An Introduction to Faroe Islands Philately

From rowing-boat mail to engraved stamps, via Danish bisects and wartime overprints,
the postal history of the Faroe Islands has its own unique character.


- text by Norman Hudson - Secretary, Magazine Editor and Publications Manager for the Faroe Islands Study Circle
 
Most British people know little about the Faroe Islands, and would struggle to find them on a map. Yet they are among the United Kingdom’s closest neighbours.
 Getting better acquainted with your neighbours can be a rewarding experience, and reveals that the Faroes have an interesting postal history and some beautifully designed stamps celebrating their geography, history and culture.

Geography and Infrastructure
A remote outpost in the North Atlantic, roughly at the centre of the triangle between Scotland, Norway and Iceland, the Faroes comprise 18 islands. With a total area of 540 square miles, they are only slightly smaller than Scotland’s Shetland Islands, their nearest neighbour.
 The country name, inscribed on stamps as ‘Føroyar’, translates as ‘Sheep Islands’, hinting at the fact that sheep are more numerous than people. The human population exceeded 50,000 for the first time in 2017. Of these just over 40% live in the capital, Tórshavn, which lies at the south-eastern end of the largest island, Streymoy. Although much of
Tórshavn is modern, its historic Tinganes area features some of the turf-roofed buildings which are typical of the Faroes.
 
The Islands are visually stunning, with mountainous terrain indented by fjords. The highest point, at the northern end of Eysturoy, the second largest island, is 882m (2,890ft) above sea level. There are imposing sea-cliffs around the coastlines; Enniberg, at the northern end of Viðoy, is one of the highest in the world, with a sheer drop of 754m (2,470ft).





ABOVE: Postcard showing a map of the Faroe Islands
(Maximum Card MC26 - St Olav, 1995)
 Historically, the only two ways to travel between the communities were by boat or on foot through hazardous mountain passes. Today, the transport infrastructure is modern and impressive, with many road tunnels cut through the mountains and under the sea, linking adjacent islands.

History and Language

Evidence suggests that . the first inhabitants of the Faroes were monks from the early Celtic church in Ireland. Norsemen came to the islands in the 9th century, someusing them as stepping stones to Iceland and Greenland but others settling. The population converted to Christianity around 1000.
 The Faroes became became part of the Kingdom of Denmark & Norway when the crowns of those two countries were united in 1380. When the Union was dissolved by the Treaty of Kiel in 1814, the islands remained with Denmark.
 With Danish being the language of the church, the administration and education, the unique Faroese language, descended from Old West Norse, was in danger of being wiped out. Although it survived in folktales and ballads, and was used colloquially, it had no written form until 1854.
 However, the awakening of national consciousness that affected much of Europe in the late 19th century had an impact on the Faroes too, and a determination grew that traditional culture must survive. Even if only 6,600 books have ever been written in Faroese (including translations from other languages), it is now the language of everyday life in the islands.

Early Postal Services
Historically, letters were carried around the Faroe Islands in open rowing boats. The skyds system, as it was known, was an arrangement where villagers were obliged to provide a crew of able-bodied men to convey government and church officials from one community to the next, carrying mail as well.
 All official and church mail was carried free of charge before 1865, and at a reduced rate thereafter. Private mail was carried for a fee based on distance.
 Early skyds mail rarely has any postal markings, but can be identified as such by the addresses of the sender and receiver. It is highly prized, and its scarcity means it commands high prices.



ABOVE: the stamp of 2001 illustrating one of the boats
used to carry mail between villages (skyds system
).



ABOVE: the stamp of 2001 illustrating the islands' first
post office at Tørshavn



First Post Offices

The islands' first post office opened in the Tinganes district of Tórshavn on March 1, 1870. The first postmaster, Hans Christopher Müller, was a local businessman and magistrate who was also a member of both the Faroese and Danish parliaments.
 Danish stamps were used, and a dedicated network of postal routes began to be developed, although the skyds system survived in the most remote areas until as late as the 1920s. The first cancellation issued to
Tórshavn post office was the standard Danish numeral-type handstamp with the number '238' set within three concentric circles.
 Post offices also opened in 1877 in Tvøroyri (the largest village on Suðuroy, the southernmost island), and in 1888 in Klaksvik (the largest village in the northern cluster of islands). Danish spellings of place names were used until 1962, so the first namestamps for these early post offices were inscribed 'Thorshavn', 'Trangisvaag' and 'Klaksvig' respectively.
 In 1896 a fourth post office was created on board the steamship Smiril, which plied a regular route between villages in the Faroes. It was closed, in 1903, when post offices opened in eight of the villages served by the ship.

