Korntørring og -tærskning på Færøerne


  • Holger Rasmussen




Corn Drying, Korn tørring, Threshing, tærskning, Faroe Islands, Færøerne, Corn cultivation, korn dyrkning, Corn treatment, behandling af korn, sodnhus, Traditional farming, traditionel landbrug


Corn Drying and Threshing in the Faroe Islands

The investigation here described is based both upon printed works of older and more recent date and upon material from archives, in particular upon the accounts collected by Jens Christian Svabo, himself Faroese, in the course of travels in 1781 and 1782, which contain very full first-hand observations. In addition to these sources, measurements and photographs have been taken and traditions recorded in the course of two journeys for the Danish National Museum in 1947 and 1949.

Corn drying and threshing in the Faroes.

In the sphere of agriculture the Faroe Islands must be regarded as a survival from an earlier period. As reasons for this may be adduced the severe natural conditions, where the climate, the nature of the soil and the lie of the land all place considerable obstacles in the way of cultivation. To these must be added the historical factors: the century-long isolation of the islands; the system of divided inheritance, which has portioned up the agricultural land to a stage which makes rationalisation of cultivation difficult; and in more recent days the rapid development of fishing, which has attracted both capital and labour from agriculture, with the result that it has stagnated or even sometimes deteriorated. Because of these factors Faroese agriculture has preserved many antique features, and this is true of, among others, the subject here treated: Corn cultivation and treatment. The Faroes lie close to the possible limit of grain cultivation. The only type of corn which has ever been cultivated is six-row barley, and even this could not reach full maturity. The cultivation of grain formed part of a primitive crop rotation, the object of which was to improve the hay crop, which was of incomparably greater importance; but the homegrown corn did also play an important part (though not quantitatively) in Faroese housekeeping. It was necessary to dry the grain artificially, not only in order to be able to store and use it, but also in order to be able to thresh it at all. The process of drying consisted in the first place of setting the corn up in the fields in long heaps of 12 sheaves each, with the ears hanging free over the edge of the field terrace, or else in cruciform arrangements, similarly of 12 sheaves (Fig. 1). The next stage was to place the crop in outhouses with openwork walls (hjallur or grothus). In favourable conditions this air-drying resulted in the corn being sufficiently dry for threshing and storage. This method was used in earlier times for seed-corn, as the oven-dried corn was considered to be of reduced germinating power.

Plucking the grain.

The first stage in artificially drying the corn consisted of plucking the ears from the straw. Originally this was done with the bare hands, and this method has remained in use in certain areas up to modern times. The above-named manuscript of Svabo, which is preserved in the State Archives in Copenhagen, contains the information that this method had some years previously been replaced by another which did the work much more efficiently. This method involved the use of the corn-comb (ripari), which was introduced into the islands by Sheriff Debes (ob. 1769). It was undoubtedly modelled on the Danish long-straw reaper and flax reaper (Figs. 2 and 3). The work of tearing off the ears with this corn-comb was carried out by the farmer with 2 or 3 assistants, and the plucked ears were then carried to the corn­drying shed, where they were treated further.

Work in the com-drying shed.

The corn-drying shed (sodnhus) is not the oldest nor the only method known in the Faroes of drying corn. Originally drying took place in the dwelling-house, the ears being laid in a rectangular or round container (meis), with a bottom consisting of laths or of a wide-meshed net of woollen thread (Fig. 4). The container was hung up above the kitchen hearth, and the threshing which followed also took place in the living room (Fig. 11). This meis-drying persisted for a long time among farmers who only cultivated a small quantity of corn, and in the northeastern part of the Faroes (the so-called Norðeroyarna) the sodnhus was only introduced at a very late date, with the result that the use of the meis continued longer here than elsewhere. This was partly because in this area the cultivation of corn was extremely difficult and consequently of small importance.

The corn-drying shed is normally a free-standing building, lying at a considerable distance from the remaining buildings on account of the danger of fire (Figs. 5 and 9). Two specimens which were investigated and measured are reproduced in Figs. 6 and 7, from respectively the island of Koltur and the village of Sand on Sandoy. The corn-drying equipment consists of a sort of oven, formed by building a wall across the house of the same materials as the outer walls, stone and soil. The cross-wall is a little under 1 metre high, and has in the centre an opening about 60 cms. wide. This opening is covered with a large flat stone and the top of the wall is spread with turves. Across the end wall of the shed there is normally a beam at the same height as the top of the cross-wall (though the beam may be replaced by a stone wall). From the beam to the cross-wall lathes are laid at intervals of about 10 cms. and above them is spread a layer of straw, no thicker than will allow the heat of the fire to penetrate through. The oven (sodnur) is now ready for use (see also fig. 8).

