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Why Faroe Islanders kill whales Western critics ignore centuries of tradition

Torshavn harbour, red with the blood of slaughtered pilot whales. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Torshavn harbour, red with the blood of slaughtered pilot whales. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


August 7, 2023   5 mins

Three bottlenose whales have come to Kaldbaksfjorður. They can be easily seen from the winding road that skirts the edge of the narrow sound, ten minutes’ drive from Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands. Two are adults, twice the size of bottlenose dolphins but equally playful. In the last few weeks, over 2,000 people have come to see them, bringing children and grandchildren to marvel as the animals jump clear of the water.

In Faroese, bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus) are called dþglingur. Apart from their stubby beaks they look very similar to pilot whales, the species most often seen here, in pods numbering several hundred. Faroese people flock to see the pilot whales, too — but usually when they are being driven ashore to be slaughtered in a riot of spume and spray, men hauling on ropes to drag them onto the sand while their blood turns the sea crimson.

The killing of the pilot whales is called grindadrĂĄp, a gory tradition in these north Atlantic islands, just 200 miles northwest of Shetland. Two weeks ago, I was in TĂłrshavn when a friend texted me to say there was a grindadrĂĄp on the small beach just outside the city centre. Having seen the slaughter up close several times, I did not linger, but as I drove past the beach, I could see the crowds of men with knives. Anyone who helps gets a free share of the meat, which is always communally distributed.

That day, 78 pilot whales were taken, arousing a slew of online campaigners to once again condemn the Faroese for their “barbarity” and “cruelty”. Online there are numerous pressure groups, including Sea Shepherd’s UK-based “Stop the Grind” and the Blue Planet Society. The environmental campaigner, Dominic Dyer, is calling for the UK to suspend trade with Faroes over the grindadráp. Anonymous supporters of such campaigns often describe the Faroese as “psychopaths” and “murderers”.

As an autonomous territory of the Danish Kingdom, the Faroes lie outside the EU. They are therefore exempt from its adherence to the International Commission on Whaling’s 1986 moratorium on all whaling, apart from aboriginal subsistence catches. (Grindadráp is a form of indigenous whaling similar to that legally practised in Greenland and Nunavut.) Japan, Iceland and Norway have chosen not to abide by the moratorium either, but report their catches to the ICW in the interests of science. In these countries, unlike Faroes, whale meat is sold in supermarkets and offered in restaurants, often to tourists. 

Faroes’ own whaling regulations date back half a millennium: every catch made since the 16th century has been recorded by length and weight. The current whaling laws specify a limited number of beaches onto which the animals may be herded. If a community has recently killed whales, the local sheriff may refuse permission on the grounds that the meat is not needed. Only long-finned pilot whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and common bottlenose dolphins may be driven ashore. The long-finned pilot whale population is estimated to be around 700,000, and the Faroese catch — at the very most 2,000 annually but usually about half that — doesn’t make a dent. Faroese fishermen never go out in search of the animals, only beaching them if they are spotted by chance, and if there are enough people ready to kill them properly. The prescribed method of killing is not (as in Japan, Norway and Iceland) by explosive harpoon, but by a specially-designed spinal lance which ensures almost instantaneous brain death.

As a passionate marine conservationist, I find this all disturbing. I have swum with many species of whales, and they seem indisputably sentient. They look back at us with clear curiosity. And yet, cows also have the ability to recognise individual human faces, and we do not label British beef farmers “murderers” and “monsters”. Fond of whales as I may be, I am equally disturbed by the willingness of outsiders to condemn the Faroese. Those shouting loudest have no understanding of Faroese culture — of how the islanders have had to rely almost entirely on their natural surroundings for survival.

When inexpert outsiders, like me, ask how the Faroese can bear to kill pilot whales — animals we see as intelligent, magical visitors from another realm — they are often bewildered. “It’s meat,” they answer. “Do you cry when you eat a steak or a piece of bacon?” Others might remind us: “The pilot whales aren’t endangered: if they were, we would not kill them. We are fond of our sheep, but when it’s time to eat them, we kill them too.” When campaigners decry the pilot-whale slaughter, the Faroese reaction is that these emotions are a symptom of living in a “Disneyfied world” divorced from the reality of survival.

