Faroe Islands History
|Faroe Islands Wiki Topics|
|Faroe Islands Background|
|Local Research Resources|
The earliest inhabitants of the Faeroe Islands were probably Irish monks in the 600s, though there is little archeological evidence of their presence. Norse colonization, however, is well documented. Vikings found the islands in the early 800s, drove out the monks, and took over. But since the Faeroe Islands had only a few small stunted trees these Norse “conquerors” had to change their way of life. It was not possible to build boats and there were no coastal towns nearby to raid and plunder. The Norse Vikings in the Faeroe Islands built scattered farms of Norwegian design in the more fertile areas of the islands. The people farmed the land, reared cattle and sheep, hunted birds, caught fish, and gathered food. But the islands never have been entirely self-sufficient. Important goods like timber, iron and other metals, limestone and tools, as well as luxuries, had to be imported; and the Faeroese exported wool, tallow, fish oil, and down feathers. To enforce law and order, the Lagting (the Faeroese legislature) was established in Tórshavn patterned on Norwegian tradition in the year 1000. When famine and disease struck the islands in the early 1000s, the Faeroese sought help from Norway and in about 1035 the Faeroe Islands were brought under the Norwegian crown as a tributary country.
In the Viking Age, most Faeroese were pagans. The inhabitants of the islands were converted to Christianity around the year 999 through the efforts of Olaf Tryggvason, King of Norway. The Faeroe Islands became an independent bishopric at the beginning of the 1300s, with its seat at Kirkjubøur, which subsequently became the spiritual and cultural center of the Faeroe Islands throughout the Middle Ages. The Faeroese were part of Norway until 1380 when the Norwegian Crown came under the Danish monarchy. Protestantism came by decree of the Danish Crown in 1536. With the Reformation, the power of the medieval church was reduced and the king's power increased. The Faeroese bishopric was abolished and the properties of the church were taken over by the Crown. Economically this was probably the most severe catastrophe in the history of the Faeroe Islands, since thereafter the annual rents from half of all the land and a quarter of the tithe previously collected by the Faeroese church left the country. The Reformation was also opening the way to Danish influence upon Faeroese society. Under the Danish monarchy, Danish officials and pastors were sent to the Faeroe Islands, and Danish became the language of the church and the court. The authority of the local Faeroese legislature was replaced by direct royal governance in the 1400s. Denmark became sole owner of the islands when Norway was separated from Denmark in 1814.
After losing Norway, Denmark experienced a severe economic depression and was unable to devote resources to developing the Faeroes. The Faeroese had to become more self-reliant and came to resent Danish rule. Faeroese national identity was reaffirmed with the restoration of the Lagting local community government in 1852. The Danish Lutheran state church under the direction of Danish bishops was the official church of the Faeroes. It was responsible for keeping birth, death, and marriage records. But Scottish fishermen brought another religion in the 1870s. The first congregation of the Plymouth Brethren in the Faeroe Islands was established in 1876, and between 15 and 20 percent of the islands’ inhabitants came to associate themselves with the Brethren.
The Faeroes struggled economically and in relative isolation under Danish rule in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Left pretty much to themselves, the Faeroese continued to regulate their local affairs through their Lagting. With a small population and good marine environment, they developed a stable economy based on fishing. Once they achieved economic independence from Denmark the Faeroese began considering political independence as well. On several occasions island leaders asked the Danish government if they could fly the Faeroese flag and use the Faeroese language, rather than Danish, in the schools. But Denmark refused. Following the invasion of Denmark by German forces, the islands passed under the military control of Great Britain in April 1940 and remained a British protectorate throughout the Second World War. British occupation ended in September 1945. Many Faeroese did not want to return to Danish rule. The British fresh fish market offered possibilities for large export revenues, and the Faeroese national movement was strong. After the war it was unthinkable to return to the old county status. In September 1946 as a result of a close plebiscite vote, the Lagting of the Faeroese declared the islands independent of Denmark, ratified by a vote of 12 to 11. The southernmost island, Suðeroy, however, announced its continued union with Denmark. The Danish government immediately declared the ballot inconclusive temporarily dissolved the Lagting, ordering the election of a new assembly on 8 November 1946. A subsequent vote gave a small plurality for continued union with Denmark, and a parliamentary delegation was invited to Copenhagen for further discussion. After considerable negotiations, the present constitution was adopted in 1948, whereby the Faeroe Islands became “a Home Rule National Society in the Danish Kingdom” with the Lagting as a legislature on specifically Faeroese matters. Under home rule, the Faeroe Islands have extensive autonomy in matters of the economy and trade. The Lagting still meets today in Tórshavn and two Faeroese representatives sit in the Danish legislature. Foreign relations remain under the control of Denmark. The Faeroe Islands today is a modern society with comparable living standards to the other Nordic countries. But the islands are not without controversy. Whaling became a significant Faeroese industry in the 1600s and 1700s, and this politically unpopular activity continues at a much reduced level even today. North Sea oil discoveries near the Faeroe Islands area give hope for deposits in Faeroese area territory, which could be the basis for sustained economic prosperity. But oil exploration is pending as the Faeroese negotiate clear sea-bottom boundaries with Britain and prepare themselves to prevent corruption of their culture by becoming an oil community with all the associated societal ills. The Faeroese economy is still supported by a substantial annual subsidy from Denmark.
The population of the Faeroe Islands has grown steadily from a few hundred people in the 900s to 1,000 people in the 1300s. Plague hit the Faeroes hard in the late 1300s and what were once important communities became insignificant hamlets. By 1800 the population reached 5,000. Over the period from 1801 to 1860 the number of inhabitants almost doubled, to about 9,000, reaching 12,000 in 1900. In 1925 there were 20,000 inhabitants and 30,000 in 1950. In 1970 the population stood at 41,824.The population peaked in 1989 at 47,838 and declined to 43,393 in 1995, whereupon it began again to rise, presently standing at 45,200. Eighty percent or more of the population are members of the state Lutheran church, though the Plymouth Brethren are also established on the island and constitute more than fifteen percent. Among other religious denominations (each with less than 1%) are the Pentecostalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roman Catholics.
- The Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Family History Record Profile: Faeroe Islands,” Word document, private files of the FamilySearch Content Strategy Team, 1990-2000.