Wednesday 24 June 2015

Impressions of the Faroe Islands

Let's go for a drive in the Faroe Islands.

The roads are well-made, and quiet.

The Faroese don't fuck about - back home, what would merit a winding single track road sputtering miserably to a dead end and a long detour, has a big tunnel bored through solid rock and a twin lane road.

There's subsea tunnels connecting the main islands, but sometimes it seems they've built a tunnel just for the hell of it. This is Gasadalur, 17 houses in the arse end of nowhere.

In Scotland it would have been long abandoned. In Faroe, millions have been spent on a tunnel and a wide, smooth access road.

We'll pass dozens of picturesque villages on our drive, colourfully painted, turf roofed.





The views speak for themselves.

And the best kept secret? Not the tunnels. The access road going to the radar station on the summit of 749m high Sornfelli.

Maximum views, minimum effort.

I particularly like this picture below. can you see the solitary house in the dale? Back home, this would make a great bothy. Here, no doubt some mad bugger in the Faroese government is planning a tunnel and an access road right now...

Vagar from Sornfelli:

Monday 22 June 2015

Faroe Adventure: The Torshavn Marathon

"Fancy doing the Torshavn Marathon?" said my friend Graham, famous for the Island Peaks Race, Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon, and Reykjavik Marathon.

Now I've always wanted to go to the Faroe Islands.

"We'll have to find a pub to watch the Scotland v Ireland qualifying match," I said. Two days later Graham got in touch again. "The Faroes are playing Greece the same day. Shall we get tickets to that?"

And so two men, two kilts, running kit, two tickets to Faroes v Greece, and a tent wound up in Torshavn on Friday.

Torshavn harbour:

Torshavn in June sunshine has the vibe of an attractive small Northern European town with a bit about itself. It bills itself as the world's smallest capital city, but doesn't feel blowhard about it. It would be hard to be bigsy when your government buildings are turf roofed!

Government buildings of the Faroe Islands:

The day of the race was sunny and clear, with a cutting north wind and fresh snow visible on the hills of Eysturoy. I enjoyed my half marathon - only the second time I've run more than 5km since the Reykjavik Marathon the previous August. I've been carrying a long-term injury and was sore, but not debilitatingly so. Is my fate to be in chronic pain whenever I run?

After the race I wandered about the old harbour, taking photos. Torshavn really is a pretty place in the sunshine.

Pleasure harbour:

Old and new, Torshavn:

When Graham finished the full marathon - a knackering achievement over some steep hills - we returned to the campsite to eat and change. We'd met an Irish couple the night before, and joined them in a pub along the waterfront for Scotland v Ireland. And then for the big event! Faroe Islands vs Greece UEFA 2016 qualifier.

"Everybody says we will win," said Doris, the woman who arranged our tickets, "everybody except the manager." We were lucky to get tickets as this was a sell-out game. "Five thousand people," said a man in the sports shop in the Faroe Islands' biggest - probably only - shopping centre. "Ten percent of the population will be at the game. That's like Denmark getting a crowd of five hundred thousand!" We heard accordion music en route, and popped into a rickety hall with no sign outside. Inside, we were immediately centre of attention. "Scottish!" said a lady, giving us both a hug. Her friend played Amazing Grace. "I'm Irish," said our companion. "Play the Fields of Athenry," said her boyfriend to the accordionist, as Graham and I slipped out for the game.

Torshavn back street:

We had barely settled down when the Faroes were 1-0 up to a cracking strike, the Greek defender nowhere to be seen. And it got better - 2-0 in half time. The place was going bananas. I shouted myself hoarse. The Greeks pulled one back towards the end to add some tension, but when the final whistle blew, it was 2-1 to the Faroe Islands. The team took a bow to each stand. This being the Faroe Islands, the players probably personally knew a large proportion of the crowd.