The Faroes have been settled for more than 1,000 years, but until the 20th century, this wet, windy, storm-tossed archipelago was largely cut off from the rest of the world by inclement weather and a lack of long-range sailing vessels. Able to grow only very few crops, the Faroese survived on fish and sheep. The Lutheran forebears of today’s islanders called the occasional catch of pilot whales “a gift from God”, and after a harsh winter they often made the difference between life and death.

Arguably, the Faroese don’t actually need whale meat to survive now, and many no longer eat it, due to heavy metal pollutants in the carcases. Creatures at the top of the marine food chain are always more polluted than those at the bottom, because the former consume the latter in vast quantities, multiplying the toxins. The Faroese health authorities have alerted the population to this danger. Because of this, some islanders argue that the number of pilot whales caught each year should be rationed.

Other islanders, however, believe that the grindadráp is symbolic of something much bigger. It’s a demonstration of independence, of an unwillingness to follow rules imposed by outsiders. The Faroese are often resistant to the idea of adopting a globalised way of life, whereby all meat is presented wrapped in plastic, and shipped-in from overseas. During the Covid pandemic, I often thought of my Faroese friends, who would manage even if global supply chains collapsed.

This tiny nation is aware of its vulnerability to outsiders. They trace their independent thinking all the way back to the conflict between Faroese chieftain Sigmundur Brestissson, who was tasked with converting the islands to Christianity by their Norwegian overlords in 1005, and another chieftain, TrĂłndur of GĂžta, who retained his pagan beliefs. The latter is seen as a hero here.

The Faroes have no army. In the Second World War, they were occupied by the British. The writer Eric Linklater wrote in praise of the Faroese at the time: “Native hardihood and energy have conquered a hostile environment, and given to it gentility and grace; they have retained a primitive virtue 
 and appear to have escaped the vulgarity and inertia of civilisation”. We, in Britain, have forgotten that during the war as much as a fifth of our fish supplies came from Faroese trawlers which braved the U-Boats to sail the North Atlantic. As a nation, they lost one of the highest percentages of their menfolk to German attacks, prompting Churchill to thank them for their steadfastness and bravery. But now, we see not the valour in these tough, pragmatic islands but only barbarity.

A few days after the whales arrived at Kaldbaksfjorður, a Faroese friend was fretting about what would happen to them if they left the fjord, and the tide swept them onto the southerly island of Suðuroy. These whales occasionally strand themselves there, and in the settlement of Hvalba people are allowed to humanely dispatch the beached creatures, and eat the meat. I called my friend to discuss it. “It would be very sad,” he mused. “Having said that, I had some dþglingur in the freezer and finished it last winter. So much tastier than pilot-whale.”


Tim Ecott is a non-fiction writer. His latest book, The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year, is published in paperback by Short Books.

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John Thorogood
John Thorogood
9 months ago

Well done Tim, a lucid description of the reality and brilliantly highlighting the inherent contradictions of those who eat meat and object to the Grind. Is it, simply, because the abattoir (aka. the slaughterhouse) is out of sight and out of mind?
Having worked there for two years, the people and place are unique and very special. The scenery and changeable weather exhilarating. As is their sense of humour.
You reference to the presence of pollutants in their blubber and the strong discouragement of women of child bearing age from partaking reminds of a cartoon in the Sosialurin (local newspaper).
Two pilot whales looking up at the underside of one of the traditional eight man fishing boats with one saying to the other (loosely translated), “800,000 of us and only 40,000 of them, I think we’ll finish them off before they do for us”.

Last edited 9 months ago by John Thorogood
Tim Ecott
Tim Ecott
9 months ago
Reply to  John Thorogood

Thankyou

Tim Ecott
Tim Ecott
9 months ago
Reply to  John Thorogood

Thankyou

John Thorogood
John Thorogood
9 months ago

Well done Tim, a lucid description of the reality and brilliantly highlighting the inherent contradictions of those who eat meat and object to the Grind. Is it, simply, because the abattoir (aka. the slaughterhouse) is out of sight and out of mind?
Having worked there for two years, the people and place are unique and very special. The scenery and changeable weather exhilarating. As is their sense of humour.
You reference to the presence of pollutants in their blubber and the strong discouragement of women of child bearing age from partaking reminds of a cartoon in the Sosialurin (local newspaper).
Two pilot whales looking up at the underside of one of the traditional eight man fishing boats with one saying to the other (loosely translated), “800,000 of us and only 40,000 of them, I think we’ll finish them off before they do for us”.

