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Reflecting on the Faroese Pilot Whale Hunt

The following a personal reflection on the Faroese pilot whale hunt and I realise that the views expressed may not be shared by all, however, having read a recent articulate defence of the hunt by Elin Brimheim Heinesen I thought I would share some of my own thoughts.

You may not agree with everything I say, but I put this out there as part of the debate.

The role of the pilot whale hunt and grind in defining Faroese Identity

On a wet and windy night on the 26th December 1888, a public meeting was held in the Parliament House in Tórshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands. A follow up meeting in January in the more spacious quarters of the Temperance Union Hall continued the ongoing debate that was spurned that restless night and led to the formation of the Føringafelag.[1]

The ‘Christmas Meeting’ as it is now known, was a rallying point in Faroe Islands political and social history, and called for,

1.    Fyrsta og fremsta…:at fáa Førja mal til æru;

2.     Annað er: at fáa Føringar til at halda saman og ganga fram í øllum lutum, at teir mugu verða sjálvbjargnir.’

 – First and foremost….’to bring the Faroese language into honour,

– The second is: to get Faroese to stick together and advance in all areas so they can become self-reliant.

Some would argue that the ambitions of the Christmas Meeting defined Faroese intellectual and political life for the century to come and still resonates in Faroese foreign policy today.

The first ambition of the Christmas Meeting was clear enough; celebrate and nurture the Faroese language, and yet the second ambition of the drafters may be seen to cause some conflict in those seeking its implementation in the 21st century. In a society that is to be defined by what ‘was’ Faroese, and ‘is’ Faroese, the ability to also advance into a global community of nations may be hindered if that which is believed to define the ‘Faroese as Faroese’ conflicts with international norms and behaviour.

In this discussion I am asking whether the current practice of the pilot whale hunt remains a valid defining characteristic of Faroese identity, or a burden preventing the Faroese nation moving forward? The ideology of Føringafelag was indeed necessary for the context in which it was created, but today it means that political decisions may be being constrained by a sense of identity that leads to failures to make choices that are actually in the best interests of the people of the Faroes. 

The role of the grind

In the defence of their right to hunt the whales and dolphins that pass through the waters of the Faroe Islands, this essence of the call for ‘Faroese to stick together’ has been a rallying cry in the Faroese opposition to all criticisms of the hunt. As a nation that is constantly seeking to define itself against a perceived past colonial power (Denmark), it invests in itself national symbols and totems that define what it is to be Faroese. In this case the pilot whale hunt, or grind, has become one of, if not for many, the defining characteristics of what it is to be Faroese.

There is no escaping the fact that whale meat was an important food source to the Faroese and its central role as an ‘everyday foodstuff’ should not be underestimated in its important position in defining a sense of national identity.

In 1928 the Faroese county medical officer said that,

“…it cannot be emphasised enough how important this [pilot whale meat] is for the population, for whom the meat, be it fresh, dried or salted, is virtually their only source of meat” (Joensen 1985,p 142)[2].

However, this central role as a predominant source of meat and protein has changed over the decades, and now this same whale meat and blubber is of direct concern to health practitioners.

The Faroese Food and Veterinary Agency started to advise against the consumption of pilot whale offal in the late 1970s; specifically the liver and kidney due to the detection of high mercury concentrations. In 1998 it issued dietary recommendations for maximum levels of consumption.[3]

As more international studies were undertaken, the Faroese Government responded with what appeared to be initially precautionary guidance[4]:

“In response to the more recent research and based on internationally applied standards for precautionary limits, the Faroese Food and Veterinary Authority issued revised recommendations in 2011. These advised that consumption should be limited to one meal of whale meat and blubber per month. Women of child-bearing age are advised, as they have been since 1998, not to consume blubber at all until they have had their children and are no longer breast-feeding, and to refrain from eating whalemeat three months prior to, and during pregnancy and while breast-feeding. These limits are intended to safeguard against the risks associated with heavy metals and PCBs, whilst acknowledging the nutritional benefits of whale mat and blubber, which are rich in poly-unsaturated fats and essential vitamins and minerals”

The same Faroese Government website, however, fails to mention that on the 8th August 2008, the Faroe Islands’ Chief Medical Officer and Chief Physician wrote an open letter to the Government[5] stating that,

“…pilot whales today contain contaminants to a degree that neither meat nor blubber would comply with current limits for acceptable concentrations of toxic contaminants….” They further stated, “[I]t is recommended that pilot whale is no longer used for human consumption.”

The Government of the Faroe Islands has, to-date, failed to adopt this recommendation. 

In 2012, Pál Weihe and Høgni Debes Joensen of the Faroese Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health again formally recommended that from a human health perspective, pilot whale should no longer be used for human consumption.

Whilst the Faroese have not acted on this advice, their neighbour Iceland has issued guidance based on the findings of the Faroese medical officials. With due regard to the recommendations of the Faroese, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST)[6] on the 25th September 2013 advised Icelanders against the consumption of stranded pilot whale meat due to high levels of contaminants. 

Unlike the Icelandic Government, the Faroese Government has, for its own reasons, chosen to ignore its own further advice.

