Ten Days in Iceland (2013-08-02/08-12)
in Iceland, and all the linked pictures, by Andy
Pepperdine is made available under Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Iceland - the Country and History
For three weeks in the summer of 2013 I visited Iceland. After the conference, which was one of my aims, I first
occupied myself around the city of Reykjavik, before I met a group of holidaymakers
from the Ramblers to go walking and seeing more of the country.
According to the Icelandic historian Ari Þorgilsson (1067 - 1148) history
started in 874. He was writing at about 1130 and is thought to be the mist
trustworthy, and often called “fróði”, or the Learned.
We are almost sure of the date. In 871 +/- 2, the Icelandic volcano Hekla
erupted ejecting a great deal of ash. Some of it fell on Greenland, where
recently boreholes in the ice show layers by which we can count the years.
In Iceland the layer of dust from Hekla lies under all the ruined walls and
other evidence, with only one exception. Rumours of Irish monks living there
earlier are probably only rumours, because no certain trace of them has ben
The first definite inhabitant was Ingólfur Arnarson, who named the bay in
the southwest Reykjavik, the smoky bay, due to many steam emitting hot
springs in the area.
In 880 Haraldar united Norway, and with stability came self-confidence. Soon
several hundred moved onto the island. Now we have DNA analysis, we discover
that 80% of the men came from Scandinavia, and two-thirds of the women from
Ireland and the islands off northwest Scotland.
So Friday found me waiting for my fellow holidaymakers at the airport in
Keflavik, and then we immediately travelled by bus to the village of
Reykholt, where once lived Snorri Sturluson, one of the most well-known
poets, historians and lawmakers. He wrote an excellent work on poetry, and
became in the early 1200s the chief diplomat for Iceland at the court of
King Haakon IV. Unfortunately the friendship did not last and Haakon ordered
his death at his home in Reykholt. Supposedly he is buried nearby, but we do
not know where.
His most famous work, the so-called “Snorra Edda”, was written in three
parts, the first about Nordic myths, the second about the language, and the
third about metre and rhythm in poetry. Although he wrote it in 1225, nearly
800 years later it is still relevant to Icelandic literature.
For a long time, the village was a centre of learning, but nowadays the
building is a museum in front of which stands the statue of Snorri, and behind it one finds the
the hot bath where he washed, and is described well in the notice in Icelandic and English. The water
comes from a hot spring Skrifla nearby, which is now covered and decorated
with a sculpture. You can also see greenhouses, since everywhere hot water
occurs, the Icelanders will use it.
The old village church has a simple interior.
The following day we took our first excursion into the landscape, mostly along
well-made tracks under a pleasant sky. Lakes abound and the hillsides show how they were formed
through seismic activity and erosion.
The island is very geologically. It sits across the gap between Europe and
America, on the mid-Atlantic ridge where there is a lot of seismic
disturbance and volcanoes. The widening is at the rate of about 2 cm per
year. If you count backwards, you will see that the country cannot be more
than 20 million years old; in fact the best estimate is 17 million years,
which makes it the youngest country in the world.
We do not know exactly when the first people arrived there. It is possible
that the ancient Greek Pytheas visited in about 350 B.C.E. However we do not
ahve his book, only some quotes by other writers in the intervening
centuries. If he did, then the people of northern Scotland knew of the
place, because he set sail north from there with them. Although his
description of an island fits Iceland, it's not east to understand that the
voyage took only five days to get there.
Iron is found in many places, after it has been carried up by seismically,
and one can see the results in a few rusty streams. At first the islanders found
the iron in marshes (the so-called bog iron), which enabled them to make
their farm implements. However, smelting iron demands a lot of fuel, so 100
years after they arrived, the forests had disappeared, forests which it is
estimated occupied 30% of the area of the island.
We ate lunch in quiet
surroundings looking across a lake on which swam a pair of Whooper swans
(Cygnus cygnus); but they did not
sing for us.
In the morning we had got off the coach at Bifröst. I felt I had heard the
name before, and when I enquired of the bus driver, he explained it was
where, according to the old sagas, one could climb to the Gods up a rainbow,
or perhaps Bifröst was the name of the rainbow. While we were walking back
there in the afternoon we saw the strange shapes of the mountains, including
cliff behind the village. I could not help wondering whether the story
came from the mountain, or the name of the mountain from the story.
The clouds hid the sun all day Sunday, but that did not present us from
ascending along the side of Raucsgill
and on to the top of Burfell. Raucsgill is a strange name, since it contains
the letter “c”, that is what was on the map our guide was carrying; it
looked more like a name from northern England. A river flows through it across several waterfalls.
