The legacy of the war years on the Faroe Islands
The 25th April marks Flag day – Flaggdagur – in the Faroe Islands. And, while in 2020 it’s likely to be a more subdued event than usual due to the current social distancing advice, the day will be marked by Faroese at home and overseas with many a proud display of the national flag, the Merkið, a key symbol of national self-determination in the Faroe Islands.
The story of the national flag
Compared to the Denmark’s famous red and white flag – the Dannebrog – which is reckoned to be the oldest in the world, the Faroese flag is a relative newcomer to the scene, having been designed by a group of Faroese students including Jens Oliver Lisberg in Copenhagen in 1919. It was first raised in June that year by Lisberg in his home village of Famjin on the Faroes in celebration of a wedding, yet, it had no official status as back then the Faroe Islands were only recognised as a county – amt – within Denmark.
Flag day commemorates a more recent event still: the first time official approval was given to use the flag, on 25 April 1940, not by the Danes, by British occupying forces. By then, Denmark was under Nazi German occupation, and, the British occupied the Faroes to prevent the islands – a key strategic outpost in the North Atlantic – falling too. In the midst of all of this, the islands’ fishermen were presented with a problem: in order for the Faroese to continue fishing at sea – and not risk being identified as an enemy vessel – they’d have to fly flag other than the Dannebrog. The occupying British suggested their Union Jack, but, wiser heads suggested the Merkið which the British agreed to. Eight years later, with the war over and the subsequent advent of home rule for the Faroe Islands within the Kingdom of Denmark, the Merkið was officially recognised as the flag of the Islands.
The “friendly occupation”
The British “friendly occupation” left its mark in other ways too. Indeed, as soon as your plane lands at Vágar you’re in touch with this legacy: the airport was built by the British (yet it was left to the Faroese, years later, to finish the job and make the runway suitable for modern commercial aircraft). On your way from the airport, look out for the original observation towers that still stand in well-preserved condition.
In Tórshavn you can see the guns the British added to bolster the defences of the old fortress of Skansin that was used as the occupiers’ headquarters, and, in the doorway of the cathedral nearby you can see a plaque that was gifted by British veterans in thanks for the kindness shown to them by the Faroese during the occupation.
Yet, while the occupation was said to be friendly, the war didn’t spare the Faroes from tragedy. Sea mines claimed the lives of many Faroese seamen and the 210 lives lost are today commemorated by the striking Minnisvarðin memorial in Tórshavn’s beautiful city park. Scores of British servicemen who lost their lives at sea are also buried on the islands in graves maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
A lasting influence
Day-to-day life on the islands continues to be influenced by those wartime years. Many of the occupying forces were from Scotland, and, they left their mark by introducing heroic levels of tea drinking and a taste for British – and particularly Scottish – confectionary, both of which continue to this day. As a Scotsman now living in the Faroe Islands I find it strangely comforting to visit Faroese houses and be offered Tunnock’s tea cakes and caramel wafers with my cup of Typhoo tea, reminiscent of childhood visits to my Gran’s house in Paisley.
Yet, today I remember that, while, through an accident of history, my Scottish ancestors played a bit part in all of this, flaggdagur is very much a celebration of a uniquely Faroese identity.