In 17th-century Finnmark a common practice for determining the guilt of an accused witch was to subject them to the “water ordeal.” With hands and feet tied, they would be thrown into the freezing Barents Sea to see whether they sank or floated. If they sank, they were innocent. Water was thought to repel evil, so the suspect’s rising to the surface and floating proved their guilt.
In 21st-century America, Senator Lindsey Graham regarded a woman who, protesting the Supreme Court nomination of a man accused of sexual assault, asked if Brett Kavanaugh should take a polygraph test. In response he sneered “why don’t we dunk him in water and see if he floats?”
The figure of the hunted witch was evoked often in 2018, the year I finally realized a long-held dream to make an art-pilgrimage to the Arctic island of Vardø, the extreme northeastern point of Norway, to see the Steilneset Memorial to the victims of the Finnmark witchcraft trials. Read about my trip in my essay for Hyperallergic.
The ancient Romans thought Foula was Ultima Thule, a place beyond the borders of the known world. Michael Powell used the island as a stand-in for St Kilda in his 1937 film The Edge of the World. All of which is to say that Foula feels pretty remote.
A walk around Papa Westray – a four-square-mile island on the northern edge of the Orkney archipelago in Scotland – is a walk through history.
From the 5,600-year-old Knap of Howar, northern Europe’s oldest standing house, you can walk up the coast to St Boniface Kirk. One of the oldest Christian sites in the north of Scotland, the church’s graveyard is filled with lichen-covered headstones indicating generations of families and shipwrecked sailors. Further on at the wind-battered northernmost point, where the Atlantic crashes into the North Sea and daunting cliffs are deeply ridged from centuries of erosion, a stone cairn marks the site where Britain’s last great auk – the now extinct ‘northern penguin’ – was killed in 1813.
But Papay, as the island is locally known, is not lost in the past. Thanks to its forward-thinking residents, it is thriving.
Read the rest of my article about the Orkney island of Papa Westray at BBC Travel.
I arrived in the Faroe Islands fairly well-versed in the islands’ musical and literary heritage, but with little grasp of the visual art scene there. In fact, the only encounter with Faroese art that I can recall previously was Tróndur Patursson’s glass bird installation at Reykjavík’s concert hall, Harpa a few years ago.
Upon arrival in the Faroe Islands I met some of those birds again, this time fluttering across windows and hanging from the ceiling throughout the tiny Vagar airport.
Always working with the nature he lives with in the Faroes, Patursson’s glass work appeared again at The Nordic House, this time taking the shape of the mountains. In the photo below, outside the window, Hans Pauli Olsen’s bronze sculpture, “Pilot Whale Killing,” plays with depths and explores that controversial Faroese tradition, the annual pilot whale hunt.
The Nordic House is filled with art works; paintings, sculptures, lithographs and glasswork, by Faroese artists who also include Guðrið Poulseon, Jóhannes Geir and Edward Fuglø.
Fuglø’s work, “Microstate Hiker” was unfortunately on loan when I visited, but I was able to see more of his work at the hotel I was staying at, Hotel Føroyar. “Nation Building” (in the photo at the beginning of this post) was the first to strike me as I saw it hung over the staircase to the hotel’s restaurant. In it, the Faroese flag is created out of food packaging, most of which seem to be imported. The piece seems to comment on ideas of independence and self sufficiency in a nation not wholly independent and (because of the rugged terrain where vegetables do not grow easily) dependent upon imported foods. It’s worth remembering that the practice of pilot whale hunting came to be because it was once a real struggle to find food to eat here.
I was soon seduced by Fuglø’s work, filled with surreal elements and comments on Faroese identity. The below piece, in the hotel’s lounge, is called “Cosmic Event” and superimposes a flying saucer over a vintage wedding scene.
This one, in the reception area. I don’t have the title of as the third panel had been removed when I went to take a last look and photo of it. Again, though, Fuglø is obviously playing with ideas of identity.
When I visit Iceland in the winter, my favourite time to stroll the streets of Reykjavík is in the morning, when, until late morning, the city is concealed beneath the long winter night’s cloak and tourists are few and far between.
I left my hotel after nine, while the streets were lit only by lamp posts and shop windows. I wandered through the town all the way to the old harbour, where I waited for the dark to slowly lift and for the sky to turn that ghostly winter blue I love so much.
On my first morning in the Faroe Islands, I woke up to the winter dark. The night before, driving from the airport to Tórshavn, I could only just trace the lines of the mountains; all the houses, meanwhile, aglow, outlined by festive lights.
I set out in the dark morning from my hotel high about the town, the lights of the harbour twinkling in the distance and just a dusting of snow underfoot. In the gradually lifting dark, I followed the blue dot on my phone’s map, making sure to stick to the trail up and over the mountain all the way to the village of Kirkjubøur. Once I set foot on the mountain I had no more use for that blue dot, guided by a series of cairns and a happy dog who’s name tag read Bella. Bella walked with me — bouncing ahead but always returning to me if I fell too far behind — until I safely arrived in Kirkjubøur.
The two-hour walk stretched and was expanded by my compulsive stopping and gawking at the scenery around me; the warm golden glow of the rising sun casting a heavenly glow over the mountainscape. To the right, the islands of Hestur and Koltur rose gracefully from the surprisingly still sea, basking in the soft light that revealed just enough of their forms to arouse curiosity.
The sights of Kirkjubøur are of great historical significance — the ruins of the 14th century Magnus Cathedral, the Faroes’ oldest still functioning church, and the world’s oldest still-inhabited wooden house. But my memories are of untangling the horns of a sheep that got itself stuck in a football net, gently pushing its poor, bleating head as I unwound and unwrapped the net; piles and piles of seaweed washed ashore, thick and sturdy as hockey sticks, the relentless crashing of the waves, and the soft snoring of the bus driver coming from a small room just off the pristine bus shelter where I waited until the designated time for the little red bus to take me back to Tórshavn.