Sadness pervades the whole story of Skarð. A hundred years ago, 1913 to be precise, it was a hard-scrabble fishing village like so many on the Faroes. No roads linked it to larger settlements, just a dangerous walk over the rocky mountain ridge to Kunoy on the other side, or a path down the fjord to Haraldssund several miles south. The land scarcely supports the grass the sheep graze on, so fishing was the villagers’ main source of food and income. Just 23 souls lived here, and only seven were fishermen.
Two days before Christmas that year, the seven set out in their boats as usual. In those days of course, fishing boats were sailed or rowed. There was no radio, radar, GPS or EPIRB. Just a man, his wits, and his raw strength stacked against what Shackleton called “the ocean that is open to all and merciful to none, that threatens even when it seems to yield, and that is pitiless always to weakness”.
They never returned. Lost with all hands.
The Lost Village of Skarð
That terrible loss signed the death warrant for Skarð. With no ability to support themselves, the 15 women and children and one bedridden man made the sad decision to leave. By 1919, they were all gone. Skarð, a place first recorded in 1584, passed into memory, then ruin.
We set out to reach the ruin on what began as a sunny day in Klaksvik. On a detour from their own year long travels, our good friends D and O were to join us, so with little W in her baby pouch, we were five. The tiny settlement of Haraldssund is just a few houses by the road at the western end of the rocky causeway connecting Kalsoy and Kunoy islands. We parked and wondered where to pick up the path described in the guidebook. Like so many walks in the Faroes, this one actually requires some cross country work, as the path is small, unclear, and intermittent. A workman in a little hut by the tiny wharf told Yon that yes, Skarð was up the coast, but “it’s a long walk”.
Long, but beautiful. Most of all – between green hillsides, black cliffs, and too many waterfalls to count gushing over black lava rock into the sound just below – I felt how hard it must have been to live here a century ago. Within an hour of setting out, just as we reached the first ruin but well before the location of the actual village, we were walking into the teeth of a gale. Rain flew at our faces, directly, not from above. The wind ripped through gaps in our jackets and the sound below showed whitecaps on its growing waves. Delicate yellow flowers bounced around as if to music and the sky went black. We all agreed to retreat.
Back at Klaksvik we hustled into a bakery for cake and coffee before the drive back to Tórshavn. We focused mostly on being wet and cold, and the incredible apple cake. But a quiet corner of my mind thought about hunkering down in a wood and stone house on the shore of Haraldssund a hundred years ago. Or worse – much worse – rowing or sailing a fishing boat out on the open sea, trying to return home with food for the families, and then falling for the last time into the pitiless sea.
The Lighthouse at Kallur
One island west of Kunoy, where the ruins of Skarð lie, is Kalsoy. At its far northern tip, making it the northern-most settlement on the Faroes, is tiny Trøllanes. And just north of that, up a hillside and on top of a cliff 260 meters above the sea, is the dinky little Kallur lighthouse.
Reaching it is simple, if the weather and ferry timetables cooperate. We failed on our first attempt because, inexplicably, the ferry hardly runs on Tuesdays. Just as well, because we’d have been hammered by the storm that hit us on the way to Skarð. Second time around all went to plan. The forecast sun actually appeared, the ferry was running, and (perhaps hardest of all) we had our kid ready to rumble in time to drive from Tórshavn to Klaksvik.
The little car ferry looked like a landing craft from the Korean War. We chugged up the sound to Syðradalur, population nine. From there, a narrow country road took us north along the coast through some intimidating, dark one-way tunnels. These are relatively recent (from about the 1980s onwards) and made life much more convenient for these remote communities. They must have been tremendously expensive too. Luckily we faced no oncoming traffic so we didn’t have to try out the very dark lay-by areas designed to allow cars to pass each other.
From Trøllanes it’s an easy walk to the lighthouse – up a grassy hillside, then wheel around leftwards, and traverse another grassy slope. Approaching the lighthouse, you have no idea of the scale of the cliff it sits on. Only when you’re right there can you see the North Atlantic far down below, sea birds wheeling on the updrafts, and the wet, green grass blowing in the gentle breeze. The sun disappeared just as we arrived, but it was a glorious place.
Sweeping views on all sides included the 754 meter sea cliff at Cape Enniberg out to the east and the long knife-edge ridge of Kunoy; and west lay the tiny settlement at Gjógv on Esturoy, hunkered below the Faroes’ highest mountain, Slættaratindur, which reaches 880 meters above sea level and was capped by cloud that day. Beyond, we could see the famous sea stacks Risin og Kellingin, and then the 500 meter high cliffs at the top of Streymoy island. North, the open sea, nothing until the North Pole. And south, of course, was the huge cliff that looked like some giant had taken an axe to the mountain Borgarin. It’s 537 meters high. That doesn’t sound like much, but it would take more than ten seconds to fall to your death in the sea below. A sobering thought which was on both our minds as we mucked about near the lighthouse.
Back at Syðradalur we were squeezed expertly into the ferry along with about eight cars and two enormous trucks full of salmon. I was worried there wouldn’t be room, but those guys really knew their work. They shuffled the smaller cars in first and we were so tightly parked that we had to fold back our mirrors and stay in our cars. Back in Klaksvik, we checked into Cafe Frida to discover they were doing a buffet lunch. We happily slapped down a few hundred Kronur and spent a very comfortable afternoon munching on some delicious food. Best of all was the rhubarb cheesecake – a Faroes specialty and one of those rare foods (for me, at least) that makes you say “wow, I haven’t really tasted that before”. I’d jacked their free wi-fi the previous time, too, so I felt better about it now that we’d eaten there.
I liked Klaksvik, and at the time I thought I’d be back on my way through to hike to the top of Cape Enniberg, the monstrous 754 meter cliff so prominent on the eastern horizon. But the weather conspired against me for the rest of the trip, so we never returned.
Perhaps one day we will.