Iceland - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

Goðafoss waterfall, Iceland by Filip Fuxa, ShutterstockThe wide majestic waterfall of Goðafoss comes as a bit of a surprise, even if you can see the mist rising from a distance © Filip Fuxa, Shutterstock

History

Abridged from the History section in Iceland: the Bradt Travel Guide

The early history of Iceland is such a well-told tale that it leaves very little room for embellishment. The sagas recall every event with great detail – pick any pretty spot in Iceland (an elegant fjord or mountain) and you will find a perfectly accurate description of that very same spot as it was written 1,000 years ago. Read on and you will find out exactly what happened there and how it happened. The name on the signpost is most likely the same name it was given by the Viking whose bones now lie beneath the turf.   

To appreciate Iceland’s history is to recognise that Iceland is timeless. That goes for the rocks and volcanoes, as well as its people who have changed very little in spite of the centuries. So much of what Iceland looks and feels like today is a culmination of things changing very little over a very long time.

Iceland historical overview

AD874

Iceland is settled by Norse ‘Vikings’

AD930

Althing established at Thingvellir

1000

Iceland adopts Christianity

1220­–62

Civil war: Icelanders made subjects to the King of Norway

1397

Kalmar Union: King of Denmark gains control of Iceland

1402–04

Black Plague: Iceland loses 50% of its population

1550

Reformation: Bishop Jón Arason beheaded for treason

1584

Bible printed in Icelandic

1602

Denmark establishes trade monopoly on Iceland

1662

Kópavogur meeting: Iceland accepts absolute rule by King of Denmark

1707

Smallpox epidemic: 18,000 die

1783

Famine of the mists: 10,000 die

1786

Reykjavík founded as a woollen goods company

1814

Treaty of Kiel (Denmark loses Norway but keeps Iceland)

1845

Althing re-established in Reykjavík

1854

Danish trade monopoly ends

1870s

Icelanders emigrate to the New World: 25% of the population leaves

1874

Denmark grants Iceland autonomy and a constitution

1904

Denmark grants Iceland home rule

1918

Iceland enters equal union with Denmark

1940

Allied forces occupy Iceland

1944

Iceland becomes an independent republic

1946

Iceland joins the United Nations

1949

Iceland joins NATO

1951

US reopens NATO base at Keflavík

1958

First Cod War

1972

Second Cod War

1976

Third Cod War ends

1986

Reykjavík Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

2006

NATO base closes at Keflavík: American troops leave Iceland

2008

Financial crisis leads to failure of Iceland’s top three banks

2010

Eyjafjallajökull erupts, disrupting European air travel

Bad voyages tend to be more memorable than good ones, and such was the case with Flóki. First his daughter drowned en route, then he arrived and became trapped by the cold and bitter winter. Flóki found the fishing in Breiðafjörður to be so fantastic that he forgot to harvest hay for his livestock and they all died from starvation. Then his fishing boat broke loose with his closest friend inside and he watched them both drift away. Depressed and frustrated by the colder than average spring, Flóki climbed a mountain and looked across to the next fjord where he was met with a view of hundreds of floating icebergs. Crestfallen, he called the place ísland (‘ice-land’).

The name on a signpost is most likely the same name it was given by the Viking whose bones now lie beneath the turf. 

Flóki had landed at Barðarströnd in the West Fjords at a place now called Flókalundur. The ice that he witnessed was most likely a common spring flow when the warmer temperatures cause winter ice to break away from the nearby Greenland coast and float south. These days, Iceland gets little to no drift ice, but the name has stuck ever since Flóki pronounced it. When he returned to Norway, the sagas recount how Flóki spoke ill of the place and that ‘Iceland’ was more of a slur. The new land might have been left alone if it wasn’t for a younger member of Flóki’s crew, Thorolf, who spun wild tales about this strange country where ‘butter dropped from every blade of grass’. His exaggerations earned him the name Thorolf Smjör (butter) and started a chain of rumours throughout Norway about the rich paradise of Iceland. 

Settlement 

Iceland’s first permanent resident was Ingólfur Arnason who built a farm in Reykjavík around AD874 and declared the new land a suitable place to live. This was the last country in Europe to be settled – an event that is recounted in detail in the Landnámabók, or Settlement saga. The written record is made more fascinating by the physical evidence of the time when Vatnaöldur volcano (near Torfajökull) erupted and dropped a distinct layer of ash over the whole country. Iceland’s oldest archaeological sites are all found just at or above this ‘settlement layer’, which carbon dating places at or around AD871.