In the stadium:

"Have this flag as a reminder of an incredible night!" said an ecstatic Faroese supporter, handing me a huge beast that looked like it was flying outside the government buildings just a few hours earlier. We took it to the pub, found the - now drunk - Irish folk, and continued carousing until home time. Half past midnight and still daylight.


"A late night," I croaked to a young American lad in the campsite next morning. "That's not late!" he replied, my pride stung. Well, you try it mister, I thought, after running a marathon and drinking ten pints!

Sunday 21 June 2015

The Fantastical Faroes

You get used to unlikely sights in the Faroes. In an archipelago that combines the vulcanicity of Skye with the vertiginousness of St Kilda, some of the islands seem to defy reality.


It starts innocently enough with Litla Dimun. Looking like Ailsa Craig's harder brother, this uninhabited grassy cone is skirted by sheer cliff.

Litla Dimun from the air:

This would be a notable sight anywhere else but so far, so normal - for the Faroes.

Koltur from Midvagar:

It starts getting weird with Koltur. This island was inhabited in the past, but with sheer cliffs on one side, very steep, banded-cliff grass on the other, it is hard to see where to put a house.

Koltur from the air:

Did the inhabitants of Koltur have to tether their children, a safety measure reputedly required on the cliff-girt village of South Havra in Shetland? Today Koltur is home only to storm petrels and twenty thousand puffins.

Koltur from Nordadalur:

But it is the improbable island of Tindholm that makes you stop the car, get out, and exclaim: what on earth is that?

I mean, wtf?

Welcome to the Faroe Islands - where the fantastical is mundane.

Sunday 7 June 2015

The Cheese Well

The Minch Moor road is an ancient cattle droving route between Innerleithen and Galashiels. As well as being on the Southern Upland Way, it forms part of a newly designated path called the Cross-Borders Drove Road, an off-road route for cyclists, horse riders and walkers that starts on the northern side of the Pentlands at Cauldstane Slap. Centuries ago cattle were driven between the massive annual trysts at Falkirk and Crieff and markets south of the border. I'd always fancied a daunder over this piece of it, returning to the start by bicycle. So one fine day we parked at Traquhair, heading straight up the well-made track, alone except for the distant throb of the machines of the Midlife Crisis Motorcycle Club out for their weekend spin.


The route is well-made and after Minch Moor bothy, steepens towards the top. Just at the point when a wee rest seems in order, The Point of Resolution appears. This is an outdoor artwork, the first and so far only one mooted for the Southern Upland Way. I unworthily wondered if the reason for an artwork was for the same reason the M8 motorway has its heavy horse and pyramids - is it because the route is boring, and needs something to spice it up? There are no artworks on the West Highland Way, for example, where the scenery speaks for itself. However this is unfair. *This* section of the Southern Upland Way doesn't need artworks to be of interest. Perhaps artworks would be more appreciated along some of the western parts of the SUW, to break the monotony of endless conifer plantations.

Looking through the Point of Resolution:

Close to the Point of Resolution is the Cheese Well. At this spring I gratefully refilled my bottle with cool, clear water. In ancient times people left offerings of cheese to the fairies here. The practice continues to this day, but oh dear! People have left objects made of iron. As anyone who knows anything knows, ferrous metals are kryptonite to fairies. I fear they will have been all chased awa'. It would be doing the fairies a favour to remove the metallic objects and, to be on the safe side, the money - nearly £5 worth. It could go to a local charity.

The Cheese Well:

A small detour takes you to the summit of Minch Moor, with wide views of surrounding moorland. The hills here are long and flat-topped, like the northern Pennines, towns and villages hidden at the bottom of steep dales. The area around Innerleithen is criss-crossed with mountain bike trails, Glentress and Seven Stanes making this the busiest off-road biking area in the country.

North from Minch Moor:

We saw some mountain bikers around Minch Moor, and a pair on the Three Brethren, but no one at all for the entire rest of the way. The Southern Upland Way is little walked. Of Scotland's three traditional long distance routes - the Speyside Way is the third - only the West Highland Way has captured the public imagination. The Southern Uplands in general are Scotland's secret, often quieter than wilder looking landscapes in the Highlands.