1919 provisionals
It could be argued that the first Faroese postage stamps were issued in 1919, although it's a contentious point.
 When Denmark increased its postal rates on January 1, 1919, limited stocks of stamps were available in the Faroes to make up the key 2-øre rate, so postal officials in Tórshavn were authorised to use bisected 4ø stamps and, soon afterwards, bisected 4ø frankings cut out from newspaper wrappers.
 When the supplies of these too became low, 5ø stamps were individually surcharged by hand to serve as 2ø values.
 Naturally, many collectors like to have examples of these provisional bisects and overprint, ideally used on a dated cover, as a significant part of Faroese Islands postal history. However, the Stanley Gibbons catalogue merely lists them under Denmark, with a note clarifying they were used in the Faroe Islands only.




ABOVE: Bisected Denmark 4ø blue,
alongside a 5ø green, used January 11, 1919




ABOVE: 2ø on 5ø overprint, 1919


Wartime upheaval
World War II had a huge impact on the culture and politics of the Faroes, and on their postal history.
  On April 9, 1940, Gernam forces invaded the mother country, Denmark. Just four days later, British forces occupied the Faroes, in what was called 'the friendly occupation', to prevent Germany from doing so.
 On April 25, the British authorities decreed that all Faroes shipping must fly the red, white and blue Faroese flag (the Merkið), which Denmark had always refused to recognise, instead of the red and white Danish flag (the Dannebrog). the date has been recognised as the Faroes' national flag day ever since.
  Through the good offices of the Universal Postal Union, supplies of stamps from Copenhagen still reached the Faroes during the war years, but they were few and far between during the early days of the Britich occupation. A postage rate increase in July 1940 created shortages of certain values, and as a result five overprints were produced locally between November 1940 and May 1941.
 The 20ø on 1ø green, 20ø on 5ø purple, 20ø on 15ø red, 50ø on 5ø purple and 60ø on 6ø orange are regarded by Stanley Gibbons as the first Faroese Islands postage stamps, catalogued as SG 1-5.



ABOVE: The earliest catalogued stamps of the Faroe Islands are the five provisional
overprints issued during the wartime British occupation of the islands in 1940-41


 Another element which makes the wartime postal history of the Faroes a fascinating subject for specialist study is the establishment of three British Army field post offices. 'FPO 219' and 'FPO 695' datestamps were used in Tørshavn, the headquarters of the military occupation, while 'FPO 611' was used on the island of Vágar, where British troops built and operated an airfield.

Post-war autonomy
By the time the British occupation ended in 1945, the ties between the Faroes and Denmark had loosened. In a referendum in 1946, the Faroese people voted by a narrow majority for independence.
 Denmark avoided the loss of the Faroes altogether only by passing the Faroese Home Rule Act, which came into effect on April 1, 1948. The islands' ancient legislative assembly, the Løgting, became the parliament of a 'self-governing community within the kingdom of Denmark'.
 This remains the status of the Faroe Islands today, with different political parties favouring continued union, enhanced self-government or full independance. When Denmark joined the European Union in 1973, the Faroes decided not to join, largely to protect its important fishing industry.

Issuing stamps
In postal terms, the first tangible result of self-government was seen in 1962, when Danish versions of place names were replaced by their Faroese equivalents in cancellations. 'Thorshavn' became 'Tørshavn', 'Fuglefjord' became 'Fuglafjørður' and 'Myggenæs' became 'Mykines', for example.

 

ABOVE: examples of Danish and Faroese spellings
on cancellations

Twelve years later the first stamps issued specifically for use within the Faroe Islands, and showing the country name 'Føroyar', were issued by the Danish authorities on January 30, 1975. The 14 values had seven different designs, divided between historic maps and landscapes.
 The 10ø, 60ø, 80ø and 120ø reproduced part of a 16th-century map of the northern seas with the Faroes at its centre, and the 5ø, 50ø and 90ø a 17th-century map of the islands themselves.
 Of the other lower values, the 70ø and 200ø illustrated the sea cliffs of West Sandoy, and the 250ø and 300ø the straight between Streymoyand Vagar. These stamps were all engraved by the celebrated Polish engraver Czeslaw Slania (who would go on to engrave 100 stamps for the Faroes), and recess-printed.
 The three top values of 350ø, 450ø and 500ø, on the other hand, reproduced paintings of Vidoy and Svinoy by Eyvindur Nohr, of Nes by Ruth Smith, and of Hvitanes and Skalafjordur by Sámal Joensen-Mikines. These were printed by a combination of offset lithography and photogravure.



