The King’s Farmer

Johannes Patursson is a “King’s Farmer.”  His family has been farming the same land at Kirkjubour in the Faroe Islands for 17 generations, since the Reformation.  Kirkjubour, on Steymoy Island, is a town of a little over 200.   It was founded near a beach where a lot of driftwood ended up, which made the land valuable because the Faroe Islands have no trees.  It is also a place rich in kelp, which farmers use as fertilizer.  Currently there is fish farming in the bay.  Kirkjubour was the Episcopal center before the Reformation but was an Irish Monastic site even before that.  It has the ruins of St. Magnus Cathedral, built in the 13th century.  It was burned by angry farmers during the Reformation.  The newly minted Lutherans went back to worshiping in the smaller St. Olav’s Church built in the 11th century.

The church land was taken over by the Danish Crown and distributed to “King’s Farmers.”  These farmers could work the land and keep a good percentage of the profit.  They could also pass the land down to a child.  The land could not be divided so only one child got the land.  If there were no heirs the land reverted to the crown and a new “King’s Farmer” was recruited.  Mr. Patursson thinks that being a “King’s Farmer” is a pretty good deal.  He, for all intents and purposes, owns the land.  The holding is smaller than it was when his ancestor was awarded it during the Reformation because sections have been reclaimed for public purposes.  Most recently the government took some of his land to build a new small boat harbor.  In return, they built a road to a section of land that he had trouble getting to.  They also built him a new cowshed.  We met Mr. Patursson on a tour I arranged by emailing a local bus company.

The state takes strict inventory of buildings on the land and the King’s Farmer must make sure they are maintained.  The state also has inventory of livestock.  His farm was allotted 3 and one third cows.  Mr. Patursson used to run a dairy herd of 20 cows, which was fine with the State.  But when it became uneconomical to run a heard of less than 50 because of competition from mechanized milking operations he sold off his herd, except that he had to keep 3 and one third cows.  After discussing this with the government he has three cows and a bull.  He uses these to breed calves, thus meeting his royal condition.  He rents the cow shed to the historical preservation organization that is doing work on restoring St. Magnus Cathedral as an historical site.

We had coffee in Mr. Patursson’s living room, a room in a small house that drifted ashore, mostly intact, probably from Norway, at least according to family legend.  He jokes “The Faroe’s first pre-fab house.  Mr. Patursson has converted part of his house into a museum, including what the hall (basically combined kitchen and living quarters, especially in the winter) would look like.   He is a great storyteller and a proud Faroese.  It was an engaging hour or so.  Of course, we also got to look at the St. Olav Church, the ruins of the St. Magnus Cathedral and ride through the incredible countryside.


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