As we went further it got more difficult, the weather got colder, and the
wind stronger. Some found shelter to eat their sandwiches, others retreated
somewhat to do likewise. Only four reached the very top due to the
On the way down, the guide mentioned “arctic stone circles”,
in which you can see that the small regions of ground consisting of very
small particles surrounded by larger pebbles. Ten years ago scientists
suggested an explanation for them. Each year the earth freezes and melts. No
earth is completely dry, and in fact the smaller the stones, the damper they
remain. So when the winter comes, there is created between the finer
particles more ice, which pushes the larger stones away. Over a long time,
these formations appear.
On that day we also got a close up view of the Icelandic horses, which have a reputation of being
the most sure-footed, which means that they are very popular throughout the
world, and are an important export. When you see the broken terrain on which
they live, you quickly understand that putting a foot down a hole is not a
We began Monday with a visit to the hot
spring at Deildartunguhver,
which supplies hot water at 100 C at a rate of 180 litres per second to the
town of Akranes 74
kilometres away, where it arrives at 73 degrees. Despite its utility
function the architecture
The enxt stop brought us to the kilometre long Kola Canyon (Kolugljúfur), which according to
folklore was dug by the troll. In some places it is 40 or 50 metres deep, but no
one jumped in. According to the stories she and her treasure ware buried
under a nearby hayfield and the hill is protected by her curse.
Later we came to a museum, which reminded me of the fact that the Icelanders
had chopped down almost all the trees early in their occupation of the
island. Without wood, how did they build houses? The answer can be seen
at Glaumbær, where there are several reconstructed houses of stone and
turf, using wood only where
necessary. Inside it
is dark, but the examples had some wood for a roof and walls, the turf was used for insulation
against the cold.
Finally we arrived at our destination Akureyri, which was our base for the
next four nights. Akureyri stands at the southern end of a fjord on the
northern coast and is known as Iceland's second "city", but really has only
In the morning we set off under low cloud to climb Sulur a nearby mountain. As
we gained height we got good views of the town. The clouds stayed just above us for
the morning, but finally we got into them and it began to snow. Nine of us,
me among them, decided it was not worth continuing the ascent and returned
to the town. I spent the rest of the day walking around the place looking at
the obligatory art
work. I will leave it to you to translate the attached plaque.
The shone on the town while the clouds covered the hilltops.
Wednesday found us on another excursion, when the first stop on the other
side of the fjord was short while we took photographs over to the town. The place clearly expects a lot
of tourists, because the map
there is very useful, and shows Sulur the mountain we were climbing the day
The next stop
occurred at Goðafoss
on the river Skjálfandafljót the fourth longest in Iceland. The name means
the "Waterfall of the Gods". According to their history in the year 1000 the
Norwegian authorities insisted that Icelanders decided whether they were
Christians or not. The legend is that Þorgeir the lawspeaker at that time
thought the matter over one night, and in the morning announced that the
laws would be on Christian principles, but people had the right to do at
home whatever they wanted. Afterwards he threw away the books on the ancient
Nordic customs into the waterfall at Goðafoss. When the church was founded
of course they collected the taxes.
After we moved on to the lake Myvatn,
or Lake of Midges, named from the abundance of midges and flies there, which
attract in summer lots of birds.
Also there are several formations that look like volcanic craters, but in reality are not.
Instead they were formed by exploding steam when lava from deep underground
rose and reached the water near the surface. The Earth was blowing bubbles
From there it is not far to the lava field at Dimmuborgir, a popular tourist
attraction with several
paths and strange shapes in the rocks, like this almost human profile, some even with
through them. One is called The
Church, in which is even a beam
to support it.
Back on the bus and further on the road we passed a piece of pipe showing that the island is still
expanding, in contrast to Britain where the sea is wearing away the land.
Such cracks are found in many places; another one is at Grjótagjá is next to several caves containing warm pools, but
after the last earthquake they became dangerous. The Icelandic idea of
“health and safety” consists of putting up a notice,
which says: “Warning! Rocks have recently fallen from the roof of the cave,
not for the last time!”.
Back to the bus, back onto the road,another stop, out of the bus, and what a
is a region of very hot temperatures, fumaroles
and mud pools.
(Please excuse me, I haven't learnt how to capture a smell on a picture,
just imagine the hydrogen sulphide from an enormous heap of rotting eggs.)
The ground around is so hot that plants cannot
survive, but at one time sulphur was mined here, and at other sites in
Iceland, for use in gunpowder.
It was good to come back to fresh air at the geothermal electricity generating plant. The pipes
across the picture carry hot water to the plant from boreholes, each covered
by a protective dome.
Close by lies Víti
another burst bubble, but much bigger than the ones we saw before. The
poplar name for it is “Hell's Crater” and it was formed in historical times
in 1724; I wondered whether it deafened any local sheep or horses.
The local area is called Krafla, where a lava
flow appeared between 1975 and 1984, after they had started building
the electricity plant, and so the finishing of it was delayed. Unfortunately
the flow was running in the direction of the buildings; but luckily it did
not quite reach them.
