to the islands with humans, and they have contributed to the loss of woody plants and the spread of grassland. A similar situation has been proposed for Iceland, where sheep continue to have a regional influence on the vegetation.

Accelerator-based mass spectrometer (AMS) radiocarbon dates from Tjörnuvík have revealed that the first crops were cultivated in the mid-700s (AD). Comparable dates for cultivation have been recorded from three other localities on the islands: Korkadalur on the western island of Mykines, Heimavatn on the northern end of the island of Eysturoy, and at Hov on the island of Suäuroy (Fig. 1). These results strongly suggest that there was anthropogenic contact and disturbance prior to the formal settlement that left firm archaeological remains, creating a similar debate as exists over the settlement of Iceland. The introduction of sheep and cattle could have been one result of these early contacts. This issue could be further researched by joint paleoecological-archaeological ventures.

The vegetation changes during the latter part of the Holocene reflect intimate interactions between cultural and environmental development. Settlement could well have been the most significant disturbance factor on Faroese vegetation over the last 10,000 years. Pollen records of primarily nonforested landscapes can, however, be difficult to interpret. It is unclear whether the treeless grasslands and heathlands that characterize the islands today are a cultural product, as has been demonstrated elsewhere in northern Europe, or have developed as a result of recent climatic change. Settlement may well have accelerated a degradative process that was initiated by a changing climate. The general sparseness of species on the Faroes, compared with mainland Europe, is attributable to their isolation and may also contribute to the current absence of a climatic tree line.

Summary pollen percentages (continuous curves), plant macrofossil and charcoal concentration/30 mL (bars) from Tjönuvík illustrating the effects of first human settlement. The line represents the first cereal pollen. The hollowed graph beside cereal pollen represents exaggeration of the scale by a factor of 10. Redrawn from Hannon and Bradshaw (2000).


The traditional view of settlement has held that the Faroe Islands were colonized from the east. Irish monks arrived on the Faroes about AD 700, and they in turn were driven out by Norwegian settlers about AD 825. The idea of such an early Irish settlement is based on a literary source: Dicuil's De mensura orbis terrae, written about AD 825. It contains a brief description of sea voyages by Irish clergy to some uninhabited islands, generally accepted to be the Faroes. The description of the islands is vague, and although earlier visits cannot be excluded, they have left no archaeological traces to date. The earliest archaeological evidence is from settlements during the ninth century, based on an early Norse culture with close contacts to neighbors: the Irish-Scottish area to the south and Scandinavia to the east. During this period Orkney, Shetland, Caithness, and the Hebrides were dominated by a Norse population. Contacts with the south are also reflected in the Faroese vocabulary, which is Norse but contains, among others, words such as argi, meaning shieling site (huts used by herders during the summer), borrowed from the Gaelic word áirig.

The Norse farmers who settled the islands established farms along the coasts and fjords, trying to follow the same way of living that had been developed in their homelands. The enclosed infields that surrounded the farm sites were used for growing grain and hay; in addition, there were the outfields on which the farms relied for their pasture, turf cutting, and other resources. The settlements were permanent, and their location was largely determined by the topography of the islands and the limited lowland areas suitable for cultivation. Settlements were chiefly located along the coasts in the bays.

In contrast to Norway and Iceland, sheep were common and cattle rare. The earliest economy apparently was based on the exploitation of a much larger variety of resources than later in the Middle Ages. For example, bones of domestic animals were only a minor component compared to bird, fish, and shellfish remains in the archaeofauna from recent investigations at Sandur on the island of Sandoy (Fig. 1) covering the ninth through the thirteenth centuries. Pig farming was also a considerable part of the economy from the settlement into the Middle Ages, in contrast to known sites in contemporary Iceland and Greenland.

Viking remains have been excavated at a number of farm complexes and farmsteads. The site at Kvívík on the island of Streymoy (Figs. 1 and 8) is a classic example of a Faro- ese Viking farm, with longhouse 20 m in length and ~5 m wide. Parallel to the dwelling there was another building, an outhouse, which was later turned into a smaller building with a secondary use as a byre (cattle barn), with stalls along each side and a drainage trench running down the middle. As in other farmsteads from this period, the buildings were basically constructed of wood, protected by wide outer walls of stone and earth. The homeland tradition of building in wood was continued, but adapted to local conditions, as timber was scarce.