Last edited 9 months ago by John Thorogood
Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
9 months ago

Five years or so ago, I visited the The Faroe Islands and was amazed by the industriousness and vitality of the 50,000 islanders spread out on 18 islands which they have and continue to connect via astounding hi-tech tunnels, the aim of which is to make no journey more than a hour between islands. They believe ‘connectivity’ promotes community and encourages the young to stay instead of leaving for Denmark or Norway. The islands endure several fierce storms annually so they are now creating buildings to withstand 250 mph winds versus the usual 180 mph standard. Every detail having to do with their cultural survival is well thought out and executed. Many island nations could learn from the Faroe Islanders. It’s a fascinating country and a well-kept traveler’s secret.

Last edited 9 months ago by Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
9 months ago

Five years or so ago, I visited the The Faroe Islands and was amazed by the industriousness and vitality of the 50,000 islanders spread out on 18 islands which they have and continue to connect via astounding hi-tech tunnels, the aim of which is to make no journey more than a hour between islands. They believe ‘connectivity’ promotes community and encourages the young to stay instead of leaving for Denmark or Norway. The islands endure several fierce storms annually so they are now creating buildings to withstand 250 mph winds versus the usual 180 mph standard. Every detail having to do with their cultural survival is well thought out and executed. Many island nations could learn from the Faroe Islanders. It’s a fascinating country and a well-kept traveler’s secret.

Last edited 9 months ago by Cathy Carron
Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago

It’s just one of those difficult issues where there are good arguments on both sides. No outrage is justified on either side of the argument.

Last edited 9 months ago by Martin Butler
Tim Ecott
Tim Ecott
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Outrage is the default mode for many people these days…..

Andrew F
Andrew F
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

I am not personally interested in hunting anything (apart from communists).
The islanders should be allowed to do what they want where they are.
We have bigger problems in Britain with people coming here who expect their disgusting customs and cultures to prevail over native culture.

Geo Meadows
Geo Meadows
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

One side of the arguement is that tradition counts. That’s a logical fallacy. Tradition per se counts for nothing, it’s whether the tradition is good or evil that matters. And if we examine the tradition in this case I think most would say it’s an unnecessary cruelty.
Same with bullfighting.
Same with foxhunting.

Last edited 9 months ago by Geo Meadows
Tim Ecott
Tim Ecott
9 months ago
Reply to  Geo Meadows

I agree that ‘tradition’ isn’t a reason in itself – however, if that tradition informs a cultural standpoint then it can’t be ignored. Neither bullfighting nor fox hunting were ever about obtaining food, and the element of public entertainment and ‘sport’ are entirely missing from the grindadrap. I also don’t agree that ‘tradition counts for nothing’ because when anyone tries to meddle with another person’s cultural norms you are on a slippery slope – they are what give people their identity. It is significant that ill-judged locally based anti-grind campaigns in Faroes a few years ago resulted in a massive upsurge in people getting their licence to kill – purely because the language used by campaigners was so pejorative.

Last edited 9 months ago by Tim Ecott
Greg Moreison
Greg Moreison
9 months ago
Reply to  Geo Meadows

That is of course the standard argument against bullfighting, fox hunting and in fact field sports in general: that they are ‘unnecessary cruelties’.
With the exception of trout fishing, which I very much enjoy, the other pursuits covered by the list don’t really interest me, personally. But I think it worth considering that none of their proponents defend their activities on the ground of tradition alone, but rather on the fact that the tradition reflects a specific moral good. In other words, the proponents themselves agree with you that the question is whether the tradition is good or evil…

Tim Ecott
Tim Ecott
9 months ago
Reply to  Geo Meadows

I agree that ‘tradition’ isn’t a reason in itself – however, if that tradition informs a cultural standpoint then it can’t be ignored. Neither bullfighting nor fox hunting were ever about obtaining food, and the element of public entertainment and ‘sport’ are entirely missing from the grindadrap. I also don’t agree that ‘tradition counts for nothing’ because when anyone tries to meddle with another person’s cultural norms you are on a slippery slope – they are what give people their identity. It is significant that ill-judged locally based anti-grind campaigns in Faroes a few years ago resulted in a massive upsurge in people getting their licence to kill – purely because the language used by campaigners was so pejorative.

