Iceland: The only country where whale hunting and whale watching go side by side

October 25, 2021
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ICELAND! So many people asked me ‘Why Iceland?’ when I told them I was headed there. Well, it was simple. I wanted to go to a country that had told the International Monetary Fund where to go!

How to get there? Easy. I bought a return plane ticket from Auckland, New Zealand to Barcelona, flying British Airways, and then from Barcelona to Reykjavík, flying Vueling. You could also fly to Amsterdam return from Auckland for NZ $1,700 and then, if you had time, take a ferry from Amsterdam to the Faroe Islands and then on to Reykjavík. There are all sorts of other connections and it’s not really an epic at all.

Keflavík International Airport, where I arrived, is about fifty kilometres from Reykjavík, the small but popular capital of Iceland. Reykjavík is home to two-thirds of the country’s population if we include its outlying villages and towns, and also contains Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s constituency.

A Land of Fire, as well as Ice — and some Greenery!

Keflavík is also on the Reykjanes Peninsula, in the news lately because of the eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano after nearly eight hundred years of no volcanic eruptions on the peninsula and many thousands of years of Fagradalsfjall’s own dormancy.

Eruption at Geldingadalir, one of the peaks of Fagradalsfjall. Photo by ‘Berserkur’, 24 March 2021, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There is just about always a volcano erupting somewhere or other in Iceland, every two years on average. Before Fagradallsfjall, there was the larger eruption at Eyafjallajökull in 2010, which shut down air travel over much of Europe for weeks for fear that the ash plume would damage aircraft engines. Before that, in 1973, a new volcano named Eldfell forced the temporary evacuation of Heimaey, the only permanently inhabited island in the Vestmannaeyjar, Icelandic for ‘Irishman Islands’. And that is to list only a few of the most newsworthy eruptions of the last fifty-odd years!

Along with plagues such as the late-mediaeval Black Death and an outbreak of smallpox in the early 1700s, volcanic eruptions have also caused much devastation and loss of life in Iceland. The most fatal volcanic event was a long-continuing eruption of the volcano Laki throughout the second half of 1783 and on into early 1784, forming a string of craters called the Lakagígar (Laki’s Craters). The eruption damaged farmland and lead to mass starvation. Indeed, about nine thousand Icelanders starved to death or otherwise perished because of the Lakagígar eruptions, out of a population of around fifty thousand at the time. This event came to be known in Iceland as the ‘Mist Hardships’ because of the hazy, poisonous vapours the volcano emitted.

Nor was the starvation confined to Iceland. Due to the blotting-out of the sun by volcanic mists, famine and hardship were experienced around the Northern Hemisphere, with severe effects even in distant places.

For instance, perhaps as many as a sixth of the population of Egypt perished due to a failure of the Nile floods that scientists have linked to the Lakagígar eruption’s effects on rainfall patterns in Africa. The peasants and townsfolk of France also suffered hardships that may have contributed to the French Revolution of 1789.

Icelandic eruptions can thus have global effects, in ways that remind us of how much things are interconnected and also of how precarious normal life, and for that matter a normal climate, can be.

Moreover, Iceland’s volcanoes erupt often. There is a volcanic eruption every two years on average in Iceland. Volcanic eruptions in Iceland are thus not once-in-a-lifetime events, but continual and routine.

And this is because the country is on the mid-Atlantic Ridge: a massive geological feature from which the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean are diverging along with their associated tectonic plates, the various sections into which the Earth’s crust is divided. As the crust spreads apart, molten volcanic lava wells up and creates new rock, by way of volcanic eruptions.

In Iceland the two plates that are spreading apart are called the North American Plate, which includes much of North America, and the Eurasian Plate which includes much of Europe and Asia. People therefore like to say that part of Iceland is in America and the other part in Europe from a geological point of view, even if the whole country is considered to be in Europe from a political and cultural point of view.

Map showing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge splitting Iceland and separating the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The map also shows Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, the Thingvellir area, and the locations of some of Iceland’s active volcanoes (red triangles), including Krafla. Public domain image (1999) from the US Geological Service, via Wikimedia Commons, whence also the map description.

Iceland’s more or less continual form of volcanism is similar to what goes on elsewhere along the ridge, but underwater, where because of the pressure of the water it takes a less explosive form. The molten lava simply extrudes into the cold seawater and solidifies at once.

