Swiftly and silently it swooped from a clear blue sky. Its shadow surfed the waves of the rough swaying grass. I felt the whoosh inches above my head as it passed, low and threatening. The Great Skua wheeled, climbed and came round again, determined to see off the intruder in its domain. This time I was ready and held a walking pole aloft to ward off the attacker. Again and again it came, until I had walked far enough away not to be a threat. I stood, watched and admired this wide-winged bird in command of its sky, flying, soaring and finally grounding, satisfied to have driven me away.
I had strayed into the Great Skua’s nesting ground during a walk from Gjógv on Eysturoy, one of the Faroe Islands. You are close to nature and the elements here, far out in the North Atlantic, on these small islands that exist in the space between sea and sky. Great Skuas, Arctic Terns, Gannets, Kittiwakes, Puffins and many other seabirds fly the skies and fish the seas around the islands. They, like the Faroese people, depend on the sea and know its moods, from flat calm to raging maelstrom.
Fishing is the main source of income and has brought wealth and happiness, but also sorrow and despair. Many of the islands hold reminders of past tragedies – statues of women and children destined to gaze for ever seaward, in the forlorn, vain hope of their loved ones’ return. In the capital, Tórshavn, stands a monument topped with the figure of a fisherman. It commemorates the many Faroese men who lost their lives during the Second World War, crossing the perilous North Atlantic to keep Britain supplied with fish.
There is no escape from the sea on the Faroes. For years it was the only way of travelling to and from other islands and between villages. There is an old Faroese saying, ‘a man without a boat is a prisoner’. Nowadays good roads and tunnels make for easier communication, but you are never far from the sea.
Above the islands the sky is constantly changing, from hour to hour or from village to village. Lying in the mid-Atlantic the islands are open to passing weather systems. Cloud and mist can lie low on the hills and cliffs, swirling, clinging. Rain can pelt the islands and send hillsides streaming. Sunbeams can break through the grey like spotlights, dappling the landscape, shining on villages and making their colourful houses even more vivid. The islands can also bask under an azure sky, in a clarity of light that sharpens and details their spectacular cliffs and rock layers.
On Mykines, the westernmost of the Faroe Islands, you tread a fine line between sea and sky. The 45-minute journey to the island in a small passenger ferry can be an adventure in itself. You cross what can be a perilous stretch of water, pass tall sea stacks and turn into a rocky cleft to the landing place. It is a small island and the highlight is the walk to the most westerly point, the lighthouse on the islet of Mykineshólmur. Here you feel tiny and insignificant in the wide expanse of sea and sky. You cross a footbridge, known as the ‘bridge over the Atlantic’, and then walk along a narrow finger of land to the lighthouse, cliffs on one side and steep green slopes on the other. Sky and sea are vast, merging along a distant horizon that fills your field of vision. Here the seabirds are in their element. Gannets wheel, soar and gather on remote rocky tors. Kittiwakes nest on narrow ledges feeding their young. Puffins fly to and fro busily taking sand eels to their chicks.
Here, as far west as you can go, you really do feel that the Faroe Islands lie in that mystical space between sea and sky.
All images courtesy of W. James Hamill.