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2004-09-14 Celtic Tenors sing for the world's friendliest people

I am only too aware of the efforts that need to be made to preserve a nation's native tongue, but the more I travel worldwide, the more I realise how many other small countries face a similar predicament.

 

English, Spanish, French, German, Portugese, Chinese, Japanese and a few others all seem safe enough for the moment. But what about all the other languages which seem to be hanging by a thread?

The Celtic Tenors had been invited to sing the opening concert at the Faroe Island Music Festival to a packed and appreciative crowd. Dame Kiri te Kanawa performed on the second night. We landed at Vágar airport on the Western Island  a Monsignor Horan- style  airport built by British forces in World War Two.

The Faroe Islands lie in the heart of the Gulf Stream, comprising 18 islands (17 inhabited) of volcanic basalt tilting into the cobalt North Atlantic waters, halfway between Norway and Iceland.

This dramatic protruding and green archipelago boasts its own history, language and culture. The islands belong to Denmark, and everyone learns Danish (and English) at school, but Faroese is the first language for the 50,000 inhabitants.

Faroese is similar to Icelandic and stems from Old Norse. The language is said to have survived primarily thanks to the `Ring Dance'  an old Medieval chain dance consisting of 70,000 Faroese verses handed down orally, and still practiced today.


 

A lead singer acts as cantor, while the human chain behind joins in the chorus as everyone stamps the floor rhythmically in this mantric ritual.

Faroese was written down and formalised in the mid-nineteenth century, but it is easier to preserve a language when your nation is remote, and miles away from outside influences.

Like many, the Faroese have a strong affinity with the Irish, undoubtedly due in part to the fact that the islands were founded by 7th century Irish monks and settlers. Not long after, the Vikings took over (as they did).

In 1948, the islands were granted `Home Rule', still under the Danish realm. In 999AD Christianity was established in the Faroes. 80% of the population belong to the Faroese Evangelical Lutheran State Church. Brendan the Navigator had popped in on his adventurous travels.

Tórshavn (Thor's Harbour), a city of 19,000 inhabitants, is the world's smallest capital  probably! Not surprisingly, the islands' main export (97%) is seafood. Wool and tourism also helped the economy back on its feet after the devestating crisis in the 1990s. Now there is a real possibility that oil production may soon become a reality.

We were taken on a mini-tour of the main island  Streymoy  stopping off for coffee and whale blubber in the northernmost village of Tjřrnuvík. Politically and ecologically incorrect whale slaughtering sadly continues in these islands.

I was determined not to partake in cured whale meat and blubber (I have enough of my own to be going on with), but after a little flaky dried fish (I can still smell it) I was convinced somehow to try a little.

At this point I am taking a coffee break as I retch once again at the thought of whale blubber sitting unhappily in my oesophagus.

On the way back to the impressive `Nordic House' for rehearsal, we passed twin sea-stacks said to be an Icelandic giant and his troll wife (I think I have met her), through colourful villages, past fertile green valleys with freely wandering sheep, by countless

cascading waterfalls tumbling down sheer rockfaces, high above dramatic and tranquil fjords and sounds ideal for the intrepid hill-walker. We squinted in blinding sun and inhaled the purest North Atlantic air.

Many houses had the trademark protective and insulating grass roofs, which somehow enhance the contours of the landscape, whereas others display multi-coloured corrugated iron. Up to 3 million puffins, petrels and gulls inhabit the famous Faroe bird cliffs (300 recorded species ; 40 regulars). The morning after the concert and late-night reception with, quite honestly, the world's friendliest and warmest people, I woke up to the sound of my roof being mowed.

After breakfast we were driven to the airport. Where once small boats had been tossed about on surging seas, we passed through a 5km-long sub-Atlantic tunnel, under the Vestmanna sound, back to Vágar to catch the impressively luxurious Atlantic Airways flight home from these remote, beautiful and semi- modern islands.