A high level of volcanic activity also means that Iceland has many hot springs, some of which are good for bathing, while others are tapped for geothermal power and home heating.

In some of the places where the mid-Atlantic Ridge crosses Iceland, there are narrow fissures of which people like to say that America is on one side and Europe on the other. One of these is the Silfra Fissure just outside Reykjavík, which is filled with absolutely clear freshwater. Diving tours are organised both with scuba gear for experienced divers, and with snorkels for ordinary folk.

Bridging the nominal divide between America and Europe at the Silfra Fissure. Photo by Ex nihil, 11 June 2014, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Silfra Fissure, which first appeared after an earthquake in 1789, widens by around two to two-and-a-half centimetres a year; so, it will not be possible to bridge it with both arms, as a diver is doing in the photo above, for much longer in that spot! On the Reykjanes Peninsula, southwest of Reykjavík, a continuation of the same crack is spanned by the Leif the Lucky Bridge, also known as the bridge between continents.

Leif the Lucky Bridge: Bridge between continents in Reykjanes peninsula, southwest Iceland across the Alfagja rift valley, the boundary of the Eurasian and North American continental tectonic plates.’ Photo by Chris 73, 25 June 2006, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Surplus white sky has been trimmed out for this post.

Because of all the volcanic activity associated with seafloor spreading, as well as the Arctic cold which has led to part of the interior being covered by the icecaps that help to give the country its name, only a fifth of Iceland is habitable.

Having said that, the parts that are habitable, generally near the coast, are quite green. That is because Iceland is warmed by the Irminger Current, a branch of the Gulf Stream. There is no shortage of trees in Reykjavik, for example, as well as in some sheltered valleys and coastal towns elsewhere.

‘View from the top of Ásbyrgi canyon. Hiking trail from Dettifoss to Ásbyrgi, Iceland’. Photo by Michal Klajban, 27 July 2017, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I even thought that Iceland and neighbouring Greenland — where you are much less likely to come across a tree than in Iceland — should change names!

A Viking-Celtic Colony

Along with volcanoes and hot springs, Iceland also has a rich, long history. Much of that history is recorded in the famous Icelandic sagas, a series of books of mythology and stories from Iceland’s early Viking era. In fact, the Icelandic sagas preserve much of what we know about the culture of the Viking era in general.

After the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians became Christians they became inclined to forget about that old stuff (‘we’re civilised Europeans now’) and lost touch with their older, pagan culture. It survived, however, in the Icelandic sagas.

Because of Iceland’s remote location and harsh climate, it was one of the last places in the world to become inhabited by people. Norse settlement is thought to have begun around 870 CE, and this is also thought to be the first peopling of the island, or at any rate the first peopling of which there is reliable evidence.

There may also have been a handful of Irish religious hermits in Iceland before that date. If so, they would have chosen a first-rate place to get away from the temptations of what passed for civilisation in Western Europe at the time. A first-rate place to get away from it all, at least until the Vikings showed up to spoil the party. Or rather to get the party going, more like.

In the Viking Age, the Scandinavians, also known then as the Norse, all spoke one language — Old Norse — which diverged from more southerly Germanic dialects, such as the Anglo-Saxon ones that would go on to become the main ancestor of English, sometime around 500 CE.

The word Viking is thought to come from the Old Norse and modern Icelandic word for a coastal bay or inlet, vík, either from a general association of bays and inlets with seafaring or from the fact that the Skagerrak, the huge bay that forms the approaches to Norway, Denmark and Sweden from the North Sea, used to be known to locals simply as ‘the Bay’.

Certainly, in its day, the word víking referred to the activity of those who set sail in search of adventure, trade, and plunder. In Old Norse, víking was a verb form. As we go hiking or biking, the Norse used to go viking!

To speak of a Viking as a person, in the day, the Norse used the masculine noun víkingr, meaning ‘vikinger’ or he who went viking; its plural was víkingar or men who went viking. If you wanted to talk about a viking’s possessions, you used víkings. Like many European languages, apart from English, Old Norse routinely assigned gender to nouns, no doubt realistically so in the case of the víkingar.

After Iceland was colonised, Old Norse diverged into a variety of languages that today include Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese, the language of the Faroe Islands, which lie between Scotland and Iceland.

Of all these closely related languages, Icelandic is the one that is still closest to Old Norse.

Old Norse was originally written in runes, the strange, scratch-like alphabet that you find on many standing stones in northern Europe.