On the local hills you can clearly see the yellow sulphur pushed out by the pressure of
steam from below.
I spent Thursday wandering around Akureyri. One of the first sights was the
many heart shaped red traffic lights. I had heard that the
financial collapse in 2008 hit the town so hard that they wanted something
which could cheer them up. Someone suggested a heart as a symbol, and ig
appeared in many locations as well as the red lights. I think it is a
charming idea, and I hope that it will become a tradition.
Due to a favourable climate the botanical
gardens contains much
which, one would imagine, could not grow there. Near the footpath behind the
town they grow several
vegetables in the open, among other things potatoes, cabbages,
rhubarb, turnips, and red currants.
stands proudly on the hill overlooking
the town, but the chimes are out of tune. During the second world war the
cathedral in Coventry, Britain, suffered great damage through the bombing.
Some of the stained glass windows had been saved, and afterwards were
transported to behind the altar
in Akureyri. Iceland now ensures they are not lost. The firm of Wippel &
Co of Exeter, Britain, designed and made the other newer windows.
One of the museums was showing sculptures
by Aðalhieður Eysteinsdóttir, which she made from pieces of waste wood. From such simple resources she
gives them very expressive faces.
Ffriday us a long shaking noisy jarring journey along rough roads thjrough
the centre of the island on the way back to the south western corner of the
map. We stopped at Hveravellir (Hot Spring Field) which is one of the
largest hot regions and sits at 650 metres above sea level. It has always
been a stopping point for travellers going between the north and Þingvellir.
One of the fumaroles, perhaps this
one, was named by two scientists en 1752 Óskurhóll (Shrieking mound)
because of the noise it gave out, but now it is silent. No one has lived
here apart from a period of 20 years around 1760 when the outlaw Eyvindar
and his wife was on the run by living in a small cave and natural fort. Nowadays here there are good
tourist facilities, a hot bath, camp sites, etc.
After a quick visit to Gullfoss
we continued to the most important place en Icelandic history.
At the beginning the local chiefs ruled their local population alone. But in
930 they realised that needed some sort of meeting, somewhere where they
could answer questions about the law in a standard manner across the
country. The set up the parliament Alþing after they decided that they would
never have a king. They chose a plain, where everyone could fairly easily
get to and that became Þingvellir
or the Parliament Field. Although of course they did not know at the time,
it is situated between two tectonic plates, where Europe and America are
moving away from one an other. The gap between them is seven kilometres wide, and also
contains the largest
lake in Iceland.
Under the American
cliff stands the Law Rock, where important matters were discussed. Now
a flagstaff shows the place.
Because in the beginning nothing was written down, a typical Scandinavain
official, the Law Speaker, had the job of memorising the laws, and
announcing them when they were debated. It was the most important post, and
each usually served for three years at a time. Later, when they began to
write the laws, he became the person who interpreted the law, said what it
was intended for.
Over the centuries diverse churches
have been constructed at Þingvellir, and one of the interesting functions of
it relates to commerce and trade. It was necessary that they agreed on how
long a unit of length was. On the wall of the church stood the standard
measuring stick of the length of 20 "ell". One ell began as the distance
from elbow to fingertip, which obviously differs from person to person. So
they normalised it with a stick at Þingvellir church.
Despite the earth continually changing, some things did not change. The
language is almost the same as when Ari wrote it. The horses, sheep, cows
are direct descendants of the first ones on the island, which the early
inhabitants kept and ate. When the trees had been chopped down, the earth
was very suitable for cultivation initially. Nut slowly it deteriorated
through erosion and over-use, until now when more trees are being planted.
During the middle ages they traded in wool and walrus tusks until 1700 when
new ideas had to be found, after the Europeans discovered cheaper ivory from
elephants. So they started to produce leather, textiles, to use better
farming methods. Being on an island, they always caught fish, and despite
them trading fish since 1300, it was not until 1600 that a fisherman was a
proper job and someone could support themselves through it.
Famines were common in such a severe climate, but they always kept very good
records. The carried out the first census in the world in 1703 finding
50.000 people in the country, but after 100 years only 47,000 were left
after three periods of severe shortages that had occurred during the
In the evening we arrived at the hotel in Hveragerði, the centre for
glasshouse cultivation which sits on an active seismic region of hot pools.
Even further up
the valleys there are more hot springs.
Saturday brought with it more mist and drizzle saturating the usual outdoor
Elsewhere there were artistic
seats. In a local shopping mall you can see walk over a split
in the ground covered by thick dark glass, through which can be seen the
deep hole. The church
designed by Jónindur Pálsson is another piece of impressive architecture;
Everywhere the Icelanders have made their surroundings good and interesting.
We spent Sunday in Reykjavik, which I had seen before, and I flew away on
Monday from a fascinating place with good memories of a strong and clever
Days in Iceland, and all the linked pictures,
by Andy Pepperdine
is made available under Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.