So in under a hundred years we have come full circle, with what was an essential element of the diet now a serious threat to health. But why, faced with such strident and official advice on the threats of whale meat will the Faroese authorities not take action. Maybe it has something to do with the role of the hunt in the psyche of the Faroese and the many years that they feel that they have had to defend the hunt. For once you argue that something is so integral to defining oneself it becomes increasingly difficult to divorce the issue from your own sense of self-realization and self-affirmation.

Defending the hunt: Perceptions of the hunt as ‘sport’ and ‘enjoyment’

Faroese people often resent the accusations that they kill pilot whales for sport or for fun. For what was a necessary and important source of food, and often taken in an opportunistic manner, these criticisms can be unfounded in many Faroese peoples’ minds.

However, these critical observations do not simply arise from the more recent condemnations by conservationists and those concerned with animal welfare, but go back a long way. Joensen (2009)[7] quotes Annandale (1905,p.44) as ending his description of the uses of the pilot whale as saying,

“…More than this, whaling is the national sport of the islands”

Actually, I don’t think Annandale was referring to the grind as purely ‘sport’ as we would understand it as ‘enjoyable spectacle’, – though there are those elements in the hunt for some – , but as a sense of ‘football (soccer) being the national sport of the UK or Germany’, in that it helps to say something about the society and helps define the people that make up that society.

Perception is a subjective thing, and Joensen notes (page 38) that,

“ On the Faroes people say that ‘the guest’s eye is all-seeing’. The outsider can see what those in the local culture do not due to cultural blindness.”

Quoting the German lawyer Carl Julian Graba who witnessed a grind in Tórshavn on the 2nd July 1828, Graba is reported to have said of the moment of the kill,

“…Concern, care, hope, blood lust all appeared in the faces of all the Faroese. Wild shouting broke out; all of the boats charged into the mass [of whales] and used their broad spears to stab the whales that were not so close to the boat that the thrashing of their tails could have smashed it, had it struck it…”

“Just as a soldier loses all human feeling in the heat of battle and becomes a furious animal, the bloody work inflamed the Faroese to a state of fury and courage. Within the space of a few square metres were 30 boats, 300 people and 8- dead or dying whales. Shouting and tumult everywhere; clothes, faces and hands covered in blood, the normally good-natured Faroese resembled cannibals from a South Sea island, showing no trace of pity in the midst of the terrible bloodbath…”

Quoting British soldiers stationed in the islands during World War II who witnessed the hunts, Joensen notes that these authors admired the courage of the whalers but in doing so noted,

“All along the quay the hauling went on accompanied by the lusty shouts of the men, and often the women and children too, whilst at many points the regular ‘heave! Heave!’ of British soldiers and sailors was the operative cry which punctuated the death-ride of whales to the growing morgue on the roadway. Sometimes a rope snapped, and the shouts died in a gale of laughter as the ardent pullers tumbled backwards upon one another…There was plenty of fun for watcher and worker alike, and excitement ran like a fever in everyone’s veins”[8]

But the hunt is not just viewed through the visitors’ eyes, but those of the Danes and Faroese themselves.

V.U. Hammershaimb (1891)[9] published a Faroese anthology containing Faroese ballads including the first written narrative of the hunt in Faroese that also contained critical elements of the hunt.

“There was an old belief that the whale kill would not be successful if priests or women were standing on the shore watching the kill; was in not rather the truth that they were reticent to let people see how they behaved during the whale kill?”

Joensen[10] notes that in 1895 the Danish Governor C Pløyen composed ‘A New Ballad about the Pilot Whale Hunt in the Faroe Islands’ extolling the energy of the hunt,

46 “Some stabbed with long spears,

others with sharp knives.

Everyman did his share with joy,

no one sensed any danger”

49 “All rush down to the whale hunt with joy…” 

Joensen himself interprets the behaviour of the pilot whalers as a functional response to having to carry out a brutal form of food collection, an, “…almost Pavlovian response, internalised generation after generation, which has been necessary to concentrate all strength on the enormous effort required for a successful whale kill”

The author equates it to being hard, dangerous work, with some whalers finding it ‘rather distasteful, something to be done expeditiously as possible in unavoidably difficult circumstances’.

Wylie[11] notes that many of the accounts of the grind over the centuries has concentrated on the dramatic spectacle of the hunt, but argues this is down to, 

a)    ‘The opportunistic nature and the unpredictable nature of the arrival of the whales,

b)    The combination of farming and fishing methods to drive and kill the whales, and,

c)    A food that could be taken without having to purchase it with other goods apart from courage and human energy.’

Sanderson (1994) claims that the very nature of the whales means that the hunt will be somewhat ‘uncontrolled’, being a ‘neither just a hunt of wild animals, nor a slaughter of domestic livestock, but combines elements of both.’

Sanderson’s analysis elucidates an important point in considering the hunt for a transforming Faroese society. The hunt historically falls into a perceived ‘marginal area’ where the traditional farming and ‘social realm’ meets the ‘wild’. For the Faroese, the water-shore boundary epitomises this point of meeting between the two realms.