Iceland’s first settlers came from western Norway, which by this time had grown into a powerful Viking kingdom. Several powerful chieftains had fallen out of favour with King Harald the Fair-haired – formally known as ‘the tangle-haired’ because of the oath he had taken not to cut his hair until he was king of all Norway (a fate that took ten long years). Facing intimidation and demotion, many of the leaders who had opposed Harald chose to leave with their families and make a new life in Iceland. Others simply found that Norway had limited resources and was becoming overpopulated. New Viking settlements had already popped up in the Faroe, Shetland, and Orkney islands, and Iceland seemed the next step for any hard-working adventurer in search of new opportunities.

The sagas recall every event with great detail – pick any pretty spot in Iceland (an elegant fjord or mountain) and you will find a perfectly accurate description of that very same spot as it was written 1,000 years ago. 

The newcomers sailed to Iceland in open boats with tools, supplies, and livestock. The journey from Norway took about three days, after which they laid claim to the new lands along all sides of Iceland’s coast. These new settlers included the Norse, but also their servants – the majority of whom had been taken in Viking raids in Ireland and Scotland. The country’s isolation and the eventual blend of Norse and Celtic peoples were key to the creation of a unique nation in Iceland. By the end of the 50-year era, an estimated 30,000 people had settled in Iceland.

Natural history

Iceland is a very young country still in the midst of its own creation. It is the very attraction of this land and why the topography alone is so entertaining. Most of us come from gentle countryside tempered out of ancient geologies. Not so in Iceland, where the landscapes look positively prehistoric. The mountains in the distance or that lava field or waterfall did not happen ‘hundreds of millions of years ago’ – it’s happening right now.  

Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland by VisitSouthIceland, www.south.isThe Vestmannaeyjar (Westmann Islands) are the youngest landscapes in Iceland – these islands are still a world in the making © VisitSouthIceland, www.south.is

Iceland is a very large and high plateau formed from many layers of volcanic activity. One must travel up into the highlands to experience the flat and barren rock from which the rest of the country is cut, but the outer edges are more exciting. Here, the volcanic substrate is broken down by wind, water, and ice into valleys, sharp peaks, waterfalls, rivers and fjords. Travellers don’t come to Iceland for the duty-free shopping or the cheap margaritas – they come to experience the most basic natural elements, namely earth, air, fire, and water.

People and culture

Icelanders see themselves as quirky and distinct in a world that is fast becoming bland and similar. They know that their numbers may be few, but they are also confident in their personality as a nation. Traditions are not followed for the sake of tradition, but rather because Icelandic traditions are a lot of fun.

Icelanders are not mere ‘Scandinavians’ but represent a unique blend of Norse and Gaelic heritage. Historians still argue over percentages, but we do know that the first settlers to Iceland were Vikings and their servants – most of whom were captured in raids along the Scottish and Irish coasts. Irish women were considered prized booty and the sagas relay several tales of Norse and Irish couples who bore children. The two groups likely merged within the first century of Iceland’s settlement.

The stereotypical Icelander has blinding blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, but their spectrum of physical appearance is much more diverse. Some Icelanders appear quite dark and Celtic genes contribute a higher-than-average number of redheads. What is distinct are the pronounced Nordic features, most noticeable in a person’s eyes, nose, and cheekbones.

Icelandic nature tempts the most practical minds into considering the supernatural.

Because of its long-term isolation and homogeneity, Icelanders have been targeted by genetic researchers who delight in the de facto control group provided. In 1998, a ‘biogenetic technology’ company gained exclusive access to the country’s genetic data to use in the research of diseases. The process of mapping the Icelandic genome was not without controversy, but it has successfully uncovered genetic links to common ailments.

The Icelandic population is very small and close-knit, so that people tend to know one other. It’s uncanny how the random stranger you met on one side of the country is probably the cousin of the sister-in-law of a school friend of the bartender you’re chatting with in Reykjavík. It’s also funny how every time you happen to mention someone’s name to an Icelander, they will stop and think about it before volunteering: ‘No, I don’t think I know him/her.’ Iceland is not a good place for anonymity. The common belief is that all Icelanders are related by no more than four degrees of separation. As proof, there is a national website (www.islendingabok.is) where any two Icelanders can easily find out how they are connected by blood or marriage. The site is password-protected for Icelanders only, and goes back to the late 1700s (there is no need to go back any further). 

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