Modern Icelandic, and historical Old Norse texts today, are written in a Latin alphabet similar to that of English, but with some accents and dots on top of the vowels that modify their pronunciation, a run-together æ as in Danish, and also the highly distinctive characters ð, which never appears at the start of a word but which is written Ð if the whole word is in capital letters, and another symbol written þ in lower case and Þ as a capital. These are called eth and thorn respectively.

Eth and thorn represent ‘th’ sounds that also exist in English, but which have died out in Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. Eth is th as in ‘that’, while thorn is usually pronounced as in ‘through’ or ‘thick’. In Iceland, the letter name eth is written as eð and thorn is written as þorn.

It is easy for a modern English-speaker to mistake thorn for a ‘p’, and eth for a ‘d’, so these are both something to watch out for.

In fact, thorn and eth used to exist in English as well. Eth died out in English with the coming of print, as there was no such letter in typesets imported from Continental Europe. Thorn survived for another couple of hundred years but was represented by the letter Y/y, the letter I/i being used where we would now write Y/y.

That is where the myth that people said ‘ye’ for ‘the’ in older forms of English comes from. A myth that one scholarly blogger rather wittily calls ‘Ye Old Mispronunciation’: I hat-tip that post in the references at the end of this chapter. Anyway, the Icelanders, though few, were more stubborn than the British and insisted on the manufacture of typesets that did contain eth and thorn.

It seems that when the Norse arrived in Iceland, they also brought slaves from raids in Ireland and Scotland with them. Certainly, they brought women from Ireland and Scotland. 62% of Icelanders’ maternal genetics are of Gaelic and Celtic descent, which is much higher than other Scandinavian countries, while the paternal genetic pool is dominated by Norse genes.

In old Norse, the Celtic peoples, above all those Celts with whom the Norse had most interaction, namely the Irish and the closely related Scots Gaels (themselves from Ireland) were called Vestmenn, or ‘west men’. This was because Ireland and all the other areas where Celts were found were to the west of European Scandinavia. The Icelanders retain the same term, though of course Iceland is further west still. Whence, the Vestmannaeyjar.

It was all stuff I found completely fascinating! As I also found some of the similarities between Icelandic and English, similarities which can partly be explained by the fact that Old Norse was related to Anglo-Saxon. And by the fact that after Great Britain was colonised by the Anglo-Saxons, parts of modern-day Ireland, Scotland and northern England were then colonised by the Vikings as well.

Why I went

As I mentioned at the start, one of the main reasons I went to Iceland was because of their response to the 2008 financial crisis. The Icelandic economy was doing quite well until then. When the financial crisis happened, the Icelandic government refused to bail out the banks and in doing so showed favour to the taxpayers over the banks.

This, of course, caused an international stir. Iceland even went as far as prosecuting and jailing four businessmen who were responsible for lending more money than they ever should have. Unlike other countries suffering from the recession Iceland made hardly any cuts to social welfare payments. I had to admire them for that.

I also wanted to find out how they survived — how did people in Iceland make their money?

Cool Reykjavík

The capital city, Reykjavík, was the first part of the country that I explored. It was one of the cleanest, safest and most prosperous-looking cities I had ever visited. There were few signs that the nation had been in financial difficulties.

Reykjavík overlooked toward Esjan (the Esja) a mountain massif just northeast of the city. Photo by MartinPutz, 7 April 2010, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Reykjavík is a hugely popular tourist destination, and tourism counts as the second largest source of income for Iceland. So, maybe that helped.

I went in the off season as I knew how busy it got, and I wanted an experience without the overloading of tourists. It was a deliberate endeavour to give myself more of a chance to meet the locals and see what happened outside of the busy season.

As I was driving around the city, I noticed how many of the buildings were made from driftwood and corrugated iron. Apparently, that was how everything had looked prior to the modernisation of the city.

I arrived on a Sunday. I didn’t have much to do that day, so I took myself to an 11 a.m. sermon at Hallgrimskirkja: what better way to meet the locals. It was a Lutheran church, and a very simple one at that. No stained-glass windows or gilding inside. The church was quite fascinating.

It was a modern building, with a tower over seventy metres high. It was the largest church in all Iceland. It took over forty years to build and was finally completed in 1986. It was then named after the seventeenth-century Lutheran preacher Hallgrimur Petursson, the author of a body of work called the Passion Hymns.