What may also be argued is that, in the 21st century, the hunt still represents a way back to this, romanticised ‘marginal world’ for a Faroese society that is undergoing considerable change; change both Faroese made, and externally imposed (the chemical pollution now found in the marine environment). For Faroese men especially, the hunt represents an important form of communal ‘Faroese togetherness’ as called for in the Føringafelag; important enough maybe, to be even willing to dismiss advice from the Faroese medical authorities that the hunt should cease.

Sanderson notes that, “The ambiguity of the grind today is contained in its form and function, as a subsistence hunt for food, largely independent of the development of the industrial exploitation of nature and still beyond absolute human control, yet conducted with a degree of social organization in a modern Western society”.

The hunt has always placed a societal and communal pressure on Faroese men to take part, but the latest pilot whale regulations (newly revised in July 2013)[12] state that, “no one under 60 years of age may refuse to become a whaling foreman”. One must ask if this is unifying in its effect, or an element of forced traditionalism that places a demand on individuals to maintain its perpetuation? It is even more confusing if this approach is contrasted with a recent Gallup poll in the Faroe Islands, which revealed that 70% of people aged 15-39, and 51% of people in all age groups, believed that the hunts could end if ‘their cultural and traditional significance could be preserved in other ways’.[13][14]

Kalland[15] and others seek to claim that those who oppose whaling have appropriated the rights of the whalers to their traditions and that this outweighs any emergent understanding of the lives of whales or the welfare considerations. This argument rests on a 19th century perception of a semi-isolated world community engaged in a subsistence hunt, and the direct ‘ownership’ of marine ‘resources’. This is, however, a view that rejects the notion of emergent global norms with respect to the law on the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins as enshrined in the United Nations Law of the Sea – UNCLOS,[16] and other international conventions and agreements.

In many ways, the reaction of the Faroese to demands that the hunt should end, from those concerned because of animal welfare, or even those who also share a concern for the health of those who consume whale meat (the two are not mutually exclusive) can be seen as placing their right to define their own sense of national identity as crystalized in one brutal moment of ‘living on the margins’, over all other emergent concerns.

The reality is that the Faroese are undergoing a huge transformation and many of the elements that the Faroese themselves have internalised into their culture to help regulate the hunt are changing. The very fact that children attend kindergarten and in doing so are increasingly separated from the past closeness to the whale kill and the day-to-day reality of farming, means that there is a generation that are one more step removed from the hunt and its previous role in Faroese society. At the same time it could be argued that the hunt histoically played a necessary social role in bringing dispersed and isolated communities together, but that today this is being somewhat eroded by television, radio and the Internet.

At the same time the Faroese, as part of the Kingdom of Denmark, are watching the political changes taking place on Greenland, and are maybe wishing to find additional reasons to assert their national identity.

The pilot whale hunt, as identified by a certain generation of Faroese and perpetuated by some conservationist arguments as a defining characteristic of the people of these less-and-less remote islands, gives the Faroese something to cling onto as being one last thing that distinguishes themselves from all others.

This may be why the Faroese Government have been reluctant to accept the latest health advice from their own clinicians, but the naivety of such an approach cannot be lost on anyone and must be a concern for all, especially the children of these remarkable islands.


[1] Wylie, Jonathan, (1989) ‘The Christmas Meeting in Context: the Construction of Faroese Identity and the Structure of Scandinavian Culture’, North Atlantic Studies, Vol.1, No. 1, Aarhus, Denmark

[2] Quoted in Joensen, J.P. (2009) Pilot Whaling in the Faroe Islands: History, Ethnology, Symbol, Faroe University Press. Available at: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=25dCtUOd_ZwC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false Accessed on the 31st January 2014

[3] Chief Medical Officer in the Faroes. Medical Report 1999. Tórshavn; p. 52–65.

[4] http://www.whaling.fo/Default.aspx?ID=6771 Accessed on the 31st January 2014

[5] Chief Medical Officer in the Faroes. Medical Report 2008. Tórshavn; p. 57–9

[6] http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=is&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fmast.is%2F&anno=2

[7] ibid. 1, page 29

[8] Ibid 1 quoting Kenneth Williamson, who was stationed on the Faroe Islands during the 1939-45 war.

[9] Available at https://archive.org/details/faerskanthologi00denmgoog, Accessed 31st January 2014

[10] ibid 1, quoting Magnussen and av Skardi (1965) or in Egholm 1997, 167

[11] Wylie, J., (1981) Grindadráp. In: J. Wylie & D. Margolin (eds), The Ring of Dancers – Images of Faroese Culture. Quoted in Sanderson, K, (1994),Grind – Ambiguity and Pressure to Conform, in Elephants and Whales: Resources for Whom? M.R. Freeman and U.P. Kreuter (eds), Gordon and Breach Publishers, Switzerland.

[12]  Executive Orders: Published 12 July 2013. (Translation dated 22.10.13)  

[15] Kalland, A. (1994) ‘Whose whale is that? Diverting the commodity path’, in Elephants and Whales: Resources for Whom? M.R. Freeman and U.P. Kreuter (eds), Gordon and Breach Publishers, Switzerland.