All the work in the sodnhus is done by women; in earlier days no man would under any circurnstances work there. The work was normally carried on by older, trustworthy women or by girls who had no connection with cultivation of corn. The sodnkona was in charge of all the work and alone gave orders as long as the work was in progress; she had normally 2-3 girls as assistants. During charging of the oven she stood on the platform herself and took the ears as they were brought in, spreading them in a layer 20-50 cms. thick upon the bed of straw. There were fixed rules as to the quantity of corn which could be dried at one time on a sodn. On average it was about 1 'tønde' (about 1.4 acres) of corn. Generally, however, it was not said that an oven could take a 'tønde' of corn, but that its capacity was this or that number of 'twelves' ( units of 12 sheaves, cf. section 1).

After the ears were spread out the drying could commence. lmmediately within the opening in the cross-wall a peat fire was laid, and the skill of the sodnkona was shown in keeping the fire burning evenly and steadily, without flaring up and setting fire to the straw and the corn. She therefore remained continuously in the shed during the whole drying process, which generally took a day and a night. Most often she insisted on being alone in the shed during the first lighting of the fire, with the argument that this was an event of importance, at which noone else should be present. Many other customs were connected with the work in the sodnhus. Only one will be mentioned here, the use of taboo-words. It was strictly forbidden to refer to fire and to the barn brush, which was made of birds' wings sewn together, by their normal names: eldur and kveistur. If it was necessary to name them then they were called: eimingur and kvinus.

The number of times that it was necessary to light up under the corn depended on the degree of dampness of the ears. When the first lighting was over there was free admission to the sodnhus, and here the people of the village, especially the children and the younger men and women, assembled in the dim light of the whale-oil lamp (kola) to listen to stories and legends and the like. Every now and then the sodnkona would get up onto the oven in order to turn the spread ears, to ensure that drying was even. The layer of straw was only used for a single drying and had to be changed if further dryings were to follow.


When the ears were completely dried they were threshed in the actual sodnhus. The threshing floor lay in front of the oven, often consisting merely of a layer of earth raised somewhat above the general floor level and kept dry and firm by the warmth of the oven. In later times this earth floor was replaced in many places by a wooden floor large enough for the corn to be threshed upon it. The ears and the loose grains were laid upon this threshing floor, the sodnkona standing up on the oven and filling the large wooden troughs which were used for cleaning the seed-corn. Her assistants stood besides the oven, took the full troughs and emptied them out on the floor.

A preliminary to the actual threshing was the breaking up of the ears and the levelling of the heap of corn, which was achieved by the women treading and trampling in it. This custom has survived to the present day, but was formerly of greater importance. Svabo relates in some detail: "The sodnkona with the help of 2 or 3 girls treads out the corn with bare feet against a plank or a door set slanting up against the wall until the ears are somewhat crushed, whereupon they go on to beating it with a club upon the floor, which is more generally of soil than of clay" (cf. moreover the description by Landt, op. cit., English edition London 1810).

The actual threshing was carried out with a threshing stick (treskitræ) (Figs. 8 and 10). However, both Svabo and the description of Tarnovius (op. cit.) a hundred years earlier show acquaintance with a primitive mode of threshing for which a round or an oval stone was used. This method was, however, probably only employed in cases where a small quantity of corn was to be threshed. In threshing with the stick the women kneel on the heap of corn and beat in unison, 2-4 persons taking part in the work at once. Threshing in the tiny room was unpleasant work on account of the quantities of dust and fragments of husk which filled the air. The women were therefore in their oldest clothes, laced- tightly at neck and wrist; their hair was protected by a tightly tied kerchief.

After the threshing came the cleaning, and for this long wooden troughs were used (Figs. 10 and 12). The corn was shaken backwards and forwards in these troughs, causing the chaff and ear fragments to collect on the surface where they could be skimmed off with the hands. Two troughs were generally used for each cleaning, a larger and a smaller one (In Eiði on Eysteroy they were called respectively foytingartrog and tiningartrog). When the corn was cleaned it was measured up, filled into sacks and transported back to the farm, where it was stored in the attic of the dwelling-house.