Last edited 9 months ago by Tim Ecott
Greg Moreison
Greg Moreison
9 months ago
Reply to  Geo Meadows

That is of course the standard argument against bullfighting, fox hunting and in fact field sports in general: that they are ‘unnecessary cruelties’.
With the exception of trout fishing, which I very much enjoy, the other pursuits covered by the list don’t really interest me, personally. But I think it worth considering that none of their proponents defend their activities on the ground of tradition alone, but rather on the fact that the tradition reflects a specific moral good. In other words, the proponents themselves agree with you that the question is whether the tradition is good or evil…

Tim Ecott
Tim Ecott
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Outrage is the default mode for many people these days…..

Andrew F
Andrew F
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

I am not personally interested in hunting anything (apart from communists).
The islanders should be allowed to do what they want where they are.
We have bigger problems in Britain with people coming here who expect their disgusting customs and cultures to prevail over native culture.

Geo Meadows
Geo Meadows
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

One side of the arguement is that tradition counts. That’s a logical fallacy. Tradition per se counts for nothing, it’s whether the tradition is good or evil that matters. And if we examine the tradition in this case I think most would say it’s an unnecessary cruelty.
Same with bullfighting.
Same with foxhunting.

Last edited 9 months ago by Geo Meadows
Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago

It’s just one of those difficult issues where there are good arguments on both sides. No outrage is justified on either side of the argument.

Last edited 9 months ago by Martin Butler
R Wright
R Wright
9 months ago

Very interesting piece. It is actually Unherd gems like this that make me renew my subscription. While I find the killings distasteful, it is tradition and there aren’t too many of those left.

R Wright
R Wright
9 months ago

Very interesting piece. It is actually Unherd gems like this that make me renew my subscription. While I find the killings distasteful, it is tradition and there aren’t too many of those left.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

Thank you, excellent.
Now something similar on the noble art of Bullfighting please!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

Thank you, excellent.
Now something similar on the noble art of Bullfighting please!

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
9 months ago

You reference their reverence for a pagan chieftain of times past. If I’m not mistaken, I have heard that the majority of today’s Faroese are Evangelical Christian. Of course that’s no reason not to hold their former chieftain in high regard.

Tim Ecott
Tim Ecott
9 months ago
Reply to  Betsy Arehart

Technically, Lutherans are still the majority. But I mention the pagan TrĂłndur in the context of the legend – everyone knows the story and he would be seen by most other readers as the ‘baddie’ byt the Faroese don’t regard him as such- they have a very fine grasp of nuance and even- handedness.

R Wright
R Wright
9 months ago
Reply to  Betsy Arehart

Nobody in Britain dislikes Boudicca for her paganism. Her incompetent military tactics on the other hand…

Tim Ecott
Tim Ecott
9 months ago
Reply to  Betsy Arehart

Technically, Lutherans are still the majority. But I mention the pagan TrĂłndur in the context of the legend – everyone knows the story and he would be seen by most other readers as the ‘baddie’ byt the Faroese don’t regard him as such- they have a very fine grasp of nuance and even- handedness.

R Wright
R Wright
9 months ago
Reply to  Betsy Arehart

Nobody in Britain dislikes Boudicca for her paganism. Her incompetent military tactics on the other hand…

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
9 months ago

You reference their reverence for a pagan chieftain of times past. If I’m not mistaken, I have heard that the majority of today’s Faroese are Evangelical Christian. Of course that’s no reason not to hold their former chieftain in high regard.

Thor Albro
Thor Albro
9 months ago

“Why Afghans
Oppress Women.
“Critics ignore centuries of tradition”

Thor Albro
Thor Albro
9 months ago

“Why Afghans
Oppress Women.
“Critics ignore centuries of tradition”