Ken Williamson's Faroe Islands Diaries: From Thetford to Tórshavn (and back)
Lesley is responsible for collecting, providing access to and preserving the BTO Archives. She also manages the Chris Mead Library.
Only a few weeks after joining BTO as the Archivist in February 2022, in the midst of finding my feet and familiarising myself with the broad range of (amazing!) material we hold in the BTO Archives, an email arrived in the Library inbox which caught my attention. It was from Robin Williamson, who had donated the archive of his father Kenneth (Ken) Williamson in 2015. Robin asked whether we would be willing to release his father’s wartime diaries, written whilst stationed on the Faroe Islands during World War II between 1941 and 1945, so they could be digitised and a copy made available to Faroese researchers. Not exactly an everyday request, but one with which BTO was only too pleased to help!
Ken Williamson and BTO
Ken Williamson (1914–77) is a name well-known to many, having played a huge role in BTO’s development over the years. He started his career at BTO in 1958 when he left his role as Director of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory to become our first Migration Research Officer, and subsequently held the positions of Head of Populations and Surveys and latterly Senior Research Officer (Populations) until his death. Robin’s email provided the opportunity for me to look for the first time through Ken’s diverse archive which includes his work on migrations as well as the Identification for Ringers publication series. I also soon located his wartime diaries.
These diaries were written during his time as a Royal Engineer stationed on the Faroe Islands as part of the British garrison. His work in shipping allowed him plenty of time to explore, and the diaries contain wonderful details of his interactions with the Faroese community, both human and the feathered variety. Eight of these diaries were already in the BTO Archives, but Robin had also recently discovered two more of Ken’s diaries from the years 1944 and 1945. In June 2022, we were delighted to welcome Robin and his wife Jane to our Nunnery headquarters with these new diaries to look through Ken’s archive.
The scenery on the 45-minute journey from the airport to the capital Tórshavn, situated on the neighbouring island of Streymoy, was an endless landscape of basalt cliffs and waterfalls.
The journey to digitisation
As we didn’t have the capabilities to digitise the diaries in-house, the project to digitise them was co-ordinated by the ornithologist Jón Aldará, based at Tjóðsavnið, the Faroe Islands National Museum. Once all 10 diaries had been reunited, preparations began in earnest for their shipping, but as time went on it proved difficult to find a suitable courier. To solve this problem, the kind invitation came from Tjóðsavnið for a member of BTO staff to accompany the diaries for a long weekend in the Faroe Islands – having always wanted to visit, I leapt at the opportunity!
Packed up safely in tissue paper and with the archive boxes secured in my hand luggage, at the end of November the diaries and I set off on the short flight from Edinburgh. In one of the most scenic landings I’ve ever made, we soon touched down among the high cliffs of Vágar island. The runway was the same, albeit now extended, as the one built by the Royal Engineers during the Second World War – the first of many sights on the trip that would surely have been familiar to Ken.
The scenery on the 45-minute journey from the airport to the capital Tórshavn, situated on the neighbouring island of Streymoy, was an endless landscape of basalt cliffs and waterfalls – a view of which I definitely wouldn’t tire over the next few days. The first task was to meet up with my host Jón, and to drop off the diaries so that digitisation could begin. Archivist John Debes Jacobsen from the Faroese National Archives had been tasked with patiently scanning them, although fortunately for him there turned out to be fewer pages involved than he had been led to expect! The first day closed with a retirement party for one of Jón’s colleagues, followed by dinner with staff from Tjóðsavnið and the National Archives, as well as representatives from the Faroese Ornithological Society.
Exploring the Faroe Islands
With three full days to explore, I was keen to see and do as much as possible. There was one more official task to perform, and on the Friday morning I was up bright and early to give a short presentation to Tjóðsavnið staff about the BTO Archives and the Kenneth Williamson collection. With John valiantly progressing with the scanning, in the afternoon Jón kindly provided a tour out to Kaldbak, a village north of Tórshavn, for a fascinating look behind the scenes at the Museum’s Marine Biological Laboratory.
To give Jón a break the next day was free, which provided an opportunity to see more of the islands. I had booked onto an all-day tour around the three largest islands, Eysturoy, Streymoy and Vágar, during which we were treated to spectacular views of the waterfalls Fossá and Múlafossur as well as numerous beautiful villages. Due to the time of year, sadly bird sightings were limited: the highlights were a few Red-breasted Mergansers, an inquisitive Eider drake, and several Faroese Starlings which are noticeably larger than their European counterparts.
Sunday was spent exploring Tórshavn, heading first to the historic fortress of Skansin overlooking the port. During the Second World War, Skansin had been the military base for the British garrison, which must have been a familiar sight to Ken. Whilst stationed in the Faroes he married his wife Esther, and some of her family still live close by – later in the day we were fortunate to be able to meet up with Robin’s cousin Maria Heradóttir. She and Jón took us on a tour of the Tinganes, the location of the Faroese government, before we headed to a cafe to warm up with coffee and cake, which was a welcome opportunity to learn more about Ken as well as modern-day life in the Faroes.
Finally, with the digitisation completed the time came round all too fast to collect the diaries and head back home. Safely back in Thetford, we hope to continue our collaboration with both Tjóðsavnið and the Faroese National Archives. Other material has recently come to light which shows further connections between us: although more research is required, we have recently uncovered a collection of lantern slides which may have been Ken’s, showing images of Faroese landscapes, birds and people. We hope to be able to digitise these in the not-too-distant future.
Sadly, Ken’s son Robin passed away before he could see the project he instigated come to fruition. In June last year he told us, “My father was a great enthusiast for the folklore, wildlife and all things Faroese, and it is entirely fitting that his voluminous diaries should be digitised in the Faroe Islands so that they are widely accessible to researchers and other Faroese enthusiasts”. BTO has been very glad to play its part in helping to provide access to these wonderful diaries, and we hope the project has been an appropriate tribute to both Ken and Robin.
I would like to thank Janus Hansen and the staff of Tjóðsavnið for their kindness and hospitality, and especially to Jón Aldará for being such a wonderful host. Thanks are also due to John Debes Jacobsen, Maria Heradóttir, the Faroese Ornithological Society, and in particular to Jane Moore and Robin Williamson, without whom the project would never have come about.
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