As payment for her work the sodnkona originally received certain quantities of grain in accordance with exactly defined rules, which are given in detail by Svabo: "While it is still the custom in certain places, it was earlier more common that the woman who looked after the sodn received, in addition to food and money, 1) turkageykn, as much corn as she could hold between both hands, from each sodn, 2) sodnkerakorn, the ears which fell down between the lathes and were half-burnt or much too quickly dried, 3) lættikorn, the corn left in the chaff after the corn had been cleaned. This last quantity she shared with the girls who helped her to thresh and to clean". In addition to this a regular sodnkona would receive a lamb at the time of the autumn butchering. Later her reward was fixed at a certain measure from each 'tønde· of corn.

The age of the sodnhus.

Philological reasons have been adduced for believing that the Faroe Islands learnt corn-drying from the Celtic area. The name sodn(ur) (Celtic corn: baking oven, corn-drying oven) is certainly a loan from that cultural area. Alex Bugge (op. cit.) assumes influences from that region in the Faroes and in Norway (where corn-drying ovens with the name sodn are also found) as early as the Viking Period. The earliest Norwegian examples are not dated earlier than 1314, while in the Faroes we first hear of corn-drying ovens in the writings of Tarnovius (1669). At the time of Svabo sodnhus were common of Suðeroy, where even the small farmers erected ovens for corn-drying in their dwelling-houses, but unknown on Norðeroyarna. Unfortunately no information is given as to the situation on the other islands. The sodnhus have gradually spread to practically all the villages where corn was cultivated, even though the villages on Norðeroyarna joined the process at a very late stage. It was the farmers with large holdings who led the way in this extension; in many places they were the only ones to own a sodnhus, which they placed at the disposal of the other villagers for the drying of their smaller quantities of corn, for little or no payment. This was the case, for example, on Norðeroyarna.

The age of corn-drying.

This question cannot be answered on a basis of the Faroese material. A very primitive method of corn drying is well-known from the Celtic area, the classical description of which is to be found in Martin Martin 61) 63). Svabo tells of it in Iceland, but the method is still unknown from the Faroes, whereas it is known from many other parts of Europe. The Swedish ethnologist Dag Trotzig 63), has suggested that in this method lay the origin of drying of corn in straw, which is known not only from the Atlantic islands but also from northeast Europe. In the concluding section the author has given a short description of the most important features of the corn-drying ovens in these two areas 64) 65), and emphasized the difficulty of fitting the Faroese (and North Shetland) oven forms into the context of the Celtic group. Ovens from the Faroes (and North Shetland) show a closer relationship with an extensive group of simpler installations for drying flax and fruit (chestnuts) found both in northern Europe and in south and central Europe 70) 71). This group may well be called the Central European. That the ovens in this area were not used for drying corn is due to the fact that no such process was necessary, the corn ripening to such a degree that nothing was needed except perhaps a final drying after threshing. But in the marginal areas of this region it was necessary to dry the unthreshed grain, and therefore the simple drying oven is found in use for the drying of unthreshed grain in the Faroes (and North Shetland) as well as in certain parts of Russia, where the so-called kegleriege or schisch 75) is interpreted by the author as a variant of the Central European group and not, as Laid and others would believe 64), as a forerunner of the fully developed northeast European riege. The view of the author is therefore that the Faroese oven can be explained as typologically belonging to the Central European group, but as having borrowed its name (and possibly certain improvements) from the Celtic area. Drying of corn in straw was probably at one time necessary in the Central European region as well. Among the evidence for this may be counted the numerous discoveries of charred corn in the Early lron Age sites in Denmark and elsewhere. Helbæk 77) also postulates the existence of such a drying system, but is more disposed to explain it by the cultivation of a new type of grain, spelt. Doubtless the worsening of the climate in that period also contributed to making the drying of corn in straw necessary. For this the necessity of such drying in the Faroe Islands is part of the evidence.

Holger Rasmussen





Rasmussen, H. (1955). Korntørring og -tærskning på Færøerne. Kuml, 5(5), 131–157. https://doi.org/10.7146/kuml.v5i5.97196