The Faroes: Self Governing Islands

This is the first in a series of articles about self governing Islands and what we in Orkney can learn from their governance. The Islands Bill is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament and it will see more powers transferred to Orkney. 

The Faroes are an archipelago (several small islands) about half way between Iceland and Norway. The distance from Kirkwall, Orkney to Torshavn, Faroes is 247 miles. As a comparison the distance from Kirkwall to Edinburgh is 210 miles.

Like Orkney the Faroes were once under the control of Norway today they are mainly self governing and along with Greenland are part of the Kingdom of Denmark.  Denmark retains control over: defence, police, justice, currency and foreign affairs. The capital of Denmark, Copenhagen is 816 miles from Torshavn.

Map of the Faroes

Map of the Faroe Islands (

In 1940, during  the Second World War the islands were invaded by Great Britain in response to the threat from Nazi Germany’s advance into Norway. Returned to Denmark after the war the Faroes became self governing in 1948.

Although Denmark is a member of the European Union the Faroes are not, however, they do benefit from agreements made and EU funding as a result of Denmark’s membership. The Faroe Islanders consider themselves as European and have both a fisheries and free trade agreement with the EU. They maintain control over their fisheries.

“At present the Faroese government is assessing the possibility to widen the scope of cooperation to the so called four freedoms – the free movement of goods, services, capital and persons. They are also participating in EU’s research cooperation programme HORIZON 2020.” (FaroeIslands.FO)

The main energy supplier of the Faroe Islands, SEV, has officially announced that their goal is to have 100% green energy production by 2030 although to date 50% of the islands electricity is produced by fossil fuels. This is in comparison to Orkney where over 100% of our islands electricity needs is regularly produced through renewables (mainly wind).

The population of The Faroes is more than double that of Orkney at 48,308 with about half living in the main urban areas. The language spoken is Faroese which has its roots in Old Norse. In Orkney although the Old Norse based language of Norn was once spoken the remnants of it is mainly in place names.

It might surprise readers to find out that 80% of the Faroese People are Evangelical Lutherans, the established church , with a further 10% being Christian Brethren.

Fishing is of tremendous importance for The Faroes accounting for between 90 and 95%  of total export value, and around 20% of the GDP. The Faroes has a 200 miles exclusive fishing zone but it also fishes in the waters of other nations through agreements.

Much further down but still of importance to the economy are tourism and wool production/goods. The ancient Faroese proverb “Ull er Føroya Gull” – “Wool is the Faroese Gold” is still relevant today.

This heavy dependence on one industry in the Faroes is in contrast to the economy of Orkney where although agriculture is important there is more of a mix with tourism, fisheries and renewables all playing a valuable role.

The Løgting with 33 elected members is the parliament of the Faroes. (With a claim to be the oldest parliament in the world). Two representatives are also elected to sit in the Danish Parliament. Voter turnout is very high in elections (88.8% in 2015) compared to Orkney (62% 2016). The Faroes are further divided into 30 municipalities for local government who have their own tax raising powers.

The Faroese Government has the power to negotiate international agreements for:

“external trade relations, customs, taxation and financial policy, business regulation, conservation and management of fisheries and all other utilisation of natural resources, energy and the environment, the labour market, social security, emergency preparedness, education, research and culture.” (FaroeIslands.FO)

It is hoped to extend this to immigration policy.

The additional powers coming to Orkney Islands Council will be nowhere near as significant as those held by the Faroese Parliament, even the Scottish Parliament does not have some of those.  How we use the powers we do acquire, as in the revenue and management of the Crown Estate, is extremely important for the economic viability of our islands with the exit of the UK from the EU and the impact it will have.

The Faroe Islands have one tradition which has brought their islands into worldwide condemnation: The Grind. Every year 100s of pilot whales are herded into the shallows of the islands and slaughtered. The haul also includes bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic white-beaked dolphins, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoises. Sea Shepherd whose mission statement is to: ” end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species”, actively campaign using direct action to prevent the annual slaughter and “ to push the increasing global momentum to end this bloody and brutal practice.” 


Whaling in the Faroe Islands (Credit: Erik Christensen)

Although the Faroes are self governing over many aspects of their islands Sea Shepherd maintain that the Danish Government is responsible for allowing the continuation of the annual slaughter of whales.

