TRAVEL / The lonely sea and the skua: Dive-bombed by sea-birds, Andrew Bibby was relieved to find the Faroe islands a ruggedly beautiful sanctuary for humans, too. Overleaf, the Russian isle that time forgot

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BEING ATTACKED by a pair of arctic skua is like finding yourself in Hitchcock's film The Birds for real. Swooping down with a great beating of wings to within a few inches of my head, they came at me from behind and pounded me with their webbed feet. I covered myself with my camera case and ran.

Two minutes earlier, we had been scrambling along a headland several hundred feet up above the North Atlantic. I'd been discussing with a walking companion exactly what breed those large, brown sea-birds nesting ahead of us were. Any local could have told us; they'd have advised us, too, to walk a different route.

Safely back in the hotel, I was given advice from a survivor of a similar experience. The way to protect yourself from these birds, he told me, was to carry a chair leg above your head: that way the leg got the bashing, not you.

Until then, I thought I'd packed everything I needed for a week's holiday in the Faroes - including a thick jumper and a full set of waterproofs. A chair leg certainly hadn't been on the list. As it happened, the warm clothes and waterproofs could have been left behind. The cold and wet Atlantic weather systems that regularly sweep in across the islands stayed away, and for much of the time the sun shone on a green and dramatically beautiful land.

The Faroes, a scattering of 18 islands halfway between Shetland and Iceland, are our nearest northern neighbours. Despite their proximity, they are not a familiar holiday destination. I sympathised with the family turned back as we boarded the plane at Glasgow: their T-shirts and shorts suggested they were off to Portugal, convinced they were on the charter flight to Faro. Once in the Faroes, perhaps they - like me - would have been captivated.

Part of the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroe Islands have enjoyed home rule for almost 50 years. They have their own parliament, TV and radio stations, national football team, bank notes and language. Faroese, which derives from Old Norse, is the everyday language but Danish and English are widely understood. It's not a bad achievement for an isolated land of 45,000 people.

Like the rest of western Europe, however, the Faroese are feeling the chill of recession. Fishing is the foundation of the islands' economy, but fish have been scarce in recent years. A banking crisis last year led to higher taxes and a snap election this summer. Worryingly for the future, many young Faroese are leaving the islands to find work in mainland Europe.

Tourism, which could arguably bring an end to the islands' problems, is still small-scale, though there is a network of good hotels, some guest houses and several youth hostels. One of these is a beautiful modern ark of a building in the northern village of Gjogv (where the house speciality is pancakes with rhubarb jam). Visitors come mainly from Denmark and the other Nordic countries, with few from further south.

Though several thousand British servicemen spent their war years in the Faroes, stepping in to occupy the islands after Denmark had been invaded, interest in our next-door neighbours is surprisingly slight. I was travelling in an 11-strong party organised by DA Study Tours, a small Scottish firm which is the only British operator offering package trips.

I gained a sense of the relationship between traditional and modern Faroese life as soon as we arrived, particularly on a birdwatching trip to the normally uninhabited island of Tindholmur. What from the outside appeared a half-derelict hut turned out to be a fully equipped, stripped-pine summer cottage worthy of an Ikea catalogue. It was used, we were told, each July when the annual puffin-hunting season started on the island.

Stuffed puffins are considered a tasty, if rather small, delicacy. If this seems a harsh way to treat an endearing bird, remember that until very recently Faroese people had to survive on the meagre natural resources available on the islands and in the seas nearby. Our visit to the far-western island of Mykines suggested that the puffin population hasn't been unduly affected by human activity. Puffins in their tens of thousands nest in burrows in the hillsides, scooting out of their holes and circling in great black clouds like swarms of insects.

Mykines is strikingly beautiful. The path from the island's single village leads past

the puffin colonies on to the islet of Mykinesholmur, where gannets nest on one of the rock stacks. As elsewhere in the Faroes, high cliffs plunge dramatically to the sea. The highest cliff in the Faroes, and reportedly the highest in Europe, is on the island of Vidoy where the drop is more than 2,000ft.

The fields surrounding Faroese villages are a mass of orchids of many colours, buttercups and bright yellow marsh marigolds in the summer. Many houses in the villages continue the tradition of turf roofing, so that the grasses and meadow flowers extend to the house-tops. Villages are invariably by the sea, and the beauty of the landscape is enhanced by simple Lutheran churches, often painted white.

Perhaps inevitably, the villages have been emptying in recent years as more people move to the capital town Torshavn, or regional centres such as Klaksvik. In a bid to maintain village life, the islanders have built well-engineered roads to all except one of the settlements. Where necessary, there are long tunnels through the mountains, sometimes to reach just a handful of houses. Driving through them, especially the single-track ones on Bordoy, they seem no bigger than the London Tube. Cars have to find small niches carved from the rock to allow oncoming traffic to pass.

There are two ways of reaching the Faroes from Britain. The traditional way is on a boat called the Smyril, which sails from Aberdeen on a 24-hour stomach-churning voyage to Torshavn. Icelandic Air's flight from Glasgow is more comfortable, though the approach to the airport, which occupies about the only suitably flat land, has its moments as mountains flash past the cabin windows.

Even at the airport, the contrasts of Faroese life are clear. Inside, the building is a model of modern airport architecture; outside is treeless moorland where the oystercatchers and whimbrels shriek into the northern wind.-

GETTING THERE: P&O Scottish Ferries, PO Box 5, Jamieson's Quay, Aberdeen (0224 572615) acts as the UK agent for the Aberdeen-Torshavn ferry. Ferry and hotel packages can be arranged through them.

DA Study Tours, Williamton House, Low Causeway, Culross, Fife (0383 882200) runs weekly tours to the Faroes in the summer months. 1994 prices start at about pounds 479.

READING: The Faroe Islands by Schei and Moberg (John Murray pounds 10.95) is the most readable account of the islands in print.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Iceland ( pounds 10.95) also includes a hundred pages on the Faroes.

FURTHER INFORMATION: General information can be obtained from Aldan Tourist Information, Reyngota 17, FR-100 Torshavn (fax number from UK 010 298 19491).