The pipe organ, purchased from generous donations from the community, was probably the only decorative thing within the church. I enjoyed it though and mingled with a few of the locals after the service. The language wasn’t a barrier either, as most people were bilingual and spoke both Icelandic and English.

My accommodation was simple and modest: a hostel in Reykjavík that only cost US $50 a night. It had a double bed. Thankfully it was really warm, and so comfortable! I noticed that the advertisement for the hostel showed an Icelandic mother and her child who were meant to live in the hostel.

I found out though that it was managed by an American, who really didn’t want to be bothered. I was trying to get some printouts of mortgage documents, thanks to my ongoing Queenstown drama, and they didn’t want to help me there, so I crossed the road to the Bus Hostel — they were fabulous! Even though I wasn’t staying there they helped me print off everything I needed. Next time I go to Iceland I will be staying there! Good customer service goes a long way.

I went to the local tourist office to get a map of the whole country, so I could plan what I was going to do. Surprisingly enough I wasn’t able to get one, so I downloaded one off Lonely Planet instead. I needed to see what I was going to do and the approximate times it would take to travel by car.

I was going to hire a car as there were no trains or other forms of long-distance public transport to get around, as far as I could tell. I didn’t want to do a coach tour either. I get bored very easily, so I wanted to plan everything that I wanted to do, not tag along with a bunch of gaggling tourists. I wanted extreme adventure — I thrived on it.

One thing I loved about Reykjavík was the outdoor art sculptures around the town. There were even a few sculpture trails that ran through the central city, and I stumbled upon heaps of great outdoor art works. I loved the simple themes of love and landscape that was evident in them all. I also found the Einar Jonsson art museum, home to a range of classical sculptures surrounded by park-like settings.

Einar Jonsson was Iceland’s very first sculptor, and he lived in the house, that then became the museum, until his death in 1954.

I found the Sun Voyager Sculpture, Sólfar, down by the Reykjavík waterfront not too far from Opera House. It is a stunning outdoor sculpture of a boat, crafted by the artist Jón Gunnar Árnason, said to be a monument to the sun. He also described it is a boat of hope, the future, and exploration of undiscovered territories.

Reykjavík was filled with museums, so I was in my element. I did the Iceland Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum — that was very cool — and an old Viking Long House in Hofsstaðir Historic Park. The National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavík showed me the history of Iceland through art, sculptures, and exhibitions.

The National Museum was where I learned that the first settlers to Iceland were from Norway, with a large admixture of Celts from the British Isles.

The harbour in Reykjavík was a great spot to hang out and I spent a lot of time there, strolling along the waterfront and captivated by the icebergs out at sea. There were plenty of whale-watching boats for tourists anchored there, alongside whale-hunting boats.

Food Traditions

I was found the takeaway bar where Bill Clinton ate a hot dog in 2004! Apparently, it was such a big deal they named a mustard-only one after him. I didn’t feel appetized enough to eat a Bill Clinton hot dog, so I carried on walking. Actually, I should have had one, but with the five traditional condiments: mustard, tomato sauce, crispy fried onions, fresh onions, and remoulade, a yellow, gherkiny sauce that’s a mixture of mustard and what we call picallili. Icelandic hot dogs (pulser or pylser, from the word for sausage) are supposed to be about the best in the world, with real German-cum-Scandinavian-cum-Icelandic style sausages; and only picky foreigners refuse the traditional ladling of all five condiments.

And hot dogs, as it turns out, are the traditional local fast food, what fish and chips are to the North Sea coastal towns of England and Scotland and used to be in New Zealand as well, before we were invaded by American fast-food chains. Well, at least when it comes to hot dog stands, the Icelanders thought of it first and continue to hold their own.

Traditional Icelandic foods that are perhaps a bit more of an acquired taste, or otherwise take getting used to, include boiled sheep’s heads, known as svið, and ‘rotten’ shark. Safe to say I wasn’t going to eat that last one either, though it’s not really rotten but rather, fermented. It sounded a lot like the Greenlanders’ kiviak routine. The Icelanders call it kæstur hákarl and it consists of shark meat that is left to cure in a hole buried under gravel, and then hung to dry for 4–5 months. Sorry I’m not that game. But then everyone I talked to who was from Iceland didn’t really eat it either!