It looked a long way to go, but glorious, high-level walking on a good path, sometimes stony, usually turf, took us effortlessly towards the distant Three Brethren, where three giant cairns mark the march boundaries of three estates. This is good striding country. Good thinking country too.

On the Minch Moor road, looking towards the Eildons and Three Brethren:

To the north, the village of Clovenfords nestles in rolling green Borders countryside. The view, wind turbines included, is typical of the area.


On descent, treats with wild flowers under the new forest canopy - cuckoo flower, wild hyacinth, primrose, wood sorrel. Treats with wildlife too - a fox up close, a mouse legging it across the path in front of us, buzzards up high and palmate newts in pools along the path. Our legs felt well stretched by the time we returned to the river. An hour's cycle took us a little longer than expected, but the Tweedside scene was mellow and pleasant.

The Tweed at Yair:

There's a good feeling about walking a route in the Southern Uplands. The lack of crowds makes it feels you are doing something off your own initiative, despite in this case our way being marked. And the enclosed nature of the glens and their invisibility from the hilltops gives this the air of an undiscovered country. Give it a go yourself.

Enjoying early evening light along the Tweed:

Monday 1 June 2015

Oronsay: the Old Sanctuary

Early on a grey morning we left our house on Colonsay and walked down to the Strand. Our schedule was dictated by the tides, for Oronsay is a tidal island, the crossing only possible an hour or two either side of low tide.

Robert MacFarlane would make this crossing barefoot, all the better to connect with the landscape. Instead I got sand on my walking boots, watching hermit crabs in the pools that remain even at lowest tide.

Beinn Eibhne on Colonsay across The Strand:

Once on Oronsay, the sun burst out from behind Jura. The whole of Oronsay is surrounded by beautiful white shell sand. We beachcombed and watched the seabirds.

This area is rich in 'shell mounds' - nondescript bumps in the landscape containing ancient rubbish tips. Archaeologists have learned a lot about Scotland's earliest people from these. Imagine coming ashore here ten thousand years ago, foraging for shellfish, building a shelter, lighting a fire, and telling stories.

Breakfast at Seal Cottage:

However the main attraction of Oronsay is not prehistory but Oronsay Priory. Legend has it this was founded by St Columba. Exiled from home, his first landfall was Oronsay. But he could still see Ireland from Beinn Oronsay, so left to travel further on to Iona.

Oronsay Priory:

Nothing so old remains though. The priory, crosses and graveslabs are no older than the 14th century, including this magnificent late example.

The Oronsay Cross:

The situation is delightful, in well-maintained grounds next door to Oronsay Farm - the island's only inhabited building - with the steep, suntrap flank of Beinn Oronsay to the north and open views to machair and the Paps of Jura south.

The small cross, Oronsay:

With no entry fee, literature or other information, two discoveries are made when exploring the priory - the first delightful, the second macabre. In a restored stone barn stand the collection of recovered medieval graveslabs, as fine as any on the west coast.


The second discovery is quite unexpected - human bones. The priory has a number of alcoves containing human remains. Some are empty - but not all. The remoteness of Oronsay keeps them undisturbed. Who were these people? And for how many centuries have these bones been out in the open?

Empty ossuary alcove:

I was very keen to climb Beinn Oronsay, but time and tide were against us. This is not a place to rush, and the best plan is to go prepared to spend the whole day or night on the island. A couple of hours either side of the tide is not enough.

Halfway across the Strand, an unusual feature - a crude, recumbent cross made from broken stones. This is the Sanctuary Cross, marking the boundary between Colonsay and Oronsay. Oronsay was considered a particularly sacred site in medieval times, and the protection of God shielded any lawbreaker who could outrun his pursuers and pass this boundary. How many desperate men, I wonder, have sought sanctuary in this way over the years?

Looking back to Beinn Oronsay from Colonsay: