The Faroe Islanders’ winter tradition of throwing their doors open to neighbours has inspired a new music festival, with village homes for stages

Should you ever wonder what makes the Faroese tick, knock on a few doors. You’ll have to knock – no one fits anything so punctilious as a doorbell in a nation whose 48,000 citizens can gripe directly to the prime minister during his morning swim in the local pool.

Nor does anyone much bother to wait outside. No, the trick to house-visits up here, I’m told at door number three, is to knock, pop your head in (no one bothers with locks either) and shout hello.

To be at home in the Faroe Islands is pretty much to have an open door to guests.

Hoyma music festival is a bit like that. Instead of stages, the festival is staged in ten homes in Sy∂rugöta village. Instead of an international line-up, it showcases all-Faroese artists, from a classical guitarist and an alt-folk duo to a Grammy-nominated singer and reclusive folk hero.

It is, organiser Jón Tyril explains when I find him behind door number four on a chill November afternoon, an anti-festival: “No stages, no amps, no lighting, no security.”

Yet Hoyma – a phonetic rendering of the Faroese word for home, heima – taps deeper wellsprings of Faroese culture than that. Try proposing that a British village welcomes 500 strangers into its sitting rooms and see how far you get.

When the Danish crown outlawed Faroese in 1538, the language went underground, preserved in homes by stories and songs, and shared during the húsagonga; the tradition of “house-walking” by which communities celebrated and endured long winters. “Faroese survived by us coming together, by sharing,” Jón says. “That’s what Hoyma is.”

Ideas about “home” are foremost in the Faroes nowadays. Once derided as a backwater, the islands have flowered creatively as returning expats like Jón see their culture with a fresh eye. Gudrun & Gudrun has made fishermen’s woollies high fashion; Sarah Lund’s The Killing jumper was one of theirs. Koks restaurant is at the vanguard of the new Nordic food movement, refining survival foods into pure pleasure.

Browse shops in Tórshaven, a pocket-sized Reykjavik with Scandi design boutiques and Hobbity grass-roofed restaurants serving astonishingly fresh fish and musty, air-dried lamb, and you’d think there are as many homegrown creatives as sheep.

I visit it when fog cancels my helicopter flight to a neighbouring island. The weather has the final say on every itinerary in the Faroes. The Faroese make jokes about their homeland as the “Land of Maybe”.

At such times a remote archipelago between the Shetland Isles and Iceland feels an odd choice for a winter break. But in recent years I’ve found myself drawn north out of season: to the Highlands, Iceland, the Norweigan Arctic. I tell myself it’s because of a warmer coat. But really it’s something else. It’s a hankering for somewhere to quieten the soul as civilised life accelerates. “You go fast in Europe,” an elderly Faroese man said to me. “You forget old things. Important things.”

The Faroes in winter is the ultimate get-away to remember what matters. Around 37,000 people disembark at Vágar Airport each month over summer. In winter it’s 15,000, most of them Faroese commuting to Copenhagen. Free of holidaymakers, the scenery reverts to a more ancient place.

At a loose end because of the weather, I take a drive from Tórshaven. I have no plans, but within a few hours I watch islands capsize into the sea and see a waterfall flow upwards, spun into the sky as whirling vortices by the wind. At one point I punch through the fog and seem to be aloft on a celestial highway. Even as I write this, it feels less a road-trip than a Viking saga.

Nor does winter mean darkness. Surrounded by empty ocean, the islands are lit by ethreal, crepuscular light. The sun shoots above the horizon to melt clouds and gild the turf-roofed villages. The sea changes from indigo to slate, pewter then silver within seconds. At night there’s the off-chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

It’s not even that cold – the gulfstream maintains a winter average of 5˚C.

On a walk at the tip of western island Vágar, I fall in with a farmer. Winter is his favourite time, he says as we ascend: the nature, the colours, the 18-metre seas detonating on cliffs. “The quiet too – in summer we would queue on this path.”

We crest the hill and the land vanishes into black cliffs where kittiwakes wheel. Ringed by mountains ahead is Gásadalar, a hamlet which teeters on a cliff by a waterfall. It could be a set from Game of Thrones but no one would believe it.

For centuries you could only walk or sail in. Then in 2006 the government bored a tunnel for its eight inhabitants at a cost of £26 million. It would’ve been cheaper to give everyone a helicopter.

Totally irrational, the farmer agrees. “But true Faroese is not about money. It’s about respecting nature and community.” Anyway, he adds, the tunnel worked: 13 people now live in the village.

Back in Sy∂rugöta, there’s much talk of community in the Hoyma green room (actually the village hall). Yet nerves flutter. An acoustic gig in a living room leaves nowhere to hide.

Greta Svabo Bech may’ve won a Grammy nomination for work with dance music giant Dedmau5 and been covered by Cher. But now she sits on a stool lit by an IKEA lamp in Sy∂rugöta 11. Crammed to the walls, its modern Scandinavian lounge could be in Copenhagen. Then Greta starts to sing. The songs are about captured spirits and lovesick trolls and departing soldiers. The sound is as haunting and powerful as the scenery outside.

For two hours I hop between living rooms. In the streets, Sy∂rugöta is festive with Faroese of all ages. But it’s still a joy to stand in a warm busy kitchen and see concerts that feel less like gigs than gatherings of friends.

Around 10pm, I’m in a modern open-plan lounge to see Kári P. For your average Faroese, he is Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney rolled into one, his ballads from the 1970s still ubiquitous on the radio.

Greying and nervous, he stands with his back against a wall, strums a few chords and starts to sing. From elfin 18-year-old to beer-swilling 60-something, the crowd of 80 or so picks up the tune; sotto voce at first, then swelling into the chorus.

Somewhere out there in the darkness are ice-gnawed mountains and seas that will freeze you to death in minutes. But here we are, snug and warm, singing together. Hoyma sweet Hoyma.