Apparently, like the tremendously off-putting kiviak, which looks like month-old roadkill and can be fatal if improperly prepared, kæstur hákarl is something of an acquired taste. Anthony Bourdain called kæstur hákarl “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten; but then again, I don’t know whether he ever had kiviak, which looks more disgusting (if not quite as disgusting as Sardinian maggot cheese). On the other hand, they say the first time with kæstur hákarl is the worst but then you get to like it. Or so they say. And so I am told. Furthermore, kæstur hákarl has the advantage over kiviak that not only is it safer to eat (probably), but also, it doesn’t look like decaying roadkill.

Like many of the cultures living near the Arctic Circle, the people of Iceland have depended a lot upon the sea as a source of food that was more reliable, under the conditions in which they lived, than farming. The vile nature and dodgy methods of preservation of many of their ‘acquired taste’ foods also speaks volumes about past hardship and unwillingness to throw things out, and not just in the Arctic either. Imagine how desperate the first French person to consume blue vein or a ‘runny’ soft cheese must have been; not to mention the first Sardinian to sample their even more extreme delicacy.

Besides the rotten shark and the boiled sheep’s heads there were other foods of a more normal nature in today’s Iceland. I’ve mentioned the hot dogs. Smoked lamb was the base of a beautiful, rich and flavoursome meal that I had somewhere in my Icelandic travels. Salt fish was also a popular food, I found. I remember they had it in Greenland too — it’s really just a small heavily salted fish that tastes just that — salty fish. In Icelandic they call it saltfiskur and in Greenlandic they call it ammassat.

The Icelanders also used to eat whales, and still consume seals. So, I decided to find out what the policies were today with regard to marine mammals.

First off, no polar bears are allowed into the country. If and when they arrive on drifting ice and start roaming around looking for something to eat, they are shot. Iceland has no qualms about shooting them on sight, something I really disagree with. I’m not saying all Icelanders agree either: but that’s just the policy. They are considered dangerous to humans and livestock and are immediately dealt with just like that. Actually, there have only been a few sightings of polar bears in modern-day Iceland, although the melting of the polar ice may be making this rare event less rare. The last sighting of a polar bear in Iceland was in 2016 (shot dead) and, before that, in 2010.

Between the rarity of their arrival and the usual response, you will hardly ever see a living polar bear in Iceland: and the local policy is to keep it that way, so that everyone can sleep soundly. In places like Greenland, of course, people have had to get used to having them around. And in the northern Canadian town of Churchill, they do polar bear tours!

If a negative policy toward the polar bear is an occasional issue, Icelandic whaling has had more widespread media attention across the world. I mentioned a worldwide ban on whaling earlier; but there are a handful of non-compliant exceptions and once again, as with the polar bears, Iceland is one of them, the other being Japan with its ‘scientific’ whaling. It seems to be more trouble than it is worth for Iceland, particularly so given that the Icelandic whaling industry is just a shadow of what it once was (thankfully).

Icelandic whaling boats have been sabotaged by Greenpeace activists and their Rainbow Warrior. In 1989 Greenpeace even organised boycotts of all Icelandic fishing exports, which led to fast food outlets like Wendy’s and Long John Silver cancelling their contracts with Icelandic suppliers.

At the time of writing, in late 2021, the Icelandic whaling fleet is tied up and inactive, but it is possible that it might still resume its activities.

As with fermented shark, the Icelanders don’t really eat whale any more these days. Apparently, it’s the same in Japan. So, a lot of the whales that are caught end up in pet food. Both in Iceland and Japan, it seems that some kind of weird murky politics lies behind the persistence of an industry that just about everyone apart from the whalers themselves now seems to regard as a complete anachronism.

Sealing is another old-timey industry that seems to be on the way out, increasingly in tension with seal-watching. I popped into an actual Seal Museum in Hvammstangi, on my drive around the coast. It was interesting, and it highlighted the historic dependence of Icelanders on the animal.

From Foundation to Independence, and Beyond

In 874 a Norseman called Ingólfur Arnarsson founded Reykjavík, which is also believed to be the first permanent settlement in Iceland. Erik the Red, who founded Greenland, was also an Icelander.

Around the year 1000, Christianity was adopted by Iceland’s population, which had grown to 30,000 or so by then. Christianity was brought to Iceland by Irish monks. The Icelandic sagas refer to the ‘Papar’ monks or Christians who wandered around the land preaching and lived in some of the villages. These Papar are also mentioned in the histories of the Faroe Islands.

Iceland was ruled by Norway from 1262 to 1380 and then by the Danes from 1380 until the twentieth century, when it gained its modern independence.