Viking farm at Kvívík. Photograph by Simun Arge.

The artefacts recovered from excavations provide a glimpse of everyday-life in the Faroes during the Viking and Middle Ages. They also inform about contacts with other people and the outside world and help with dating of the sites. Household equipment was both locally made and imported. The most essential imported artefacts included minerals and wood. Metal objects and iron slag have been found, but decorative objects and jewelry are rather rare. Toys and gaming pieces give evidence of leisure activities for both children and adults. Local materials used included tufa for spindle whorls and lamps, and the oldest evidence of local pottery production dates to the tenth century.

Excavations of the outfield site at Argisbrekka on Eysturoy (Fig. 1), of smaller ruins with walls made of turf, have revealed that the Landnám settlers brought with them a farming system very similar to the Celtic and Norwegian shieling practice. The Viking Period shieling economy was replaced in the eleventh and twelfth centuries by more intensive use of the outfield regions for sheep herding, which by then had become the centerpiece of Faroese economy. The practice of milking sheep is an interesting custom that is not recorded after AD 1300. Zooarchaeo- logical investigations have shown that pig farming was also a part of the Faroese economy during the Viking and Middle Ages but also ceased after this time.

Little is known about religious beliefs in the Faroes before the introduction of Christianity AD ~1000. Only two burial sites have been documented archaeologically, dated to the tenth century: one in Tjørnuvík, the other in Sandur. At both sites 12 burials were revealed, where the dead had been buried together with various personal belongings. Both the Catholic Church and the Norwegian crown had strong interests in the Norse settlements in the Atlantic. By the early Middle Ages the Church and the crown strengthened control over the North Atlantic region as a whole, and the Faroes became linked with the broader economic and cultural network of the North Sea and North Atlantic region.


Archaeology / Atlantic Region / Iceland / Seabirds / Vegetation

  • Arge, S. V., Sveinbjarnardóttir, G., Edwards, K. J., and Buckland, P. C.. 2005. Viking and medieval settlement in the Faroes: people, place and environment. Human Ecology 33: 597-620.
  • Fosaa, A. 2003. Mountain vegetation in the Faroe Islands in a climate change perspective. Ph.D. thesis, Lund University, Sweden.
  • Gaard, E., Hansen, B., Olsen, B., and Reinert, J.. 2002. Ecological features and recent trends in the physical environment, plankton, fish stocks, and seabirds in the Faroe shelf ecosystem, in Large Marine Ecosystems of the North Atlantic. Sherman, K. and Skjoldal, H. R., eds. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science, 245-265.
  • Guttesen, R., ed. 1996. The Faeroe Islands topographic atlas. Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzels Forlag.
  • Hannon, G. E. and Bradshaw, R. H. W.. 2000. Holocene vegetation dynamics and impact of human settlement on the Faroe Islands. Quaternary Research 54: 404-413.
  • Hansen, K., and Johansen, J.. 1982. Flora and the vegetation of the Faeroe Islands, in The physical environment of the Faeroe Islands. Rutherford, G. K., ed. Monographie Biologicae 46. The Hague: Dr W. Junk Publishers, 35-52.
  • Hansen, S. S. 1990. Toftanes. A Faroese Viking Age farm from the 9th- 10th century. Acta Archaeologica 61: 44-53.
  • Jensen, J.-K., Bloch, D., and Olsen, B.. 2005. List of birds seen in the Faroe Islands. Tórshavn: Foroya Náttúrugripasavn.
  • hansen, J. 1985. Studies in the vegetational history of the Faroe and Shetlands Islands. Tórshavn: Foroya Fró skaparfelag.
  • Mahler, D. L. 2007. Sœteren ved Argisbrekka. Economic development during the Viking Age and Early Middle Ages on the Faroe Islands. Annales Societatis Scientiarum Fœroensis Supplementum 47. Tórshavn: Faroe University Press.
Southern Swedish Forest Research Centre, Alnarp, Sweden
National Museum of the Faroe Islands, Tórshavn
aroese Museum of Natural History, Tórshavn
ational Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark
aroese Fisheries Laboratory, Tórshavn
Liverpool University, United Kingdom
© 2009 by the Regents of the University of California

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