The Times, December 5, 2007
* 24-Hour voyage to go Christmas shopping
* Whale meat and lager served onboard ferry
They thought they’d seen it all in Leith. Over the centuries, kings, queens and great armies have landed here, along with drunkards, drug addicts and writers. But the old port has seen nothing like this friendly invasion. It’s the first Tuesday in December and the Faroe Islands – or to be precise 945 of their 48,000 inhabitants – have landed to do their Christmas shopping.
It’s not long after dawn, but already the passengers from the huge Norrona ferry are shuffling through passport control alongside the Ocean Terminal shopping centre, chattering away and checking their purses to make sure they are carrying their plastic.
It is a strange sight. As if they are about to claim political asylum, each person is carrying a huge suitcase, to carry their purchases home. The women rehearse their most important words of English: “Where is Primark?” The rejoinder – the nearest one’s Dundee – brings looks of dismay – but only briefly, as the hordes make their way to a line of 15 coaches ready to carry them up retail heaven on Edinburgh's Princes Street.
As shopping excursions go, this should be one of the most arduous. The guidebook to the Faroes advises against the 24-hour sail to and from the islands from Scotland - unless you have "a cast-iron stomach” . It can be a daunting prospect “far out to sea with nothing to break the swells and towering waves sweeping in unopposed from the coast of North America.”
And that’s in the placid summer season. This was a winter voyage, when even the hardiest old tars revise the lyrics of Nearer My God to Thee before weighing anchor. Not these islanders. In the teeth of a north-north easterly, they sat in Norrona’s Naust bar, eating whale meat and downing litres of Faroyer lager as they lapped up the entertainment from Hilman Jan Hansen, “the funniest man on the Faroes”, and a troupe of Polish hoofers.
“As soon as we got past Orkney it was perfect, as steady as the floor we are standing on now,” says Svein Heidunum, the marketing manager for the ferry operator, Smyril Line, still perceptibly swaying as he reaches out to shake hands.
Halfway between Scotland and Iceland and a day's sail from both there are no chain stores or trendy boutiques in Torshavn, the Faroes capital. Nintendo Wiis are even rarer than they are in Edinburgh.
The bus journey to the city centre is one of quiet anticipation. Susanna Toftegaard and Berghild Jacobsen, young women who work in tourism, have made the three-day trip, are comparing notes. Susanna is checking through her shopping list, which itemises around 30 relatives who must have presents. “We have many second cousins on the Faroes,” she says.
The early forays into the shops are disappointing. Harvey Nichols evokes only laughter – “Seven hundred and fifty pounds? My month’s wage” – and the John Lewis department store is likewise too expensive. The women are thoughtful as they finally emerge on to Princes St.
Here the mood instantly changes. An advance guard of islanders is outside the H&M clothes shop, taking a smoking break. They nod and gesture, as if to say, “This is where the action is.” They’re not wrong.
Inside, it's carnage. There are hundreds of Faroese in the shop. In the women’s and children’s departments every till has lines of 20 or more snaking away, with purchases piled high. In the wide open spaces of the sales floor, men women and children are tottering between the racks of clothing, rapidly striping them bare.
Susanna disappears into the throng near the “Belt Detail Skirts”. She’s spotted 20 minutes later, clutching a child’s jacket, skirts, shirts and three make-up bags. Another half hour passes before she hoves into view again having added to the pile a a Spiderman outfit for her young son and a pair of polka dot pyjamas.
“Do you want a bag for that?” enquires the shop assistant, a film of sweat breaking out over her brow. “That won’t be necessary,” smiles Susanna, deftly flicking open her suitcase.
At 2pm, on coach to Leith, Sonni Jacobsen, who works in the timber trade, is the on the way back to Norrona, with his girlfriend Joan Heinessen and their baby. They have two H&M bags and one each from Curry’s, Lush and the Disney shop.
“We have to drop the bags off at the ship now,” says Sonni. And then what? “More shopping. There are still four hours left.”
* The photo shows Susanna Toftegaard (left) and Berghild Jacobsen outside the Dome in Edinburgh. Thanks to Tom Main for the image. You can link to Tom's excellent website in the column on the right, and from here:
Thomas Main Photography