Iceland gained Home Rule autonomy in 1904, and then became effectively independent of Denmark in 1918 in the form of a constitutional monarchy in personal union with Denmark, meaning that it shared the same monarch in the manner that New Zealand does with the United Kingdom.

After European Denmark was invaded by the Nazis on the 9th of April 1940, Iceland was bloodlessly occupied by British Commonwealth forces a day later, to prevent the Nazi occupation from extending to this strategic outpost in the North Atlantic.

In July 1941, the defence of Iceland passed to the Americans, who were neutral at the time, an occupation which reverted to a combatant status once the Americans entered World War II in December 1941. Iceland formally declared itself a republic in 1944 after a constitutional referendum which yielded an incredibly popular result, the republic and its proposed constitution each obtaining more than 98% support on a similarly high turnout. The referendum and its result were unpopular with many Danes, who saw the whole thing as a bit of a stab in the back given that they themselves were still under Nazi occupation.

All the same, though some Danes thought it disloyal, the referendum wasn’t really a bolt from the blue, as the terms of Iceland’s independence in 1918, the Danish-Icelandic Act of Union, had placed Iceland’s constitutional status up for review in the early 1940s in any case. The King of Denmark, who had now ceased to be the King of Iceland, sent his congratulations.

I went to see the House of Höfði, which was the British Embassy in the 1950s. The House of Höfði, or Höfði House, is more famous for being the place where the discussions took place between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev that eventually led to the end the Cold War. Like many of the buildings in Iceland it was quite simple from the outside. There were no formal gardens or manorial extravagance. It was a simple white two storey … well, house, really.

Iceland joined NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, as a founding member in 1949.

As a NATO member, Iceland used to host an American military air base at Keflavík, next to the civilian airport of the same name, which is Iceland’s largest and the one that most international passengers fly in and out of.

The airport at Keflavík, a name that means driftwood bay, was first built by the Americans as a military airfield during World War II. Part of it was then divided off for the civilian airport. The Americans handed the remaining military base over to the Icelanders in 2006.

Iceland’s comparatively youthful Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who was elected to that office in 2017, the same year as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, leads a party called the Left-Green Movement. Part of their policy is that Iceland should pull out of NATO, and the party also opposes the idea of Iceland becoming a full member of the European Union (it is not a full member at present, but strongly associated all the same.)

Perhaps because of its own independence-struggles as a small nation, Iceland became the first country in the world to officially recognise Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia’s independence after the fall of the Soviet Union.

What’s the latest about Iceland? Well, in 2017 the same year that Katrín Jakobsdóttir became Prime Minister, Iceland’s supreme court ruled that women cannot routinely be prevented from going bare breasted in public swimming pools. The judges said that such bans potentially amount to a form of discrimination and that local councils would therefore have to prove that women going topless were indecent if they wished to impose a ban; they couldn’t just say they were indecent!

To summarise the country’s history, here is a timeline that I drew up. It mentions the ‘cod wars’ with Britain as well, a long-running fisheries dispute — though not the swimming pool dispute!

A Literate Culture

I also found it amazing that Iceland has the largest percentage of officially recognised writers, per capita, in the world! One in ten Icelanders will write a published book, and many of their past and present authors are world-famous, right up to the level of the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to novelist Halldór Laxness in 1955.

Just lately, the autobiography of Heida Ásgeirsdottír has made headlines. Ms Ásgeirsdottír was brought up on a sheep-farm that had been in her family since the Middle Ages and worked in New York as a model for a while before returning to the farm when her father got sick. Then she learned of a plan to flood the valley in which the farm was located and turn it into a hydroelectric reservoir. She successfully fought the hydro scheme and became a politician for the Icelandic Green Party for a while. I enjoyed reading her book, Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World.

By the way, if you wonder why all the women seem to be called somebody or other’s ‘dóttir’, well, that is because they are. With a few exceptions, the modern Icelanders retain the old European custom of not having family surnames but simply being named after one’s father, along with one’s own name of course.

Most commonly, the boys just get called whoever-their-father-was’s-son, while the girls are similarly named as their father’s ‘dóttir’. So, the full name of the most famous Icelandic singer is Björk Guðmundsdóttir.