“It is the position of Sea Shepherd that Denmark fails to fulfill its obligations under the Berne Convention for a number of reasons:

  1. The Faroe Islanders, who are Danish nationals, deliberately kill protected species that are listed under Appendix II of the Berne Convention, to which Denmark is a signatory state.
  2. While the Faroe Islanders claim that the grind is not a commercial hunt, grind meat is sold in supermarkets, hotels and restaurants, contributing to a trade that is even marketed to other European visitors to the Islands.
  3. The long-finned pilot whale passes through Faroes waters on an annual migration route to feed in Arctic waters. A single grind can completely decimate, and sometimes completely eradicate, an entire pod. This slaughter occurs in, and around, Danish territorial lands.”

Consumption of this whale meat is considered by many in the international community to be unsafe due to the large number of pollutants found  in it. According to Sea Shepherd ‘ Meat resulting from the grind contains high amounts of arsenic, cadmium, zinc, lead, copper mercury, and selenium.’

By looking at how other island groupings use their devolved powers we in Orkney can consider in a more informed way how we will use ours. We can also consider how accountable we feel our islands’ politicians are and should be. Devolving more powers to Orkney brings with it the responsiblity of our local authority to  make agreements that are not only beneficial to Orkney but also reflect the moral standards of the People of Orkney when it comes to the protection of wildlife. Future articles in The Orkney News will look in more depth at this aspect of our local governance and its ongoing relationship with The Faroes.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame


3 replies »

  1. Firstly – thank you Fiona for writing and placing this article in The Orkney News.
    Anger drives my words away on the subject of the whale slaughter in the Faroes. The image you use, is perfect.
    You’ve written a good, clear article, and I don’t need to add to it, except to add my voice to the condemnation of these people and what they do.
    Tourism matters to the Faroese, and I would ask folk not to go there, until they stop carrying out this pointless slaughter.
    Thank you, Fiona.

    And, secondly, on the theme of islands and island culture – here’s something:-

  2. I accept that I’m an old hippie, and that my way isn’t always other folk’s way, but I’m going to post this anyway. Years ago, when I first head of what happens in the Faroes, with the whales and other marine life which get caught up in the slaughter, I wrote the following to a friend who was also concerned about it and wondering what she could do. It’s worth a try – nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    I was sitting, thinking about what could be done about that slaughter of the dolphins, as well as what the International wildlife groups are presumably doing, already. Here’s what it came to me to do………
    I was sitting, thinking about it, when it came into my mind, to ask the dolphins, to avoid the Faroe Islands. To connect with the dolphins, in the ocean of energy which is all life, and, in that place, ask them, or advise them, to avoid that area of sea. I held an image of that bay in my mind, and projected it to them, asking them to avoid it, to avoid the Faroe Islands, though they probably think of them by another sound than we do. I’m not sure how the people get them all into the bay, possibly by surrounding them in boats and ‘herding’ them, so, I also advised, that when the boats surround them, to dive deep, swim under the boats, and out to sea. The main message I was sending, was to avoid that place, as they will be killed, and I sent them images of the place, so they’d know where I mean. I did this, very intensely and intensively.
    This may sound a bit nuts, but I’ve done something similar before, when I asked the mice to leave our attic. I connected with all of mice-kind, and asked them to leave, I proposed that they could live in the bank at the bottom of our garden, in the summer, and in the shed in the winter, but not in the attic. And, they left, never to return! Andrew Appleby did something similar when he had a rabbit problem. It’s not quite the same as the dolphins, but it’s a similar idea.
    Have you ever read ‘Supernature’ by Lyall Watson? in that, he describes how creatures of the same species, but miles and miles apart, all suddenly ‘learn’ how to do something. Collective conciousness. In that case, they’re the same species, but I don’t see why communication shouldn’t cross species, with good-will as the main idea.
    So, Liz, I gave it a go. It felt right. It’s worth a try. It’s always worth a try!
    I thought I’d tell you about it, as you might be interested in the idea. Even when we feel quite powerless, there’s always something we can do. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
    Keep on wishing for the good stuff!

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