ABOVE: the first stamps issued specifically for use in the
Faroe Islands, January 30, 1975


 The Faroes' independent postal service, Postverk Føroya, was established the following year, on April 1, 1976, an event celebrated by a set of three stamps illustrating the Faroese flag, a traditional rowing boat (recognisably Viking in style) and a postman.

Popular themes
In the years since 1975, the Faroes have issued over 900 stamps , produced by a variety of printers in Austria, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland and the UK. Many feature the work of Faroese artists and designers and, with just a few exceptions, their themes are directly relevant to the islands.
With fishing industry being the mainstay of the economy, it is not surprising that it has inspired many of these stamps. A set of four in 1977 illustrated local fishing vessels, from a basic wooden boat with an outboard motor to a modern trawler, and three stamps in 1984 recalled the hardships of life on the fishing smacks of yesteryear, including the British built Westward Ho!
 Four stamps in 1983 showed Atlantic fish, including haddock and halibut, a 1990 set celebrated the fish processing industry, and a 2010 miniature sheet featured salmon-farming, which is now a major industry.
 Most strikingly, in a philatelic world first, the 2016 stamp illustrating a cod was issued with almost a square inch of cured and tanned cod-skin attached!






ABOVE: A novelty issue of 2016 not only illustrated a cod but incorporated a piece of cured and tanned cod-skin
 The islands are well known for their birdlife, especially seabirds and wading birds, and many have been featured on stamps. The national bird, the oystercatcher, was shown on a stamp of 1977, but then had to wait until 2016 to appear again. Perhaps surprisingly the puffin has been the main subject of only one stamp, in 1978, though puffins feature in the landscape on several other designs.
 Faroese art has been celebrated on many stamps, including two sets honouring the countrie's most acclaimed painter, Mikines, whose work was first featured in the debut issue of 1975.
The postal history of the islands is another recurring theme, with stamps featuring post office buildings in 1990, mail ships in 1991, the 25th anniversarry of the postal administration in 2001, centenary of island post offices in 2003, postboxes in 2016 and the first postmaster in 2018.
Many stamps also reflect the fact that the Faroe Islands are a proud nation whose people have strived to preserve their history in the face of official indifference or active opposition. Various issues have referred back to Norse culture and mythology, and no fewer than three sets have depicted the islands' greatest historic treasure: the carved wooden pew-ends fromSt Olav's Church in Kirkjubøur, which date from the early 15th century.
 These exquisite carvings, depicting Mary, Jesus, the Apostles and other religious figures, were removed from the church and sent to the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen in 1874. The Faroese frequently petitioned for their return, and were eventually successful in 2002, when a new National Museum was opened in Tørshavn.
 Twelve of the pew-ends were illustrated on sets of stamps issued in 1980, 1984 and 2001, all stunningly engraved by Slania.



ABOVE: First Day cover from the 2001 Church Pews issue

Postal service today
When new post offices opened in eight small villages in 1964, it brought the total number in the Faroes to 47, but this proved to be a short-lived high point. Three of the new offices were closed within four years, and in recent times there has been a marked reduction in their numbers.
 No fewer than 13 post offices were closed simultameously in 2010, which was more than 50% of the network. Today, just 12 remain. The one exception to the trend was the opening of a new office at Vágar Airport (still the only airport on the islands) in 2015, with a 'Vága Floghavn' datestamp. The postal authority became a stand-alone commercial enterprise in the early 21st century, and is now called 'Posta'.


FAROE ISLANDS STUDY CIRCLE

The Faroe Islands Study Circle was formed in the UK in 1919 for collectors of Faroese stamps and postal history,
and now has a worldwhile membership.

For further details, contact the Secretary at 40 Queen's Road, Vicar's Cross, Chester CH35HB.
E-mail: jntropics@hotmail.com OR visit www.faroeislandssc.org



 Faroe Islands Philately Home Page  

 E-mail me here 

  Brian's Website Home Page
   

Top of Page