The last Anglo-Saxon king, the one that got the arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings, was similarly called Harold Godwinson after his father, Godwin. The sorts of unchanging family surnames that we are used to didn’t come into regular use in Britain for another couple of hundred years after King Harold’s demise. And in Iceland they never came into general use.I thought it remarkable that the Icelanders were able to hold onto their Norse language through more than five centuries of Danish rule. There was probably less difference between Icelandic and Norwegian during the period of Norwegian rule in the Middle Ages. But the Icelandic language could easily have died out under the Danes as the world grew more modern and as book-learning spread.

After the Normans conquered England, the original Anglo-Saxon tongue of the English gave way to modern English: a language that combines Anglo-Saxon words for common, everyday things with Norman French in areas related to book-learning.

In a similar vein, the Icelanders might well have kept all the words in their language that were identical to Danish ones and replaced the ones that weren’t with Danish terms learnt from books, and thus ended up speaking Danish.

So, it was by no means inevitable that ordinary Icelanders of the 21st century would still to be able to read sagas written in the language of the founders of their country. In England, the old Anglo-Saxon language is a dead one read only by people with an academic interest.

It seemed to me that this explained the Icelandic passion for books and for local publishing. The people had been kept from becoming Danish by a local literature written and published in Icelandic. The pen was not only mightier than the sword in the Icelandic independence-struggle but in fact the chief weapon.

Although Danish rule in Iceland wasn’t as oppressive as Norman rule in Britain, the Danes did do some things that caused objection locally.

Thus, for instance, in 1602, Denmark ruled that Iceland was not allowed to trade with other countries except Denmark; so, no new ships were built in Iceland. This was a huge loss and demoralisation for the country, lasting until the eighteenth century when Denmark allowed Iceland to trade with other countries again.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, protests and independence movements began to take hold, until the republic finally came in 1944.

I learnt more about all this history after I got a bit bored and decided to head out on a guided tour around the city to see anything I might have missed. Tour guides and touring do have their uses — they are locals and have a lot of knowledge to share. The tour guide, Aaron had boasted of an education system that achieves 100% literacy. It was Aaron who also told me that ten per cent of Icelandic people end up publishing at least one book. The land of poets and sagas!

Apparently, there are quite a few well-known and popular writers’ retreats all over Iceland, and people come to them from around the world.

There were three main types of writing during the Mediaeval period, which was an influential time for writers in Iceland. These were the Eddas, Skaldic Poetry and of course the sagas. The literature of Mediaeval Iceland is distinguished by a mixture of romanticism and realistic descriptions of landscapes, nature and people. It was all really interesting, and I got to see some old manuscripts first-hand at a museum that held the historic Icelandic literature. As we were continued on this tour, I noticed that there were a lot of bookstores, cafés and libraries around Reykjavík city centre. Aaron, our tour guide also told us that, apparently, in the very far north of the country there was a school that only had one student and one teacher.

Perhaps the most famous Icelandic expression is ‘þetta reddast’, meaning ‘this will be alright’. It’s supposed to reflect the idea that the Icelanders are a nation of hardy stoics with honest values, who can mend anything and are unfazed by anything and who all pitch in to help — volcanic eruptions, roads blocked by snow, come what may. Whatever happens, they’ll fix it somehow. New Zealanders used to have an expression that was just the same, namely, ‘she’ll be right’. Whatever happened, the resourceful Kiwis would improvise a solution, too.

But then the New Zealand version started to acquire connotations of slackness and the covering-up of risk and fell out of use. People started to think that things wouldn’t be alright. The answer to ‘She’ll be right?’, stated as a question, became ‘Yeah, right!’ I don’t know if any similar disillusionment now dogs the meaning of þetta reddast; or whether people really do believe in it still.

Something else I found really interesting is that, while most of the population in Iceland claim to be Lutheran, there is a revival of the Norse folk religion called the Asatru Fellowship or in Icelandic, Ásatrúarfélagið. It is based around the connection Icelanders have with the land and spiritual forces and includes stories about elves and dwarves, stories that I would hear more about on my journey as I went past places that are spoken about in the old myths and legends.

Would I go again?

Yes! Iceland was fabulous — I really loved it! I enjoyed it thoroughly: it was alive and vibrant!


Erin Servais, ‘Ye Old Mispronunciation: The Long Forgotten Letter “Thorn”,’ 26 July 2011, on

The Anthony Bourdain quote comes from Rachel Herz, ‘You eat that?, Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2012, accessed 20 October 2021 on URL:

This post comes from my new book Incredible Iceland, available on this website


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